The director, who is riding high on its success, talks about his growing-up years in Kerala, low days, how he arrived at filmmaking, and why a creator is never at peace

Director Chidambaram’s sophomore Malayalam film, Manjummel Boys, has received the kind of love dreams are made of. Especially in Tamil Nadu, where the Guna-Ilaiyaraaja-Kanmani Anbodu Kadhalan connect has ensured the film’s tremendous success; it has given a new lease of life to many theatres by bringing back audiences. According to the team, the film has crossed Rs 200 crore in earnings and is inching towards the Rs 250 crore mark. But Chidambaram is relatively unaffected by the numbers game. For him, it is important that a film does well, so that the producer makes his money. The rest is not something he actively follows.

The film continues to grow in strength. On April 6, its dubbed version releases in Telugu and Hindi, across India and abroad. About 16 years ago, Chidambaram might have scoffed at the idea had someone told him he might one day become a famous film director. Life seemed dark. He had low attendance in his Mangalore College (St Aloysius) and had to leave his bachelor’s degree in computers after a semester. He went back to his hometown — Payyanur in Kerala, all green and beautiful — healed there, and saw the potential for a life outside of college. Today, the world also sees that potential. The director is living his dream life, meeting the actors he has admired from a distance, and receiving the kind of response few imagine while making the movie. “I heard Rajini Sir laugh over the phone. It was surreal. We met Kamal Sir, Vikram Sir, Dhanush… all in a day,” he smiles. Excerpts from an interview:

Now that everyone is humming Kanmani Anbodu again, what’s your first memory of the song?

My maternal uncle is a Raja fan, and he used to live in the Gulf when I was a kid. His morning routine involved playing the 90s songs of Ilaiyaraaja. I was probably five or six years old when I heard the song the first time. It was just another nice-sounding song. In my teens, it hit differently. But I understood its depth with time.

For this very reason, do you see a difference in the way the Tamil and Malayalam audiences have received the film?

Oh yes, there’s a huge difference. The energy level of the audience in Tamil Nadu is different. And, with this film, they connect very beautifully with Raja Sir, Kamal Sir, Guna and the song. There’s a deeper cultural connect. Films live on for hundreds of years. Likewise, the love for Guna and Kanmani really won’t fade.

There’s so much buzz about the numbers of Manjummel Boys. Do you allow that noise to get to you or do you switch off?

I want my film to be profitable, because it is a commercial production, made using money. We call it the film industry, and an industry should make money so that it sustains. But I don’t actively track numbers. When I am informed, I am happy. I’m happy that people are receiving the movie well.

What were your film influences growing up, considering your father was already in the industry?

I was born in Payyanur but grew up in Karamana, Trivandrum, where my dad worked as an associate director and my mother was a teacher. In a way, I was fed on film money. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone else. We had good exposure to Tamil culture and there was a Tamil-medium school, too. I was not crazy about movies, but my father did introduce me to the world of off-beat, serious films. I enjoyed them but being a filmmaker was never part of the plan.

When I returned to my tharavadu (ancestral home) in Payyanur after a semester in college, I was lost. Life was not very happy, there was no money. I did not know what to do. I jumped into problems, did not think straight. One day, during a theyyam performance, my father introduced me to cinematographer KU Mohanan who had just worked on the Shah Rukh Khan film Don (2006). I was very impressed that someone from Payyanur has risen to this height. He wanted me to learn before joining his team.

I then joined as an assistant director to Jayaraj Sir, with whom appa was working. Cinema helped me get out of that dark space, told me to be who I am. Till date, I fondly remember my college. I did not attend classes, but loved the campus. That phase taught me what I did not want to do; creative kids struggle with structured academics.

Manjummel Boys is a rebirth of sorts for me: Director Chidambaram

Your film is set in a masculine space. The few women make an impact. But even after their friend is rescued, no one really expresses regret for what they did.

Many boys do not verbally say anything. In the film, they all look contrite, but don’t utter a word. I think they went to the forbidden cave because of the mob mentality. They are also vandals. The caves are prehistoric and will remain so. And yet, they dabbed some enamel paint to leave their names there! Abhilash jumps first, and is obviously triggered when Subhash falls. This script was about men, but it has its tender moments. And you must know I love to make my men weep on screen.

I believe the touch of a mother will make you sleep better. And that’s what Subhash’s mother is willing to do — she’s resilient and willing to go any distance to save him. However old we get, our mothers keep looking out for us. I have a very tender mother. I was a difficult child, my brother was a difficult child and my father was a difficult husband. But she’s resilient. Quite like Subhash’s mother. Which is why we never see mothers through the lens of victimhood. And Subhash’s mother knew enough to take him to a therapist when he struggles to sleep.

What’s your favourite scene from the movie?

When Sixon repeatedly calls Subhash and he wakes up disoriented. And, the last scene. I saw the scene where he emerges from the earth as Subhash’s rebirth. The rope refers to the umbilical cord, and Subhash is all slimy and bloody, much like a newborn.

This almost seems like a perfect ensemble film, and you had actors from both the Malayalam and Tamil industries. Vijay Muthu even broke down during an interview to say this film finally gave him recognition. What was the casting process like?

It was tough, especially for the Tamil portions, because while we watch a lot of Tamil movies, we are not very familiar with the talent pool there. Ramachandran Durairaj (who plays one of the tourist guides) helped a lot. My brief was that we wanted good actors, but not very famous faces. We went through a long audition process to arrive at our actors.

Manjummel Boys is being spoken about in its entirety but also for its amazing tech work. And your art director, Ajayan Chalissery, has spoken of the freedom he received to create the sets. How democratic was your filming process?

Filmmaking is by nature not a democratic process. We would be wasting a lot of time if everyone had a say. That said, I believe in choosing the right people and not interfering in how they interpret the film’s vision. I always like to work with senior technicians. Working with people who are better is wonderful because there’s a lot of learning involved.

I give them a blueprint, and they are all senior and talented enough to know their work should not exceed the scope of the movie. They all work within the narrative, but give their very best. In my opinion, the director is a coordinator whose job is to find good talent in the creative and tech side, and put them to good use.

A director starts learning from his first film. I tried getting into the Tamil Nadu Government MGR Film and Television Institute in Adyar (Chennai), but I did not succeed. Academics gives you a different set of tools, but true learning is on the sets, through trial and error. If your crew is better than you, you are in safe hands. And it’s not as if the shooting spot is an oasis of calm. Of course, tempers will rise, but we are all grown up enough to know it is not personal. Ego and pride should be left outside of the studio.

In many ways, is Manjummel Boys a rebirth of sorts for you?

Of course, yes. The filmmaking was very hard, and I am happy it is over. I am delighted at the reception. But I am happiest that I got to learn from the best. I’m still soaking in this success. I will figure out what to do next. But a creator is never at peace, there’s always a quest. Every film is like your first film, and that fear is permanent.

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