People who know Mysskin, the person beyond the filmmaker, will do well to tell you that he doesn’t mince words in any conversation. His words, much like his films, have an air of unpredictability about them – hearing him is a natural delight for a journalist. He’s a staunch academic, but can be a rebel in the need of the hour too, which makes him equally fascinating as a creator. Commercial success may have eluded him a few times, though not many can deny the artistic value and originality in his films, respecting technique and content. With both his recent films, Thupparivalan and Psycho, he seems to have found a middle-ground between his craft and commerce. Mysskin is like a well that keeps giving water and you just want to hear him speak. LetsOTT.com, prior to the digital release of Pscyho on Netflix, makes an attempt to understand him and his craft in this interview.
From Chithiram Pesuthadi to Psycho, you’ve always been a director who has focused on making films that have a shelf life. Also being a producer yourself, is it tough to think the workability of those films/stories from a commercial perspective?
I can’t write a story thinking it would be a hit or with an intention that it would draw more money. These things aren’t on my mind. Basically, I don’t work with biggies. Only when I work with them, I would have to go by a fan’s likes and dislikes. As a filmmaker, I want to feel free. I have worked hard all these years to earn that independence. They say the first step for a scriptwriter before writing any story is to sit in front of a white paper. Whether my movie is a hit or a flop, no way it is going to help my next script. I may have experience but the next script requires a newer understanding and demands you to delve into a deeper realm of the unconscious. The past will never work as a writer.
It’s like competing for a 100m race – it’s important to run first. The previous records will have no say in it. Before writing any film, I have four-five ideas, out of which I select one story that gives me a high then. The books I read, the source of knowledge I have at a particular phase, also influence that story. The next part is to see if that particular idea would work as a two-hour film and go through the basic tenets of scriptwriting (setting up the characters of the protagonist, antagonist, their journey). I am a kind of misfit in a way. I rarely watch movies. If there’s anything educative about it, I rewatch it a hundred times to develop a deeper understanding. This is the way I work.
You’ve earned many admirers with the raw energy you bring to your storytelling while offering an alternate perspective to the darker side of the human psyche. What fascinates you with this territory?
I wonder why a certain section of people refer to an entire repertoire of filmmaking with one word – darkness. I wish they could define it too. My answer though is relatively simple. Why do we switch off lights before the commencement of a film? It creates a milieu, an environment. Another reason for the stories/themes I choose is because of the fact that I am a storyteller. Our grannies are the best storytellers and what time of the day do they narrate tales? It’s the time when the lights are turned off and when we’re ready to sleep. The very nature of storytelling is dark. Any story you wish to tell will have to reach the unconscious – that’s when you’re moved. I don’t see them as dark stories. Every protagonist in a story has to wake up from his darkness/lack of understanding. He is illuminated one day. That’s the essence of every story. I don’t like to tell stories that are white, in the lighter vein or rom-coms. No Dostoyevsky story is a rom-com. I spend at least one year on a project and I don’t want to spend it on lighter vein stories. I respect the audience who take the time to come and watch my film after a busy day at work – they are paying me to see the screen story which is my imagination. Adults don’t have grannies and directors become one for them.
You’re among the rare breed of filmmakers who prefer to show than tell in their movies…
I basically believe that I’m not an oral storyteller but a visual storyteller. The very word cinema comes from the Greek word ‘kinema’ which means motion. I take photographs of characters and my milieu and I roll and run the machine. Every image moves the story forward and if there’s a case where I cannot explain something through moving images, I have to go for another medium called oral telling, where the actors have to say their lines. If I am thirsty and go to Africa without knowing a language, I can still communicate my thoughts to them using gestures. Best movies are silent movies– that’s why Chaplin and Griffith are loved even today. If you take Kurosawa and Robert Bresson’s movies (Pickpocket or A Man Escaped), there are not as many dialogues – that’s where I have understood cinema from.
How do you look at your films that haven’t done well commercially or were blatantly rejected?
The criterion of a good film is not based on its box office collection. I don’t agree with it. My best films are Nandalala and Onaayum Attukuttiyum, - both didn’t run well. Many of my friends and filmmakers too consider them my best works. I used dialogues in the film very sparingly as well. I don’t go by the rules of the industry. The only film in my repertoire that I consider a flop is Mugamoodi. I consider all my other movies decent and sincere, which have also made money.
There’s so much light that you see through darkness – like how you humanised a psychopath in Psycho or gave an angelic dimension to a ghost in Pisasu. We’re sure you would have interesting observations about the phase we are going through…
As a writer, I feel I’ve always been in a lockdown, except the time I go out to buy books. I don’t see this lockdown any different. It has helped me read a lot, watch many movies. I am able to spend more time thinking about what to write. Philosophically this phase is very important for us, because India has never seen a World War or anything as intense as this current situation. This is a situation that an entire world is dealing with. It’s given by nature – at least, I believe it that way. It’s because of the lockdown that I have been able to give enough time to my daughter, family. If my daughter says that she is bored in this hour, I can talk to her about what they would have done in school otherwise. I can have deeper conversations with them, my partner and parents. Even in a lockdown, there’s a deeper, rich life. Of course, it’s very hard for those who live in poverty and for middle-class people who can’t go to work, but it’s something that can be viewed from another dimension as well.
For someone who firmly values the theatrical experience of storytelling, do you feel the digital content across OTT platforms is a dilution of that experience?
Technology will take us to different mediums. Two decades back, we were shooting in film format and now everything is digitalised. Maybe in another two decades, there will be another technological innovation where there may be smaller devices that would help us make films. These are merely technological changes, but what we’re ultimately telling is a story. We may have different cuisines, but the basic emotion that drives all kinds of food is hunger. The basic requirement of any human is to listen to stories. Most of the people who don’t listen to stories, dream a lot. The subconscious will them a lot of stories. If you listen to a good story when you’re awake, you don’t have great dreams. If you don’t have great stories, the subconscious writes great dreams. This won’t change even after a thousand years.
You may watch movies rarely, but you always had a word of praise about your contemporaries in the industry when their work stands out, be it Ram (Peranbu) or the recent event you hosted for director Shankar (25 years in the industry). Why is it that directors don’t openly applaud/credit each other in this industry often?
I may not have an answer for that. I can only talk about myself. When I come across something good, it’s a natural urge to appreciate it – otherwise, there’s no reason that we have eyes, ears or mouth. If you come across a beautiful flower, you’ll appreciate its fragrance, its tenderness. If you see a bird or even clouds passing by or a child smiling, you still say it’s beautiful. It’s no different with movies too. When I see anything beautiful, I become a child, go mad, hug and kiss the creator. All my life, I’ve been like that. It’s a spontaneous reaction.
Has age changed the way you make films?
I’ll give you a very simple example to explain this. When you make a chair, you use a 50-year-old tree and not a five-year-old one, because they are stronger. That’s how when you grow, you’re not ageing – you’re evolving. You read a lot, listen to and meet a lot of people, watch life very deeply and gather more wisdom over the years. That’s why our grannies and grandpas are great people. An African saying tells us ‘When an old man dies, a library is burnt down’. We all know that what we’ve spoken ten years before may sound bullshit to us now. This very conversation may not hold relevance ten years from now too. It’s the same with movies. I used to start with a lot of camera movements, so many jerk movements, but there’s a simplicity and immersive quality to them now, like the water in a pond.
Before working as an assistant director, you have rather self-tutored yourself about films, art and literature, probably equipping yourself with more knowledge than a student of a filmmaking school ever will and something that has made you strikingly original as a filmmaker. Do you believe this has given you a command over your visual grammar?
I don’t feel it’s right to say I have a command over my craft. I am not trying to sound humble, but there are great stalwarts who’ve done so much more. I don’t have a command but I’m trying to experiment every time. Some great people understand life and have a command over the craft like Kurasowa, Kubrick. I feel like a child in front of them. However, I feel confident about my working – I have also been in the industry for over two decades now. I understand the process because I’ve made 11 movies – scripted it, made it, heard responses from the audiences, realising what moves them and what doesn’t. It’s a slow evolution. The filmmaking medium is an ocean where you can only scoop a little water with your hand. I am only standing at the shore and feeling the water near my knees. There’s a huge depth that I have to reach. Time will decide that.
Do you look for a similar mindset/approach towards filmmaking while hiring your assistant directors as well?
I don’t do all that. After the completion of every project, there will be a few assistants who move out and there is space to employ new people. If they belong to a poor family, I immediately select them. I don’t go by strong interviews. There are times I have even asked them to make tea. One of them didn’t know how to make it and I asked him to learn and ready a cup for me. He didn’t make great tea, but he still became my assistant. There are no rules here. I try to read people – maybe there’s a glow in their eyes as they speak, the way they behave. There was one guy who wanted to work under me and I asked him ‘what does his father do?’. He said his father was no more and I immediately selected him. He came along with another friend with a similar story and I selected him as well.
There’s no criteria in specific and frankly, I’m not running a college. The strategy doesn’t always work. If people reading this interview come with similar stories and ask if they can assist me, I’m not going to take them. It depends on my state then. I am anyway not going to earn anything out of them. At best, they are going to work with me for four or five years That’s, in fact, a rarity now. Many assistants who came to me only wanted to have a label that they worked under Mysskin. Nobody is here to learn any craft. Everybody thinks they are suyambu (self-manifested). They believe they’ve come out of their womb saying ‘action!’. You cannot teach anybody and can only learn from them. I can only laugh about it.