Scripting success

Malayalam films

Ajayan Venugopalan has just had his big Onam release — Peruchazhi, starring Mohanlal, set against the backdrop of a US gubernatorial election. The New Jersey-based IT professional is the co-creator of Akkara Kazchakal, a genre-defining Malayalam sitcom. After penning the film version of the TV series, Ajayan has moved on to drama (English, with acclaimed filmmaker Shyamaprasad) and Peruchazhi that he calls a “mass masala entertainer”. Up next is a crime drama with Prithviraj and Fahadh Faasil in the lead. In an interview, Ajayan says he likes to work across genres. And he’s only getting started.

How challenging was it to create Akkara Kazchakal that in many ways defied norms of popular TV entertainment?
Akkara Kazchakal happened out of the blue. My friend Abi Varghese and I got an opportunity to do a programme for Kairali TV for the American time-slot. We wanted to do something different from run-of-the-mill programmes and thought of doing a sitcom, a format rarely used in Indian television then. That’s how Akkara Kazchakal happened; it was a weekend project by a few movie enthusiasts living around New York. The whole series was shot with almost no production money. Looking back, I think our passion and teamwork was the reason why the show was a success.
Akkara Kazchakal had humour derived from many facets of the expatriate Malayali life. How much of these men and women are composite characters based on your own observations of fellow Malayalis in the US?

I’ve been living in the US for 14 years and my experience with fellow Malayalis and Indians was the primary inspiration behind Akkara Kazchakal. I think if you dig deep, a good comedy has its roots in pain and struggles. Just like, say Naadodikattu (a classic comedy from the 1980s) is based on the trials of two unemployed youth, Akkara Kazchakal was very grounded to the tribulations of a middle class American NRI.

How did Shyamaprasad’s English happen? And how challenging was the writing, considering that the UK was not familiar terrain?
It was definitely a big challenge. English was my first full-length feature film and it was a screenplay set in a non-linear format. English was a drama-genre movie, a complete opposite spectrum from the comedy-based Akkara Kazchakal. But luckily for me, I had an experienced director like Shyamaprasad at the helm. He is very detail-oriented in terms of characters and their struggles and that helped me immensely to write the script in English.

I feel the challenges of an expatriate life in any western metro are fairly similar except for the finer cultural nuances. So, once we had the character and storylines in place, it was not a big challenge moving the story to London from New York.
Tell us something about the collaboration with director Arun Vaidyanathan and your contribution as a writer to Peruchazhi.

Arun and I are neighbours in the US and we’ve known each other for a long time. Peruchazhi was originally written in Tamil by Arun and when Lal sir showed interest in the project, Arun met with me to re-write the film. I primarily re-wrote the dialogues and changed the script to suit it to Malayali aesthetics. A lot of new scenes and characters were added specially to mould the script for an accomplished actor like Mohanlal.

How much of Mohanlal’s reputation as a star-actor contributed to the way you penned the lines for Jagannathan?
I had grown up watching Mohanlal films. So I must admit I was nervous writing for him. This film is also a tribute to his legendary filmography. We have used scenes, lines and songs from his hits. It has been long since we have seen Lal sir wearing the comedy cap; so I hope Peruchazhi turns out to be the festival-fun-film that it is intended to be.

Your next, Ivide, is also set in the US, but this time, with crime as a backdrop. How’s the film shaping, and has the cast been finalised?
I am excited about Ivide. The film is a crime-drama set in the US with Prithviraj, Fahadh Faasil and Nyla Usha playing the leads. It’s shaping out well and we are set to start the shoot early October.

You had also dabbled with the format of short film with Penumbra. Who or what would you call the most pronounced influence on your cinematic sensibilities?
I am an avid movie watcher and I love watching different genres. I also love the short format of the film. Penumbra gave me the opportunity to solo-direct a project and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making it. The selection of the film to the acclaimed Cannes film festival was definitely a confidence booster. There are many directors and writers whom I admire. To pick a few, Alexander Payne and Coen Brothers will top my list as my favourite directors from Hollywood.

Is there any plan to look beyond the expatriates and write about life back home?
Yes, I feel blessed to be able to dabble with different genres early in my career. I would definitely like to do a movie based on life back home, hopefully soon.

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