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Director Harikumar has kept himself busy. After 2017’s critically acclaimed Clint, the veteran behind the likes of Sukrutham, Ezhunnallathu and Swayamvara Panthal directed two films: Jwalamukhi with Surabhi Lakshmi; and Autorickshawkarante Bharya led by Suraj Venjaramoodu and Ann Augustine. The latter, coming soon to theaters, sees Ann Augustine return to the big screen after a brief hiatus. Speaking to Cinema Express, Harikumar spoke about the adaptation of the M Mukundan short story on which the film’s screenplay is based and the selection of Suraj and Ann as the story’s married couple.
Interestingly, the original name considered for the title role was Nimisha Sajayan. But since Suraj and Nimisha had previously traversed similar areas, Ann was chosen instead. When Harikumar first had Suraj in mind as a husband figure, he wasn’t a “big star”. Harikumar wanted an actor not associated with fame. He then witnessed the massive success of The Great Indian Kitchen and some of Suraj’s subsequent releases that elevated the actor’s status overnight. “During filming, I told Suraj that if I did the film now, I might have considered someone else,” says the director, adding that Suraj’s subtle acting skills worked in the character’s favor.
M Mukundan’s short story caught Harikumar’s interest when he stumbled upon it in a weekly newspaper. He felt it was ripe for a cinematic adaptation. But he also felt that the original story was short enough only for a short film or television series. He asked Mukundan to expand the material to make it more suitable for a feature film, which meant incorporating additional characters and subplots (Swasika Vijay plays in one of them). “Mukundan first suggested that I write it myself, but since I was particularly keen on shooting the film in Mahe (the film’s main location) and having the characters converse in the local dialect, I thought it wise to let him let the original author develop it instead,” says Harikumar. However, the dialect proved a challenge for Ann and Kerala State Award-winning voice actress Sneha, who lent her voice to Nimisha Sajayan in Eeda, was hired to do the dubbing.
Harikumar was drawn to the short story because, apart from its strongly female-centric narrative, he was amused by the characters and situations it contained. “It’s a very light-hearted story about a lazy, irresponsible auto rickshaw driver who is careless about life. He happens to be his mother’s only son, and his nature was the main reason for his delayed marital bliss. Then one day he gets married to Ann’s character. Suraj’s character is interesting because he’s the kind of guy who isn’t assertive. In one case, he does not even have the courage to collect the money owed him. In another, he stops to listen to a singer and worries his passenger who is in a hurry. Suraj has never made a character like this in his post-hero phase.”
The female empowerment aspect, Harikumar says, comes from Ann’s character taking the reins after a turning point in the story. “She has to take the auto rickshaw from her husband and do what he did. She entered his life with many expectations, but eventually realizes that things are going differently. She takes on her husband’s responsibilities and faces life head on.”
Harikumar directed Autorickshawkkarante Bharya after Surabhi LakshmiQ lead actress Jwalamukhi, which earned her the Kerala State Film Award for Best Actress last year. Harikumar calls it a “very personal film” with an experimental approach, something he hadn’t done before. “In terms of audio, it’s miles away from Autorickshawkkarante Bharya,” reveals the director. “It’s about a woman’s helplessness, while the latter is about a woman’s perseverance. I shot Jwalamukhi during the pandemic and sent it to festivals at home and abroad. It is based on a story my daughter, Geethanjali Harikumar, told me about a female gravedigger. She initially thought of making a documentary about Selina, a gravedigger from Ernakulam, but saw the potential for a film adaptation. There are few female gravediggers in India and I found this subject unique.”
Meanwhile, Harikumar’s daughter Geethanjali, who has completed her film studies and also works as a subtitler, plans to follow in her father’s footsteps. “She’s assisted quite a few directors, including me,” he says. “A lot of people advised her against doing films, but I wouldn’t do that because I’d been through it myself. Also, there are a lot of women filmmakers out there now, so I say why not?”
It has been four decades since Harikumar made his debut with Aambal Poovu with Sukumari and Jagathy Sreekumar. How does he see the changes the industry and moviegoers have gone through over the years? “Well, the most important thing is that filmmakers have to adapt to the changing times,” he replies. “You have to constantly update yourself. When I made Aambal Poovu, some considered it a ‘new generation’ film, but it wasn’t successful. The response from the theater was dismal, but feedback from certain quarters was very encouraging. So I had to make my subsequent films based on that strength. You know, I think about it a lot: Of all those who got into the industry at the same time as me, very few have made it through.”
As a huge fan of Harikumar’s Mammootty star Sukrutham (screenplay by MT Vasudevan Nair), I couldn’t help but ask him about the film that haunted me from my school days when I first saw it. Would audiences today go to theaters to watch such an intensely dark film, especially after the emergence of OTT platforms where such films are usually favored? “No, I don’t think they would. People have become wary of watching dark films in cinemas. Take Jwalamukhi for example. I know full well that they wouldn’t see it on the big screen because apart from having death as the main theme, it doesn’t have any major stars. But Autorickshawkkarante Bharya doesn’t have that problem,” he laughs. “People can enjoy it anywhere – theaters or OTTs.”
Autorickshawkkarante Bharya was directed by cinematographer Alakappan and edited by Ayub Khan and produced by KV Abdul Nazar under the Benzy Productions banner.