2018 has been wonderful for Nirmal Sahadev so far. The 30-year-old made his Mollywood debut as a screen-writer in Shyamaprasad’s Hey Jude which released in theatres this February, and two months later, his directorial debut is all set to hit the screens.
Ranam: Detroit Crossing is a crime drama set in the backdrop of a fallen city, centered on grey-shaded characters. Rumored to be inspired from a Tamil gang war that rocked the streets of Canada around the beginning of the millennium, it stars Prithviraj, Isha Talwar and Rahman in lead roles. The film has already created a lot of hype for its slick trailers and soundtrack.
“Ranam is about survival, and second chances,” says Nirmal. “It’s about a bunch of characters who are trying to overcome an unpleasant past. It is set in Detroit, a city which is also recuperating from a period of violence. The city and characters mirror each other. There is no definite villain or a hero in Ranam.”
Shot extensively in various locations across the United States Of America, the film has Prithviraj playing a mechanic who had recently moved to Detroit to start life afresh. The shoot was completed in 45 days. Nirmal declares that the film has realistic stunt sequences, and that he has carefully cut down on cliches. “I wouldn’t say Ranam is a thriller. It’s about the characters, the emotions they experience. It’s a drama.”
While Nirmal grew up in Dubai, he hails from Palakkad. He moved to the United States in his early 20s to join New York Film Academy where he learned the nuances of cinema. Among the many auteurs he admires and looks up to is Padmarajan. “It’s a cliche to mention his name, I know,” laughs Nirmal. “The films that Padmarajan and Lalettan made continue to inspire a whole generation of filmmakers. I am no exception.” After graduating from the film institute, Nirmal worked on several short films, and served as an executive producer and actor on Brown Nation, a Netflix comedy drama series directed by Abi Varghese. Further, he worked in Shyamaprasad’s Ivide, a Malayalam film set in Atlanta, as an assistant director. He also played a cameo in the film.
Most of the crew members in Ranam were Nirmal’s collaborators in the past. Jakes Bejoy, the composer behind the now popular title track of Ranam, was a part of Brown Nation. Cinematographer Jigme Tenzing, who had worked with Nirmal in short film projects in New York, has handled the camera for Ranam. Tenzing’s filmography includes a number of critically-acclaimed Bhutanese films such as Hema Hema: Sing Me a Song While I Wait and Vara.
One of the high-points in Nirmal’s career was when he met Prithviraj on the sets of Ivide. We got along like a house on fire, he says. So when Nirmal set out to make his first film, he did not think twice about casting the actor in the lead role. “Prithviraj is intelligent, well-read, and has years of experience in the film industry. Most importantly, he is a great person to work with. With him on board, things worked just fine,” says Nirmal. “I wrote around 14 drafts before locking the final script, and he actually read all those drafts. He was much involved in every step of the project.”
In the first teaser of Ranam, the vintage era hit song ‘Vaachalam Nin Mounavum’ plays in the background. “We used it as a tribute to that era, to Lalettan (Mohanlal). That song is a personal favourite,” smiles Nirmal. The song is from the 1985 film Koodum Thedi which has Mohanlal, Rahman and Radhika playing the lead roles. Incidentally, Rahman is one of the lead actors in Ranam. “I used to watch a lot of his films as a teenager. It had been a dream to work with him. I wanted an actor with a likable face to play this character, Damodar Ratnam. I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t like Rahman when they see him,” says Nirmal.
Nirmal worked on both Hey Jude and Ranam, two contrasting scripts, almost simultaneously. For the former, he partnered with his friend George Kanath who has also written the dialogues for Ranam. The fluffy and life-affirming Hey Jude was centered on a young man suffering from Asperger’s Syndrome. Nivin Pauly played the protagonist, Jude, a performance that had earned him acclaim and turned around the actor’s career which had been going through a low phase.
“Shyam sir had never made a light-hearted film before, so we wanted Hey Jude to be one such,” he says. It isn’t easy to make a film on mental health. A minute slip in the writing or execution would make the tone insensitive. Hey Jude, minor flaws aside, comes across as a film that attempts to empathise with its protagonist, rather than making a laughing stock out of him. “We walked a tight rope. We were careful enough to not make fun of vulnerable people or make cruel jokes,” explains Nirmal, crediting the film’s success to the actors whose nuanced performances helped the audience connect to the characters. “Siddique sir improvised a lot in the comic scenes, and they came out great. Vijay Menon’s dialogue, ‘I am surrounded by crazy people,‘ was his contribution. Nivin, Trisha… everyone in the team were good performers whom you could completely trust.”
Never has the Malayalam film industry been more welcoming towards debutants, says Nirmal. “Leading stars like Nivin, Prithvi and Tovino are all working with new directors and writers. Content is the king now. Once you have a good script in hand, half the job is done. The industry is very much open to new comers. Twenty years ago, no one could dream of entering the film industry this way.”
While it is the time for regional stories in Mollywood, Nirmal is confident that Ranam, which is set overseas, will impress the domestic audience for he has stood true to the film’s content. “Ranam is made realistically, without melodramatic scenes or the usual acrobatic stunts,” he declares, “There is room to experiment in Malayalam film industry now.”
The Nirmal Sahadev interview is a Silverscreen exclusive.