Thanneer Mathan Dinangal (Watermelon Days), a teen-comedy drama with a cast largely comprising fresh faces and made on a shoestring budget, has emerged as an unlikely winner at the Kerala box-office, running to packed houses two weeks after its release and closing in on the blockbuster mark. The film, directed and co-scripted by newcomer Girish AD, follows the two years in the life of a highschooler Jaison (Mathew Thomas) who struggles to overcome his body-image issues and a heartbreak, and survives the psychological harassment and toxic behaviour by a teacher. In a conversation with Silverscreen.in, Girish talks about finding the right cast for the film and the producers to back the project, and pulling off an extraordinary box-office success.
When Girish AD posted the casting call for teenage actors on social media networks for his debut directorial, Thanneer Mathan Dinangal on March 1, he and his team hoped that at least a thousand aspiring actors would turn up at their door. They were looking for close to 30 new actors under the age of 20 to play supporting roles in the film. Much to their dismay, the audition venue – a high school near Angamaly – didn’t see many footfalls that day. “Just around 157 candidates attended the audition. We reasoned saying it was the peak of summer and the venue was distant from the city. Before putting up a casting call, we had looked for actors on TikTok and similar online platforms. Whenever I came across a good performance, I would post a comment, requesting the person to get in touch with me. I never got a response, perhaps because they passed me for just another spammer,” says Girish. Nevertheless, the team found the actors by the end of that day.
Finding the right actors was crucial, says the 30-year-old filmmaker. He and his co-screenwriter Dinoy Poulose (who also plays a supporting character in the film) were certain that one of the three protagonists, Keerthi, would be played by Anaswara Rajan, known for her role in Manju Warrier-starrer Udaharanam Sujatha. When Kumbalangi Nights released, they found their other lead Mathew Thomas, who plays Jaison. Jomon T John, cinematographer and the film’s co-producer, brought on board Vineeth Sreenivasan to play Ravi Pappan, the teacher who turns Jaison’s life hell. The rest of the cast, the friends and classmates who bring alive the film’s milieu with timely wisecracks, one-liners and their lively presence, had to be found.
“Many first-time actors in this film had attended several auditions before, unsuccessfully. They all are talented people. What I know is that people don’t get rejected at an audition only because they lack talent; it may be because the selectors were looking for something else,” says Girish. Naslen, a 19-year-old B-Tech student who played one of Jaison’s schoolmates, has garnered acclaim for his cracking performance. “We knew he was going to be a star the moment he entered the room,” says Girish. “He looked around awkwardly, and asked for water. He had this peculiar body language and a way of speaking that’s instantly likeable. He didn’t have to put in a lot of efforts to be Melvin.”
Before Thanneer Mathan Dinangal, Girish was a contractual employee at KSEB’s Athirappalli office and a short filmmaker with three acclaimed works to his credit. His films Yashpal, Vishuddha Ambrose and Mookuthi are known for their well-written scripts that explore the seemingly simple emotional turmoils of their characters, and subtle and sensitive filmmaking. He and Dinoy wrote the screenplay of Thanneer Mathan Dinangal in 2017, on his off-days from work.
“I had just completed Vishuddha Ambrose, which was set in an upper primary school. As a first step to making a feature film, we did a casual research on what kind of films were succeeding at the box-office. We decided to write a film rooted in its surroundings, one with characters and situations Kerala’s audience would emotionally connect with, and also authentically portray a time period. That’s how we arrived on Thanneer Mathan Dinangal,” he says. “At that time, there were not many movies in Malayalam set in high school, although by the time we got down to making the film, several films set in that phase had hit the screen.”
It was the character of the toxic teacher Ravi Pappan, played by Vineeth Srinivasan, that they wrote first. “I have come across such toxic teachers in every stage in my life, who try to be heroes in front of their students by pretending to be someone they are not. We wanted Ravi Pappan to be a spoof – which explains the absurd end the character meets with. We created Jaison like a Goliath pitted against Ravi Pappan.”
Manu, the protagonist of Mookuthi shares many resemblances with Jaison. Both are strugglers, riddled with doubts and complexes that they try to hide from others. Jaison is, in many ways, me, confesses Girish. “During my college days, when I told someone that I wanted to work in films, they would instantly put me down. ‘You can’t even present a seminar in front of a classroom. How can you manage a film set?’ they would say,” he laughs. “I put everything I like in a family to construct Jaison’s family. They are simple folks who take life in its stride.
Girish and Dinoy considered many A-listers and popular artistes such as Kunchakko Boban and Krishna Shankar before zeroing in on Vineeth Srinivasan. “Before we approached anyone else, Jomon brought Vineeth on board and that turned out to be an excellent choice. When we met Vineeth, he was planning to take a break from acting. He was slightly hesitant to come back to in front of the camera.”
Girish, who had no experience working with a celebrity, was apprehensive about directing Vineeth. “I was confused on the first day on how to give him instructions. But from the second day, he became so much a part of the gang. He would hang around even when he didn’t have a shot.”
Such was the enthusiasm of the team that it wrapped up shooting five days earlier than scheduled. “Many people in the neighborhood and those who happened to pass by the shooting set assumed that we were shooting a short film. We had minimal equipment, and a really young crew that was always charged up. The young actors had little experience but worked efficiently, perfecting their shots in one take. Everything was planned to the T. The associate and assistant directors knew every detail of the script. This film was their dream too. Everyone wanted to see this film made.”
Thanneer Mathan Dinangal marks the debut of cinematographer Jomon T John as producer. Girish had approached a few other producers before meeting Jomon and his co-producers Shameer Muhammed and Shebin Becker. “They were unsure of making a teenage-drama. At one point, I returned to writing short film scripts since the chances of this film getting made were bleak,” he says.
Jomon doubled as cinematographer, while Shameer Muhammad edited the film. “In the pre-production stage, Jomon and I decided that the film’s cinematography should be organic, rather than showy. Jomon worked in big-budget Bollywood projects the past two years. He hadn’t done anything in a minimal set-up in a long time, and I guess he was waiting for it. He told me in jest, ‘Let’s not hire so much equipment, because if I see it, I’ll be tempted.’ Everything was kept to the minimum – we had no crane, no make-up for the artistes, and not many crew members on the set.”
This Girish AD interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.