Late screenwriter T Damodaran was the one who planted the seed of making a film on Kunjali Marakkar IV in director Priyadarshan’s mind during the production of the 1996 movie Kaalapani. The idea took root over two decades as the director was fully aware that at the time, the Malayalam film industry was not big enough to support his massive dream. So when the market became conducive to make a big-budgeted Malayalam film, Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea (Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham) took shape.
Priyadarshan shot the film in just 102 days without a break. But, he had to wait for over two years to release the Mohanlal-starrer owing to the pandemic. As the movie premiered on Amazon Prime Video recently, indianexpress.com caught up with Priyadarshan for an exclusive interview. In a candid chat, Priyadarshan opens up about his dream film getting mixed reviews, the challenges of doing a VFX-heavy movie on a limited budget and his long-lasting friendship with Mohanlal.
What was your first thought when the film was finally released in cinemas after over two years?
After completing the film, we waited for two and half years for the film to release in theatres. I started working on this film four years ago. It was such a relief when I saw it on the big screen. No film in the world is liked by everyone. Some people have high expectations. See, appreciation is always subjective. What is good for one is not good enough for the other. Nowadays, everyone’s an expert to tell us what mistakes we have made. That’s fine. That’s part of the game. You just have to take it with a pinch of salt or you can enjoy what you do.
Do you remember the first time you were fascinated by the idea of making a film on Kunjali Marakkar?
T Damodaran, who also wrote Kaalapani, told me this idea and informed me about the potential of this movie. Those days we had such a tough time shooting two scenes for Kaalapani. And during that time, we knew we couldn’t shoot storms and sea wars. After 25 years, a lot of things have changed, the visual effects have improved a lot, so I felt it was the right time to do it. People have not seen a sea battle in Indian movies before. And I strongly believe that I succeeded in that.
Did you miss T Damodaran while making this film?
Definitely, he was my teacher. I really missed him when I was trying to make sense of historic contradictions. He would have guided me much better if he were alive today.
Did you feel out of your comfort zone making a costume drama?
I was stressed about the budget than anything else. It is not like Baahubali, where they had a huge budget and a lot of time. We have a shoestring budget and our immediate competitor was Steven Spielberg.
You shot it in one stretch. Why was that rush?
Again, it was not the question of rush. If I had divided the schedule, the budget would have shot through the roof. Getting all actors on the same day, the transportation of cast and crew, everything costs money. So, while budgeting we realized that we had to shoot the film at one stretch. It was a tedious process but the whole unit had a strong will to make this film happen. And that team spirit helped carry us through the production.
How did you keep up the morale of the whole unit during the shoot?
We didn’t think about all of that. If we start thinking ion those terms, we would not have pulled it off. All we had in mind was to start and finish in one go. Don’t look right or left, keep going straight. That was my approach.
You have done over 40 movies with Mohanlal spanning over three decades. What’s the secret behind your long-lasting professional relationship?
He (Mohanlal) never asks me what I’m making. I feel very responsible and I make sure to keep it that way by working hard.
Now when other filmmakers do a film with Mohanlal, they tend to include scenes in fan service to meet the approval of his fanbase. When you work with Mohanlal do you also worry about including scenes for the sake of fans?
I don’t do it. Even though I make commercial films, there is a limit to ‘mass’ sequences that I can add to my films. I can’t satisfy fans fully on that basis. All I want is to make a film that everyone enjoys. If you see all my action movies, for example, Abhimanyu and Adhwaytham, the hero is a loser. Because I want to keep my movies closer to reality.