Jayaraj Nair is a former National Film Awards jury member and the winner of several prestigious national and international awards. He is known for his ability to make both commercial as well as “parallel” cinema. His penchant for adapting literary classics into films has given him a distinct place in the Indian film industry.
His upcoming film Veeram, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth, is one of the much anticipated films of 2017 for various reasons. A trilingual film made in English, Hindi and Malayalam, starring Kunal Kapoor and debutant Divinaa Thackur, Veeram is being touted as the most expensive film ever being made in Malayalam with a budget of a whopping Rs 35 crore. It’s creating all the right buzz with an entry to the Oscar race as the film’s soundtrack ‘We will Rise’ is nominated for the Original Song category at the 89th Academy Awards.
The modest filmmaker is keeping his fingers crossed hoping to get the final nomination, which will be declared on January 24, 2017. Excerpts from the interview...
How was your experience working with Kari Kimmel, who sung ‘We will Rise,’ and Jeff Rona, who composed the music?
I first got in touch with Jeff Rona (who has worked for films such as Phantom, God of Water and Traffic III), in October, 2015. He got excited about the project when I showed him the script and the story board of the film. He was particularly thrilled by the cultural background of Veeram. He suggested that we create a theme song, which is a rarity in Indian cinemas but forms the soul of many Hollywood movies. Veeram’s plot has certain universality. Macbeth is a tragedy of ambition but the hero is seen as a brave figure. Chekavar (warriors of northern Kerala, and the protagonist of Veeram, Chandu, is a Chekavan) are brave figures who live their lives on the tip of their swords. There is a similar pattern of expression and philosophy in Macbeth and Veeram. Once we decided to have a theme song to capture the essence of the film, we started searching for a singer. Many famous names were considered and finally Kari’s name was zeroed in because we wanted a haunting voice like her. In Hollywood, normally the singer writes the lyrics. The lyrics of ‘We will Rise’ have been written by both Kari and Jeff. The song got its complete feel when it met with Kari’s voice. We were sure about its success.
How important is music in the film considering the plot is based on ballads of northern Kerala?
The theme song connects the beginning and the end of the film. It maintains the mood of the film throughout the duration. It forms a kind of a circle for the film like the philosophical commentary in Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, Throne of Blood.
Most of Veeram’s crew members and technicians are from Hollywood. Why?
Veeram is my dream project. It is set in the backdrop of 12th and 13th century ballads of northern Kerala with kalaripayattu, the traditional martial art form of Kerala, playing a central role. When Veeram was conceived as a film, it was certain that it required highly talented artists and technicians to do justice to the plot and the screenplay. We wanted nothing but perfection. I wanted Veeram to take kalaripayattu to an international audience like Bruce Lee films have done for karate. My first request to my producer was to give me the full freedom to meet the technical support for the film. kalaripayattu has never reached to that level though it is the fore-runner of many other martial art forms with its origin dating back to 6th century BC. It was decided to get internationally acclaimed names for make-up, colourist, action choreography, music etc. We have Allan Poppleton, who has worked for films such as 300, Hunger Games and Avatar for the action sequences in Veeram. Academy Award-winning make-up artist Trefor Proud is also an important part of the film. Veeram is perhaps the most expensive film ever made in Malayalam with the budget crossing Rs 35 crore.
How did you prepare Kunal Kapoor for the role of Chandu?
Kunal has a universal appeal and the look of a warrior. Both the male and female actors of Veeram, including Kunal, were given intense training in kalaripayattu for six months. As a director, my longest preparation for a film was done in the case of Veeram.
Your contemporary from Malayalam, Priyadarshan has risen to become a successful director in Bollywood. Can we see Veeram as your first step towards Bollywood?
Yes, you can. I think Veeram is a good launch in that sense. It has the rare combination of both academic and commercial viability. It was the opening film at both International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and the BRICS Film Fest and it was well appreciated.
Please tell us about your tryst with Shakespeare?
I was exposed to Shakespearean literature at an early age through a series of kathaprasangam (story telling performance in Kerala). Those days, it caused deep pain and left a scar in my tender heart. Later, I was inspired by the adaptations of Shakespearean work by legendary Kurosawa and Roman Polanski.
I realised that there are similar expressions in our traditions and folklores as well. Then why don’t we give it a try? Like in Othello, where the quest to love and kill is seen simultaneously, we see the split personality of the Theyyam performer in Kaliyattam (Suresh Gopi starrer) where the human being transforms to become the God. My film, Kannaki, based on Antony and Cleopatra, is set in the backdrop of the local game of cock-fight. Many academics have pointed out that these films, while capturing the essence of the Shakespearean work, are portrayed in a completely different atmosphere with different characters. In Veeram, I have tried to give more build up in the story. It is a story of a bigger betrayal than what you see in Macbeth.
Chandu, the infamous warrior, was portrayed as a hero in the Mammootty starrer Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha written by legendary MT Vasudevan Nair. Are you bringing him back as the anti-hero figure?
Vasuvettan’s Chandu should be seen as the writer’s own interpretation of the character. He has interpreted Chandu in his own way like he has done to Bheeman in his novel Randamoozham. Be it Chandu, Bheeman, or Karnan, when you take a character from legends or folklores as the central character in your narrative, then everything else in the legend or the folklore comes to the favour of that character. Veeram is a historic drama. It portrays Chandu as he is known in history. It is the story of Chandu, the betrayer.
How do you think a regional film can make waves nationally and internationally? What according to you is the recipe for this?
There is a lot of possibility. Shakespearean plays are universal and timeless. While Othello talks of possessiveness, Macbeth talks of the tragedy of ambition. Such characters will be relevant and presentable as long as human beings exist. I have conceived Veeram not as a regional cinema but as a universal cinema. My purpose is to showcase kalaripayattu to the world.
Are you hopeful of winning the Oscar for ‘We will rise’?
Yes, it has all the perfection to win the Oscar.