Spinning her Magic – A Candid Chat with Anjali Menon

The ace film maker reveals that failure has been her biggest teacher!

Though she was brought up in Dubai, she has her roots firmly in Kerala thanks to her strong ‘Malayali’ upbringing. It was when she moved to Pune to pursue her studies that she began to explore films and slowly, she started falling in love with Cinema. Thus began her journey of self-discovery! While everyone expected her to do a Master’s in business management, they were in for a shock when she chose to go to the London Film School instead. Her family reluctantly agreed to let her follow her heart. It was during the convocation ceremony, that they watched her work on screen for the very first time and that’s when they realised that this was her deep passion and true calling. Since then they have been her strong source of support and strength. Her first tryst with Mollywood seemed like a nightmare, as her debut film ‘Manjadikuru’ met with struggles, delays and bias. But she didn’t give up! Soon she was ready with the script of Ustad hotel, which swept the state, national and international awards! With her next blockbuster, Bangalore Days, she had built a brand for herself! Anjali Menon, is a name that is the pride of Kerala today! Ritz catches up with the ace film maker, whose latest flick, ‘Koode’ is rocking at the box office!

Interview: Riya Sonny Datson

Instead of a natural progression to business management, it was your choice to dive into a completely new forte, how difficult was it to take the decision?
When you are following your instinct, taking the decision within is the easiest thing to do. For me, doing anything other than this seemed like going against my instinct, which was more difficult. I chose the more instinctive path, which is always easier. Of course, it has its own challenges but that is also a part of the journey.

You are an inspiration to people both inside and outside the industry. With your own share of battles, what has been your biggest learning?
As a filmmaker and an individual, I have learnt most from failure. I think failure is the biggest teacher we have. It makes you understand and learn about what is important, what is really worth fussing over or what is not. If you have had experiences of failure or struggles, even when you succeed, it keeps you grounded. That for me, has been a huge learning.

But all your films have won great critical acclaim and have been such great successes…
When I first did ‘Manajadikuru’, the movie sat in the can for four years before it finally released – which was a terrible thing for any first time film maker! Even after its release, though it was one of the best films I made, even today, it is one of the least viewed films of mine! There is a strong element of failure there – maybe not as a film maker but in getting the film to reach a larger audience. I was told that the film was penned before its time. Now we have a great environment for film makers who want to try different kinds of films. Today, everyone says that it was a great movie. But at the time when Manajadikuru was made, it was a big struggle and ultimately, when it released, it didn’t do well at
the box office. It hits you hard as a film maker when you put everything you have into the movie. When I see how other film makers react now to their success, I thank fate for the opportunity I got to learn from the experience.

What is the trigger that inspires you to write?
I think my inspiration comes from watching people, their relationships and experiences. It is interesting to try and understand what motivates them to act the way they do.

All your movies have had an ensemble cast. It is known that you are a perfectionist, was it a challenge working with so many actors across generations?
No, not at all. The actors I have worked with have been very generous with me in terms of their time, effort and understanding. They understand that Cinema is not about just one person, it is a coming together of various characters and different understandings that fuels the performance. It is a part of a process and most of the actors enjoy discovering the character. It is very important to me that the actor understands the character as much as the writer and the director.

There is a problem only when they are used to a specific way of working and they have to change that style, but I find that actors are very flexible and they understand that eventually it all works to their benefit. What is most beautiful is that seasoned actors are so keen to act that way, which is why, they are who they are. It was a pleasure working with senior actors and I had a great time working with them. With newcomers, when I introduce them to this kind of work, they accept it easily as they are fresh and are not aware of any other kind
of working.

Do you explain every scene to an actor before they shoot?
No, we don’t discuss scenes as much as we discuss characters. Once the story and the character is explained to the actor, I am expecting them to behave as the character. Till a certain stage, I have to answer all their questions but then slowly, the actor begins to own the character and then, I am the one asking them the questions. That’s where the transition starts and it is a wonderful process. Then they are in charge and it is their responsibility. I just have to gently nudge them in the right direction if they are stepping away.

‘Koode’ is a very different and intense movie when compared to your previous movies. Does it strike a chord with you personally?
As a film maker, you have to maintain a certain level of objectivity before you say ‘Cut’ because my role is that of a surrogate audience. I have to understand what the audience will get from a shot. I believe we should let our films go. It is a collective effort but once we surrender it to the audience, then it is theirs. When the audience see it, they have their interpretations and my journey ends there. As far as ‘Koode’, it is a far more intimate film when compared to an ensemble kind. The whole film is centred within a man, Joshua, and his character holds
precedence over every other character. The movie is about him and his journey – both within and outside, it’s about his mind’s voice, which was very interesting for me. Unlike my previous movies, Koode has one protagonist and yet, I had to keep it open to interpretation – to leave it to the audience to decide how they want to perceive the story. That was the fun part of making of Koode. I am far more interested in making films that can be interpreted.

When you were carrying, you wrote Ustad Hotel. Then, with a toddler, you did Bangalore days. Your son is six now, and we get ‘Koode’, how do you prioritise and strike a balance?
When I am not working, I am a very hands on parent and I am far more available. But when it comes to work, I am like that with my work too. The only way I can do that is by switching one on and the other off. What enables me to do that, is my family and my support system. When I am making a movie (which is not always), they understand that I need that level of support and they willingly extend it to me. It is a very tall order to keep everything in order. It is not like everyone has everything under control. It is also how we look at it. I think as children watch how dedicated their parents are towards their work, they do imbibe it from us. We are helping them learn that the juggling act is a part of
everybody’s life and the more we do it, the better we juggle.

With so many women coming into the film industry today, do you think things are looking up for WCC?

We have lived for a very long time with a certain kind of culture. So when change comes, it comes with a noise. I don’t think it has to be taken personally. I feel this is just a part of the evolution and we have to see the larger picture. Right now, the big focus is on gender and what is wonderful is that we have had people who have come out in the open and said that their work might have knowingly or unknowingly been biased. I think such people should be celebrated and that is the beginning of a big change.
What has been your biggest challenge as a film maker?
It is an utter pleasure to do what we are doing. The challenge is on an everyday basis where in, there is so much to learn, but so little time. It is a wonderful time to be in Malayalam cinema with so many inspiring filmmakers doing such great work. It is a constant challenge to reinvent oneself, to find new ways to say what you want to say. I am a person who believes that we should speak when we have something to say. As a writer, it starts from a personal space and it then goes out to a very public space. It is important to hold onto both and that I think is a constant challenge. It doesn’t become any easier with each film.

What is next? We hear you are into Cultural conservation…
Yes, I am getting into a story telling space. One segment of the project involves documentation of traditional narratives and stories. The other has story telling sessions for corporates and schools. We are hoping to get it up and running by the end of the year.

What would be your message to women who want to work but step back because of lack of courage or support?
I think everything begins from within you. It is important to believe in yourself, to be confident and have respect for one’s work. No one will believe in you as much as you yourself. It is always easy to blame others or the situation around you for not being able to reach your goal. But it should become important to your family or people around you, that you are happy and for that, you have to invest in people yourself. It is important to strike a balance, be it at work or at home.

Rapid Fire:
 My Mentor: Kavalam Narayana Panikkar
 One of my Favourite Movies: In the Mood for Love
 If I didn’t make films: Would be at a creative job
 My idea of a perfect holiday: Learning an unfamiliar culture
 I can’t resist: Good food!
 I detest: Incompetence
 My Biggest fear: Losing people I love
 I can’t do without: ‘Me’ time

 Best Compliment I received: This morning when Sachin Kundalkar said
he enjoyed my interpretation of ‘Koode’
 Happiness is: In the Moment
 Interests outside of movies: Dance, reading, travel and food