After the sparse Ottaal, Jayaraj returns with the opulent Veeram. If the much-feted Ottaal was made on an extremely modest budget, Veeram is the opposite. Jayaraj calls it his dream project, one that he thought ‘wouldn’t happen’ but one that he had planned and prepared for.
Last year, around this time, when he announced the ‘big’ film after the ‘small’ Ottaal he didn’t have a producer; it happened thanks to a friendship from 25 years ago. The film will be the opening film at the first edition of the two-day Brazil Russia India China South Africa (BRICS) Film Festival scheduled to open in Delhi today. The theatre release is tentatively planned for October.
The warrior Chandu, the anti-hero of the ‘Vadakkanpaattu’, has been alternatively cast as hero and villain, depending on the telling. Chandu’s ambition was his tragic flaw, which eventually led to the unravelling of his life, much like Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Jayaraj adapts Macbeth to tell Chandu’s story as Veeram. The film is the latest in his Navarasa series. “I am happy that our film is being screened at a prestigious festival such as this. What makes it even more special is that this the quadri-centennial of the Bard. There is the universal appeal of Shakespeare’s plays, making them relevant everywhere, for everybody,” he says.
Macbeth has been adapted and transcreated several times, and that was the challenge for Jayaraj who refers to Akira Kurosawa (Throne of Blood, set in the context of Samurai) and Roman Polanski’s (Macbeth) take on it. He had to set the baggage of the masters aside and tell it his way.
“The scene where Macbeth talks about life as a tale ‘told by idiots, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.’ was most challenging, it is also a philosophical expression of the state of man,” Jayaraj says. The trajectory the lives of both characters took – the hubris of an ambitious man, parallels between the other characters and Macbeth/Chandu’s eventual downfall – made it temptingly apt for a retelling. Set against the backdrop of the martial tradition of Kalaripayattu, it acquired a context too.
The huge budget aside, the film’s canvas is larger than his other films. It’s Jayaraj’s first tri-lingual – Malayalam, Hindi and English. The film boasts a number of technicians from Hollywood, including a few who are Academy award winners. The stunt coordinator is Allan Poppleton (such as Hunger Games, Chronicles of Narnia and Avatar) while the music is by Jeff Rona (Phantom, (mini series) ‘Traffic’ ), make-up by Academy Award winner Trefor Proud (Gladiator, Star Wars Episode I – Phantom Menace among others) and the colourist is Jeff Olm (The Philosopher’s Stone, Titanic, Spiderman and others). Jayaraj praises Appu Bhattathiri for his work as editor.
The technical superiority of the film, he says, gives him the confidence to eye a larger audience. However he underlines the fact that in the film visual effects work with the story not the other way around. Given the film’s first look, or rather the poster, comparison to S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali is inevitable but he categorically states he wasn’t inspired by the film and adds Veeram happened much before, in fact it has been on his mind for over five years.
“It is all thanks to the producers who agreed to invest with absolute faith and confidence. Chandramohan D. Pillai, one of the producers, and I were friends around 25 years back when I was assisting Bharathan in Chennai. When he heard that I had announced the film without a producer, he got in touch with me. They let me dream without limitations,” he says.
This isn’t the first time Chandu’s story has been told in Malayalam cinema. The most memorable in recent times being Oru Vadakkan Veeragatha; the film made Chandu, essayed by Mammootty, a little more heroic and a little less villainous. Telling a different story was a tall task but, he says, “We have stuck to history and what it tells us about the kind of man Chandu was.”
M.R. Warrier, an authority on the subject scripted the film and helped with ‘vadakkan bhaasha’, the dialect of Malayalam spoken in the film. The narration is from the paanan’s (balladeer) perspective, because he was oral historian, the perpetrator of these stories and history.
The casting took much time and several auditions. “When we were casting, we were looking for a lead whose physique matched the role of Kalari practitioner. We looked for Chandu among Kalari practitioners too. In fact, Aromal is essayed by Sivajith Nambiar who is one. One of the first things we asked Kunal was if he could train for Kalari, which he readily agreed to, and spent more than six months of training.”
The film was shot in locations in Kerala, Aurangabad, Fatehpur Sikri and Ellora among other places. He chose the Ellora caves as they created a place unseen, made the time and place different. “It is a creative liberty we took.” The film is couched in suspense, even the poster doesn’t tell much, which is intentional. “That poster conveys the mood of the story, hints at the grandeur – it will be revealed in phases by the time the film releases in October.”