Filmmaker-actor-VJ Soumya Sadanandan won a National Award (Special Jury Mention) in 2017 for her debut directorial, Chembai – My Discovery of a Legend, a documentary on the life and music of Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. A year later, the 33-year-old former engineer is ready with her maiden feature film, Mangalyam Thanthunanena, a comedy starring Kunchakko Boban and Nimisha Sajayan in the lead roles. The film is releasing in theatres today.
“Whenever Soumya would tell a friend or an acquaintance that she was going to make a feature film soon, they always asked a question that she has now grown exhausted of – “An art film?”
She laughs, “I tell myself that it’s my hair-cut and spectacles. And the fact that I am a woman filmmaker. People immediately assume that I am not cut for happy, mainstream movies.” She has close-cropped curly hair that has become an inseparable part of her persona. The haircut was a choice of convenience than style, she says. “I was working as an assistant director. Sun, dust and dirt were things that I couldn’t run away from.”
Soumya is quite a seasoned hand in Malayalam cinema. An engineer, she worked at a Bangalore-based software company for five years before quitting the job and returning to Thiruvananthapuram to work in cinema. “I was always firmly aware of my artistic inclinations. I worked hard for four years so that I could save some money which kept me going for a year after I quit the job,” she says.
She has been working behind the camera for almost seven years now, in various profiles, in over 13 feature film projects. She was an assistant director for Cinema Company (2011), and in 2017, she helped actor Amala Akkineni dub in Malayalam for C/O Saira Banu. Recently, she made a short film, Rabbit Hole, on clinical depression.
Instead of working under one filmmaker for many years, Soumya worked with a different crew each time, learning many lessons than following a single school approach. “It was sheer passion that led me through these years,” she says. “People seldom excite me. I have always been pursuing ideas and stories.”
Time and again, she played cameos and supporting roles in films like Ormayundo Ee Mugham and David and Goliath in which she worked as an assistant director. On Kappa television, she hosted a popular show Film Lounge where she introduced the viewers to lesser-known classic movies from across the world. “The job was fun. It involved watching a lot of foreign language movies which bolstered my filmmaking aspirations,” she says. The popular show made her a familiar face in Kerala.
In 2016, she won a National Award for her documentary, Chembai – My Discovery of a Legend – on the life and music of the legendary musician Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. In 2014, she attended Yesudas’S Carnatic music concert at Chembai Ekadasi Music Festival, and during the journey, she spoke to the musicians who were at the event, and the villagers who had known Chembai during his days. Months later, she travelled to Chembai again, with camera equipment and a crew to film the 33-minute documentary.
“I wanted it to be a layman’s documentary. People have a preconceived notion that documentaries aren’t for the masses, especially a documentary on Carnatic music which has forever been looked at as a niche field in music. I wanted to break that. I wanted to bring Chembai closer to the common audience through a documentary that narrated his tale in a simple language.”
This love for the common audience is what led her to make her first film an unabashed commercial entertainer – colourful, humorous and uncomplicated. She says she chose Idukki as the location so that the story unfolded against a backdrop of lush greenery.
Mangalyam Thanthunanena is written by her friend, Tony Madathil, who narrated the story to her five years ago. “Over the years, I wrote a few screenplays, but I realised those films demanded a big canvas which I couldn’t really afford as a new comer,” she says. When she felt she was ready to take the plunge into movie-making, she picked this script which, she says, has the power of simplicity. “It doesn’t have high-octane stunt sequences or a bomb blast. This is about two people – a man and a woman – who get married traditionally, with the approval of the families and the church. The film follows them for a year into their marriage, and observes how people complicate life that could have been joyride.”
Kunchakko Boban’s Roy is a character the common audience can easily relate to, she says. She approached the actor first in March 2017. “This script, I knew very well, cannot be conveyed through narration. It isn’t about the plot, but moments and dialogues. I wanted him to read it. Then, it wasn’t possible, and after he listened to the story, he wasn’t really convinced,” says Soumya. “Later, producer Allwyn Antony asked him if he could read the script, and finally when he did, he readily called Soumya and gave his nod.
The film has many actors, and a relatively young crew. “With people like Chakkochan and Vijayaraghavan, who have many years of experience in the field, my job became a lot easier. I didn’t have to tell them a lot about a scene or a shot. They knew what to do when I read out the script,” she says. “I regard myself as a good manager, or rather, a groomer. The job of an assistant director in Malayalam cinema isn’t well-paid or respected. If I weren’t so self-motivated during all these years, I wouldn’t have survived.”
When we talk a few days before the release day, Soumya says she is exhausted. “I am usually an energetic person, but I can’t tell you how much I want this phase to pass. Filmmaking can really drain you of all your spirits. I have been travelling with this film for over a year now. I am just waiting for it to get released, so that I can move on and make more films.”
Featured image courtesy: Deccan Chronicle
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