32 year old Ranjith Shankar is the director of the movie Passenger starring Dileep, Srinivasan, Nedumudi Venu, Mamta Mohandas and Jagathi Sreekumar. This movie, which does not have the gimmicks of a traditional action movie, was a huge success. As we talked to Ranjith, we found that he has a thoughtful mind and his talent lies in translating an abstract idea into an entertaining narrative. Also interestingly the core idea of this movie finds the realization not just through his characters, but in his own life as well.
VC: Our first questions are about Passenger. When did the seed for this movie come to you?
Ranjith Sankar: It was around 2000 – 2001 and I wrote the first draft in 2003. From there it took about 6 years.
VC: Since it took so many years, did anything change over this period in the script?
Ranjith: Of course and it was not just script refining that happened. I was ready to do the movie in 2004, but I had not thought about direction. Before that I had done screen plays, for television and got the Kerala State award. For the movie also, I wanted to do the screen play only, not direction. So I approached a few directors; all of them felt the script was risky. Around 2005 I realized that if this has to be realized as a movie, I had to direct it. Cinema is a directors medium and if I had to make a movie in my vision, I had to direct it. The dream was not to be a director, but to make this movie happen. So for two/three years, I learned direction. I am working full time, so in between that, using my film contacts, I was able to see great directors working and learned from them. I gained confidence and decided to direct. The next problem was getting a producer. So the same story — the one which happened with the directors — repeated. I met some producers and no one was interested. So I decided to produce it myself. I did not think that as a big risk; people like us can make one movie. I had some properties in Ernakulam and could raise money for the movie. It was at this time that I met Srinivasan. He told me that it would be hard if I did everything direction, production, and would arrange for a producer.
VC: We want to know more in depth about your writing process. The core idea is that two strangers meet in a train and their lives get intertwined. Did you start from this idea?
Ranjith: This was not the core. We all have our routine lives: a farmer does his job, I do mine, a housewife does hers. In this routine, life gives everyone a chance — everyone gets it – to do something which gives satisfaction. 90% don’t see it as they are busy; among the 10% who see it 9.9% don’t want to tread that risky path. We do something when it matters to us. So the story is of a common man with all his limitations – as a father, son, husband — was able to do something for the people around him. These are things I have thought about and wanted to tell this. It is my mental reflection.
VC: Did you have any life changing experience like this?
Ranjith: This movie was that experience for me and this is what I told Srinivasan. Life gives an opportunity and you should be bold enough to take that chance.
VC: So the movie making was your experience…
Ranjith: The movie happened only because I decided to produce it. I showed the courage. Srinivasan saw my passion. Similarly everyone gets a chance.
VC: That’s interesting. The idea you mentioned is quite philosophical. So how was your journey transforming this philosophical idea into such an interesting narrative?
Ranjith: This thought was there in my mind. I was looking for characters for a commercial cinema. The character Sathyanathan is based on one of my colleagues. He lives in a village, takes the daily train to Alwaye, and the train back. That is his routine and he sleeps like Sathyanathan in the train. The festivals are very important to him. So it is from this character that the movie begins.Then there are so many events which affect you: for example, when you pick up the newspaper you see a major news that some swami tortured someone,but for the police it is a petty case, but at the same time something which could destroy Kerala’s economy – like hawala – is a seventh page news. These are all things we observe and it is from such observations that the characters arise.
VC: So if you look at the first time director or script writer, he will have many such questions against the society. But this movie is focused and the narrative does not go too far away from the center. How did you achieve this focus? Did you write various things and then edit them out and get here?
Ranjith: Of course. When I wrote the first draft in 2003, it was so different. Over the years there are many changes in me: like marriage, becoming a father, bought a house. I am now 32 years old and don’t think the same way as a 20 year old.
I was always interested in writing. I think of direction as an extension.
VC: Since you mentioned you are primarily a writer, let us go back to the writing process once again. You said you had an idea and you converted that to an entertaining narrative. What’s the writing process like? Did you know the ending before writing or did the ending come while writing?
Ranjith: See, first comes the thought. Then comes other things. For example, I met one person in Alwaye station. He told me that one day he slept in the train, missed Thrissur station and reached Guruvayoor. When he told this to the station master, the station master told that this is a common occurrence. This person then slept in Guruvayoor and took the morning train back to Thrissur. This person also loved festivals and was a tea salesman. This is where all those references to the tea comes in the film. So what happens to this person, who has never missed the festival for so many years? These were all the initial thought processes. One of the things I like to watch on TV is a good talk show – like that of Karan Thapar. Anuradha is inspired from that. Initially when I thought of Nandan Menon, he was older. Then I thought of a young couple because the decisions they make have much more value.
VC: In your journey with these characters, how did you make up the twists and turns? Did you get them from somewhere or did you make them up?
Ranjith: The kidnapping of Nandan Menon is the main thing
VC: From there, how did you get to the end?
Ranjith: The end was there in the mind from the beginning. I mean the tail end where he sees the news on TV, sleeps in the train the next day, and people refer to him as superman.Even in the last draft, the tile factory was not there. Even the train journey was not there. It was to connect the passenger that the train journey was kept. Nandan, originally, was kept in some place which had no relevance. Sathyanathan reaches there in an auto. Since Sathyanathan knew train timings very well, it was to connect that piece of information that the train was introduced in the end. Also you can see these tile factories when you look from the train.
VC: When you did the casting, did that match the characterization you had in mind?
Ranjith: When I wrote it, I did not have any actor in mind. When most directors did not want to do this film, I got an appointment with Mammotty. He heard this script and agreed to do the role. He arranged for me to visit sets and learn. I met him when he was doing Palunku, but then he moved into a different space like Annan Thampi. Even if he had done it, it would have felt like an off beat movie.
Then when I met Srinivasan, I felt this role was tailor made for him.
VC: One of the interesting things for us was the role of Dileep. He is trying to build an image, like an action hero. In this movie he gets beaten up. What was his attitude towards this role?
Ranjith: An actor, a superstar or anyone, what attracts him to a movie is the screenplay. Especially for a newbie like me, you get 30 minutes to convince a superstar and it has to excite them to be a part of this. I got complete co-operation from Dileep. He asked the right questions, never interfered, and his suggestions were for the good for the movie. Most actors are like that. They want to make good movies. Actually Dileep being in the movie helped me and I told him so. When you have an actor like him, it helps financially and also helps in making a better movie. He worked for 7 days. This Nandan Menon is a character I like – in fact more than Sathyanathan. He is my age group. He is the hero. Each scene brings out a different shade of him: initially you see him as a committed husband, then as a person with a social conscience, then his sacrifice. So he is the hero of the movie. Compared to him Sathyanathan has only one dimension.
VC: But the character that stays in our mind is Sathyanathan. If you look at it Nandan Menon did all that for his wife
Ranjith: No, actually he did it for an entire community. In the first scene he talks about fate. I don’t know how many people noticed it. He was ready to die, but not doing something wrong. It is a tough decision. Sathyanathan does not take that level of risk; he is inherently good. But it is Dileep’s character who takes the risk. Sathyanathan just becomes a catalyst.
VC: Going back to something you mentioned earlier. You said, many directors thought this project was risky. Why did they think so?
Ranjith: It was completely risky. There is nothing commercial about this movie: there are no songs, fights, dance. It is a simple story which happens in a day. Also it is expensive since a train is involved. So this movie had only two results possible – utter flop or a good success. So if a reputed director takes this work and it flops, it will affect his career. If you have doubts about the movie, then it is not a good idea to direct it. A director should have 100% conviction about the movie.
VC: You mentioned that people got excited about this movie: Mammootty, Dileep, Srinivasan etc. Why didn’t directors get excited then? A good script should excite a director as well as an actor, right?
Ranjith: Actually I don’t know. Maybe it is a reflection of things in our industry right now. Also it is the view of those directors; maybe they are trying to be safe.
VC: Maybe it is due to responsibility. After all the director has to bear the burden.
Ranjith: Maybe. An actor is just looking for different role or a different movie. They shoot for a movie for 30 days and then move on. A director has more responsibilities. When the movie flops, the blame is on the director. If you look at the current state of Malayalam cinema, making such a movie is hard. It happened because I set out with the aim of doing it.
VC: So if you write a script, will you direct it yourselves?
Ranjith: I have written the next script and would like to direct it. Now since I have directed one movie, I have interest in directing it.