Screenwriter Syam Pushkaran is quite like his films – grounded, humorous, and delightfully unschooled in mainstream cinema
Syam was 26 when he co-wrote his first screenplay, Salt N Pepper, a heartening love story of a couple past their youth. Last year, the 33-year-old won a National Award and a State Award for Best Screenplay for Maheshinte Prathikaaram, a coming-of-age tale that swept the box-office as well as the critics off the floor. Despite having tasted success at an early stage in his career, Syam continues to work within a comfort zone consisting of friends with whom he started his journey in the film industry. He is oblivious to news reports that his previous work, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, was in the final round of selection to be India’s Oscar nomination. He refuses to be cynical, and states that he has immense faith in humanity.
Mayaanadhi, his next work as a screenwriter, is a romantic drama directed by Aashiq Abu; it is hitting the screens on December 22 alongside a number of high-profile Christmas releases. Silverscreen caught up with Syam in Chennai, where he’s currently overseeing the sound works for Mayaanadhi.
It isn’t usual for writers to involve themselves in the production and post-production stages of a film. I like to stick on because I love cinema, says Syam. In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, he was the creative director, a vaguely-defined role which required him to do a bit of everything on the set. “The advantage of being a writer is that you can relax and take part in every other stage of filmmaking. There is not a lot of responsibility on your shoulders.”
Syam, who is originally from Alappuzha, began his career as an assistant director. “Dileesh Pothan, Dileesh Nair and I were roommates then,” he says. It was with Dileesh Nair that he co-wrote his first script, Salt N Pepper (2011), directed by Aashiq Abu. The trio reunites with Mayaanadhi, with Dileesh and Syam working on the script, and Aashiq directing it. The film stars Tovino Thomas and Aishwarya Lekshmi in the lead roles.
“There was always a shortage of writers in Malayalam cinema. When I was an assistant director, people used to ask me if I had a script worth making into a film. Eventually, I too felt that I could write better than most of the films Mollywood was producing at that time,” he laughs, and quotes Mohanlal’s famous dialogue from Priyadarshan’s Chandralekha, “Ninnekkaalum vivaram ketavanmaar manager aayi pala sthalathum irippund.” [In most organisations, those who hold the top position are denser than you]
Mayaanadhi (Mystic River) is a project close to his heart. “It is a pure love story. This is the first time I am working on such an intimate tale,” he says. “It has been long since we saw a memorable love story in Malayalam. We wanted to make a romantic drama which features a couple with great chemistry. I am curious to see how this film would be received.” It was Aashiq Abu who came up with the title, Mayaanadhi, and the team approved it instantly. “This story has a mystic touch,” says Syam. “We were thrilled when this title came into the picture. It is a beautiful word.”
The seed for Mayaanadhi came from director-cinematographer Amal Neerad, a friend of Aashiq and Syam. He narrated in one of their meetings something that he’d heard while living in Mumbai. “I can’t say Mayaanadhi is based on a real life story, but it has traces of that incident. We had to adapt it to a more familiar surrounding.”
Syam and his co-writer Dileesh Nair started working on the screenplay right after the shoot of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. “In the beginning, there were these two lead characters – Appu and Mathan, a couple in love – and the unusual situation their relationship is stuck in. Then we developed the plot, their milieu and the fate of the characters,” he says.
In his filmography, Maheshinte Prathikaaram is his only solo work. He had written the other films with writers like Dileesh Nair, Gopan Chidambaram and Abhilash Kumar. “I like to work with someone who can contribute to the script than being the only one writing it. Ultimately, the film is what matters,” he says. “Conflicts of opinion and ideas are bound to happen, but we never let that come in between our final work. It only polishes the writing.”
The film’s soundtrack has songs, lyrical and smooth, like a ghazal. “We always wanted to do a film with Rex (Vijayan),” says Syam. “I am a lover of old-school love stories where beautiful music brings the audience closer to the characters. Like how La La Land did it. Mayaanadhi has some shades of a thriller, but it’s founded on this love story of Maathan and Appu,” he says.
The team found Aishwarya Lekshmi through an audition. “We wanted a new face. At the audition, she performed excellently. Having seen her performance in the film, we now know that no one else could have done this role, but her,” says Syam. “Her Appu is perhaps the best female character I have ever written. I hope the character stays on in people’s minds for a long time,” he says. “Tovino has a cool demeanor. He brings an element of unpredictability to the character Mathan. Both actors have done complete justice to the roles.”
Appu and Mathan are studies in contrast. She is a model, an aspiring actress, and he is a laid back guy. “Mathan is a regular guy, someone who loves gadgets and clothes, and nurtures third-world ambitions,” says Syam. “He is always seen sporting a cap. We had imagined him that way right from the beginning. It’s a part of his identity. Like Surajettan’s pen in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. His character Prasad is a farmer. He has many complexes and insecurities. He wants to tell the world that he is educated, and carries a pen in his pocket all the time.”
Both Salt N Pepper and Maheshinte Prathikaaram had men who were sensitive and vulnerable. Kalidasan (Salt N Pepper) suffers from loneliness that he tries to overcome that through his love for food. Mahesh (Maheshinte Prathikaaram) is broken inside when his lover abandons him. Syam, with careful, delectable details from daily life, narrates their emotional struggles.
“I take inspiration from life. I am curious about life,” he says. “Writing is a very personal process. If there is no romance in the love story that you write, it means there is something wrong with the way you perceive romance in life. My writing comes from life and the people I meet. I would say I write like how Jackie Chan performs stunts. He fights using the prop readily available on the set, without creating anything new. I like to write that way.”
“I have trust in the goodness of people. I believe in humanity,” declares Syam. “That’s very essential. It’s said that a writer shouldn’t judge, but understand. Everything has solutions if you act humanely.”
KG George and Sathyan Anthikkad are his favourite directors in Malayalam. The latter’s Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu served as a definite inspiration for Syam in Maheshinte Prathikaaram. Although his style is not similar to that of KG George, it is Syam’s ambition to try his hand at various genres just as the auteur did.
“I don’t force myself to write. It’s not my ambition to write on time-relevant social issues,” says Syam. Naturally, working on Mayaanadhi was exciting for him because his other two films unfurled on a bigger canvas, narrating the story of a region and a society along with the characters.
“In Mahesh and Thondimuthal, we had to focus on minute details of the characters and their surroundings to make it look authentic. Mayaanadhi is a personal film. It has just a few characters. It was refreshing for us too, to work on such a small canvas.”
Videos of two songs from the film’s album are already out. If the couple seem absolutely in love in Uyirin Nadhiye, their relationship is somewhere between love and indifference in Kaattil. “That is one of the themes of Mayaanadhi. In every relationship, the power dynamics keep changing. The mood keeps changing. People change,” says Syam.
Interestingly, it was Maheshinte Prathikaaram that launched a rather distasteful trend in Malayalam cinema, blaming and mercilessly deriding the woman for walking out of a relationship. A large section of the audience, mostly men, celebrate it. Syam admits that he is partly responsible for this trend, although he is puzzled about it.
“Anyone can walk away from a relationship anytime. Happiness is what matters the most,” he says. “In Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Sowmya sends her father to Mahesh and lets him know of her choice. Over the phone, she tells him that a breakup would do good to him as much as it would to her. She wants to settle into a better life, and she breaks up decently. I don’t know how this started an unpleasant trend,” he pauses, and continues,”Perhaps everyone blamed Sowmya because Mahesh is a character they love so much. He is a blue-eyed boy, and naturally, Sowmya became a villain. In fact, in Mayaanadhi, we have touched upon this trend of ‘theppukari [the deceitful].”
Syam and Dileesh Pothan enjoy a considerable fan base on and off social media. The admirers even coined a term, ‘Pothettan Brilliance’ after the success of Maheshinte Prathikaaram, in awe of the details the duo had brought into the film. Their trust in Dileesh and Syam was reinforced with Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum which had a tighter screenplay and a finer language.
“I read reviews that people had posted online. They taught me many things,” says Syam. He doesn’t find the excessive love showered by fans overwhelming. “Earlier, when we did Idukki Gold and 22 Female Kottayam, people called us the wayward new generation. Now, they celebrate ‘Pothettan Brilliance’. We haven’t changed. Then and now, we have been earnestly trying to make good cinema.”
Both, Maheshinte Prathikaaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum were commercial and critical successes. “When we were doing Mahesh, all we wanted was to create a film that the masses would enjoy. And it did. It ran for over 100 days in theatres,” says Syam.
I remind him that ‘mass’ is a grossly misinterpreted word which is traditionally used to refer to loud and tone-deaf masala entertainers like Dabangg and Pulimurugan. “I know. Over the years, we have been trying to push an alternate visual culture of mainstream films that aren’t very loud. And I think people are liking it,” he says.
“It is true that Malayalam cinema has had a bad phase sometime in the recent past. But I think the last few years were good. I am not saying this because I started off in the industry around that time. Premam, Maheshinte Prathikaaram are all films which can be watched again and again.”
Like in real life, the books you read, the films you watch, and a brilliant art work – everything can polish your screenplay, says Syam. “One does not need to be an avid reader to narrate a story as simple as that of Mahesh. But it helps, definitely. The things that you read, see and experience remain within you, influencing everything you do. The book that you read in fourth grade, your girlfriend in college, the film that you watched as a teenager. Like MT (Vasudevan Nair) said, my memory power is my only power.”
Of late, Syam has been making extra efforts to find and read good books. “I have also been trying to learn more about screenplay. The craft and different styles. I spent the last five years as a novice, without knowing much about the art of writing a screenplay,” says Syam. One of his favourite literary works is Nangeli, which he wishes to adapt into a film sometime in the future.
Having entered the film industry to be a director, Syam has not quite shed that dream. “Over time, I have had the opportunity to work closely with every department in filmmaking. That has improved my confidence. I have always wanted to direct a film, though I would like to focus on writing at the moment,” he says. Apart from screenplay, Syam has also begun work on his directorial debut. “Of course I can’t speak of it any further. It is too early to do that. I have just started writing it, and I don’t know when I would make it.”
The Syam Pushkaran interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.