VC: The new ideas, did you incorporate them in the script before the shooting started or were there any changes that you made after the shooting started?
Ranjith Sankar: No, it doesn’t work that way. My original plan was to finish the shooting in 48 days. But we were able to finish it in 38 days. We started on February 14th and movie got released on May 7th. That is less than 80 days. Recently The Hindu newspaper, in an article commented that this is a model for Malayalam cinema. Passenger became a success because of all the planning that went behind it and cost effective approach we adopted. So if we change screenplay in the middle it would affect the budget. Before shooting screenplay has to be frozen.
VC: So you started the shooting with a bound script …
Ranjith: Yes, in a way you are correct. There was a bound script but as far as dialogue are concerned there was always room for improvement. For example, if we had embarked on shooting without planning on the scenes in which Dilip was held captive in the tile factory, that would affect everything. But we had the opportunity to improvise a dialogue by Dilip in that location till the last shot was taken. In fact we had tried for that wherever possible.
But change in the screenplay would affect budget,schedules, release and many other things. When we plan for shooting schedule for the 48 days we plan which shot would taken at what time and which place. All the planning has to be completed before the shooting commences. But actual dialogue delivered on the location, we have opportunity to change that till the last moment. So changing screenplay after shooting is not good for cinema, but dialogue can change depending on the characteristics of the location and artist who is delivering the dialogue.
VC: So everything went like a clockwork …
Ranjith: Success of Passenger is testimony of excellent teamwork. As I mentioned before, the movie’s essence, as Satyanathan mentions, is that you will be provided with an opportunity in the life and success depends on how well you use it; that’s how the movie starts. Satyanathan also tries to convey that there if good intention in our deeds and if everyone understands that, world is not a bad a place to live.
Satyanathan meets a lot of people who were good. My experience in the making process of this movie is also similar. All the artists and technicians understood what I was trying to convey in this movie and the sincerity with which I approached this movie and they all gave me full support. That’s the reason why we were able to finish the shooting in such a short time — in low budget — and in a very effective manner.
To give you an example, while shooting on board the train there were instances in which we had continuously shot for 20 hours. Shooting in a train is expensive, we had budgeted only for 5 days shooting on board the train. All the artists cooperated. We used to shoot the night scenes on the train till 5:30 AM in the morning.
VC: So when we talk about direction, to backtrack a bit, you had mentioned about going to shooting location of many movies as per Mammootty’s suggestion to get familiar with the craft, did any director’s style influence you?
Ranjith: Not really. What is direction? As far as I’m concerned it’s having conviction about the movie you are going to make, believing in it. And being courageous enough to execute those ideas into actions. Also the ability to convince the team members in the unit and make them understand the steps they have to undertake: managing a unit. So cinema is a team work; lot of people have to work hard and struggle for a movie to happen.
All this is true but I feel that most important thing is one person having conviction about the movie. And that person is the director not the actor or anybody else. Then only the movie which the director envisaged will happen. My learning experience was like this: how does a movie set looks like, what all happens there, what all we can plan, what kind of problems can happen.
I had great learning opportunities. I didn’t know anything initially. As per Mammookka’s suggestion I went to the shooting location of Big B. Officially I was not the assistant. But I could go there, stay in the location, learn what was happening; no one allows these kind of things. It was Mammootty who made that happen for me, he insisted and strongly advocated on my behalf.
It’s a big deal, even I don’t think I will agree for such a thing. I learned a lot in that shooting location – for example camera, they were using Super 16, it had this many lenses, we can do lighting in this many ways, there are different types film rushes, framing, speed – these are the basic things I learned form Big B’s sets.
Ranjith: Very true. If we forget to arrange a small thing , shooting might get stalled for hours. In monetary terms the loss might be worth lakhs of rupees. This happens in real time.
VC: We can imagine the planning and efforts that might have gone behind even in the smallest of the scenes.
Ranjith: In Passenger, I don’t know if you noticed, we shot only a very few reactions. It’s straight dialogue to dialogue to make it more faster and to reduce the cost of raw film. We took efforts for that. If we know we are not going to use it, why shoot it. I feel that limitations are good for cinema. if you get all the facilities and help then you’ll become spoilt. Limitations will make you more creative. If there is shortage of money we try to overcome it by our intelligence.
VC: Is that the thought process behind not having songs in Passenger?
Ranjith: No, never. Songs are an advantage in cinema. We can use that for promotion. Whatever amount we spent on the song is worth it if it’s well made. As far as Passenger is concerned, unfortunately there was no space for a song. I have conceived this movie as a commercial cinema. I was trying to present it in a very entertaining and interesting manner to the audience. So if I tried to add a song or a fight scene unnecessarily, it will reduce the entertainment value of this movie. So you can say that I avoided the biggest ingredient of commercial cinema – songs and stunts – so that movie is more entertaining, interesting and commercial not because of any limitations.
VC: Now that you mentioned about reaction shots, we think it helped. Movie was gripping and technicalities were not intrusions. And there was always a feeling that something is going to happen all the time. Everything flowed.
Ranjith: Right, you can do this only if you have clear idea that you don’t need reaction shots. Even if I shot the reactions it wouldn’t have made a difference as you would be watching the movie scene to scene; that film would have got wasted. But the risk is that if we needed it later we would have got in trouble.
VC: What would you gain if you had reaction shots? More finesse?
VC: So in the next movie you might decide to have reaction shots!
Ranjith: Not really. This is applicable to every movie. When I write a movie I know how it will end up on the screen after editing. So if I am not interested in showing reactions I wouldn’t shoot it. It’s the advantage of being a writer-director.
VC: you write it and and you visualize and realize it …
Ranjith: There are no hard and fast rules. Cinema has no grammar. There is no formula for good cinema; my good cinema might not be your good cinema. Each director’s approach would be different. Look, there are not many original story ideas in the world, maybe twenty. New cinema happens when a director chooses a existing story idea and gives a new interpretation, based on his life’s experiences. Cinema is such a medium.
VC: When you were writing the story/script you had a vision about the movie, and you were the writer and director of the movie, after editing, did the final product agree with the vision you had?
Ranjith: I was more than happy. We were able to shoot the movie successfully, beyond my expectations. I would like to specially thank my cameraman, P.Sukumar. I didn’t know him well before Passenger. We quickly developed a rapport and friendship, you can say that we were operating on same wavelength. That understanding between the cameraman and director was key to the success of the cinema. He’s a very experienced in this industry – been in the industry for nearly 25 years. All that experience came handy for Passenger.
VC: If you look at some successful director, they stick to certain genres – for example Rajasenan sticks to comedy, Shaji Kailas sticks to action movies. But directors like Padmarajan, IV Sasi etc have done movies of every possible genre. Who is your role model?
Ranjith: My role model is KG George. I like him a lot as and in my opinion he’s Kerala’s best film maker. I feel that it’s a film maker’s responsibility to accurately reflect the time and the social views prevalent at that time period in which the movie was made and KG George is one of the rare film makers who have achieved that. Maybe only he has achieved that in Malayalam cinema. Others like Padmarajan or Bharathan had gone into a fantasy level. If you look at his Yavanika - it was a documentation of theatre movement in Kerala of 80s. I have not seen a better satire than Panchavadi Paalam – it’s relevant for any time. If you look at Irakal, it’s the best political movie ever made in Kerala. We can place KG George along with any great film maker in the world. In that way KG George has influenced me.
VC: One thing we infer about your personality – after talking to you and from your answers – is that you are a film maker with social responsibility – and you would be making such movies?Ranjith: Not really (laughs). Its the subject which compels or interests me to make the movie. It’s a wrong approach if we just start thinking about a love story because there is a possibility that the next movie would be love story.
VC: In the beginning you had an idea – it was a philosophical idea, then it needs an appealing narrative. The narrative could be a love story or a satire or a murder …Ranjith: A movie’s beginning is from a thought process or an idea. if you start a movie thinking - Let me make a movie in this genre or let me make a movie with this actor – that itself could be the reason for the movie to fail. You need a good idea to begin with.
VC: Exactly. So the narrative could be in any genre?Ranjith: No. Narrative happens automatically. Just because I want a comedy narrative we cant create a comedy narrative. One of the movies I like very much is When Harry met Sally. Have you seen it?
VC: Yes, long time back.Ranjith: I like the essence of that movie. Or Shawshank Redemption. Its a great movie, it’s about hope. In my life whenever I feel depressed, just a thought about this movie pumps me up. I can go back and see that movie any number of times. What I like about When Harry met Sally is the philosophical thought about how people change over the years. Like how people think when they are 18 or how those thoughts change when they are 22 or how those thoughts mature when they are 26.
VC: Now that Passenger is a big hit, your standing in the industry might have improved, relationships better within the industry, people might come forward to finance your movies, better casting would be guaranteed – You must be in a better position now?
Ranjith: I got lot of offers after Passenger but I didn’t take up any. I wanted to finish the screenplay of the next movie first and think about casting. I will have to decide on a suitable producer etc. For my next movie, I don’t think I will face any problems – that’s because Passenger was a hit. But if next movie does not do well, I will be in trouble.
VC: In general are you hopeful about Malayalam cinema?
Ranjith: Definitely I am hopeful about Malayalam cinema. Look at Passenger, it can be only made in Malayalam. In other languages I don’t know how many actors and stars would cooperate with an industry outsider like me. Since our industry is tolerant to newcomers like me and especially because of newcomers can come and try out new ideas, I am really hopeful.
VC: Before Passenger, what was your profession?
Ranjith: I am a Software Engineer. I was in the office yesterday, I am still working.
VC: Is there something you can reveal about your next movie?
Ranjith: I can share the thought process. Again this was something I was toying for years. Progress, be it in India or America, is the result of the initiative of a handful of individuals. That is, a progress, which affects generations and centuries could be the initiative of one or two persons. To nullify the progress,it just takes initiative of a handful of individuals. Rest of the folks, millions of them, people like us, who has scant interest in things happening around them and not interested in decision making. But these innovators are not born like that – its the life’s experiences which make them what they are …
VC: That could have an interesting narrative…
Ranjith: That I don’t know at this point of time. But this is the thought process. I wrote the first draft of this movie in 1999. The fact is that, after 10 years, I am still excited about this movie.
VC: So what is your advise for aspiring script writers and film makers.
Ranjith: There is no hard and fast rules. I can only give my opinions, most of which I already mentioned. Many movies in Malayalam and other Indian languages, starts off quite well. But they looses steam in between. That is mainly because the writer does not have conviction about the story and theme.
VC: Thanks a lot for your time. You did offer a fresh perspective. And it was a very informative. We enjoyed the conversation.