I have always been inspired by art of storytelling in Iranian cinema: Filmmaker Ajay Govind

Ajay Govind’s film ‘Madappally United,’ which has created lot of buzz at film festival circuit all across globe, was recently selected as best fiction at 51st Roshd International Film Festival

I have always been inspired by art of storytelling in Iranian cinema: Filmmaker Ajay Govind
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Murtaza Ali Khan

Indian filmmaker Ajay Govind’s Malayalam film ‘Madappally United,’ which has created a lot of buzz at the film festival circuit all across the globe, was recently selected as best fiction at the 51st Roshd International Film Festival in Tehran, bagging the Golden Statuette at Iran’s prestigious film festival. Earlier, the film had also won the Jury Award for Best Family Film at the Indian Film Festival of Cincinnati as well as the award for the Best Film With a Social Message at the Kenya International Sports Film Festival, among others.

Govind’s second feature, ‘Madappally United’ has cricket as its central theme and features 45 debutants along with senior actors like Srikanth Murali, Savithri Sreedharan. Set in a small coastal town, it follows a group of children, 7 boys and 4 girls, who set out eagerly to play cricket on a lazy Saturday morning, completely unaware of the machinations that await them thanks to the larger forces at play.

In this interview, Ajay Govind talks about winning the Golden Statuette at the 51st Roshd International Film Festival in Iran, the creative vision behind making a children’s film centered on cricket, challenges of working with child actors, and the thought behind the references to Virat Kohli and MS Dhoni in the film.

Excerpts

Q1. Madappally United has been winning a lot of accolades. It recently won the Golden Statuette at the 51st Roshd International Film Festival in Iran. Multiple wins and nominations later, how is this one special?

A. It’s a humbling experience to win the Golden Statuette at the 51st Roshd International Film Festival in Iran. Now, awards and festival selections are always a great validation, but to win at Iran’s oldest film festival is indeed very special. I have always been inspired by the storytelling in Iranian cinema, especially films centered on children. So, I couldn’t have asked for more than a selection and top award at a festival that celebrates films with education values. Madappally United (MU) was always devised as an entertaining story that packs in some important points of conversation. There is a lot to learn from the way children would be, if left to their own devices without adult interference. Interference is very different from guidance or supervision. The way children approach conflict and look to resolve conflicts; their ability to empathize and share, and their enthusiasm to have fun with whatever resources are at their disposal. Can adults do any of this without complicating it and making it seem like a burden?

Q2. Aasif Karim, the Festival Director of Kenya International Sports Film Festival and the former cricket captain of Kenya, has described the film as ‘important’ in his citation. How do you look at acclaim that the film has been receiving internationally?

A. I feel it’s not surprising that a sportsperson like Mr. Karim found that the film spoke about an ‘important’ issue. But I must say that the win at a sport films festival is encouraging because our film isn’t a typical sports film about teams competing or winning etc. It’s about just wanting to play. The right to play, having access to safe spaces to play, and sports education are, after all, important themes. I don’t think there are many films that talk about disappearing safe spaces where children can play. Adults have a lot to say about children’s screen time increasing, but what really is the alternative? In India, especially, are sports really encouraged beyond the inter-institutional competition framework? In addition to what Mr. Karim said, it’s also exciting that festivals in the US, Kenya, and India are talking about the relevance of the theme of the film. I think these awards are a reflection of the fact that this core theme resonates with people and is universal.

Q3. How did you realise the project?

A. The project came together as a result of multiple factors. First, my interaction with the children and others at the Madappally School and neighboring areas. In 2019, I was shooting a documentary for UL Foundation to capture the work they had done with the students there. The foundation’s involvement and seeing the way the kids were gave me that initial confidence to transpose a story I had already conceptualized. The second critical step was getting the first co-producers on board which included Ashok Franklin and producer-director Jonathan Augustin. And the third critical step was to bring the talented actor and casting director Rajesh Madhavan on board. He is responsible for us finding the amazing new talents as well as other key cast members. The rest was fueled by the energy and drive of a team that has been a solid pillar of support for so many of SRF’s independent projects.

I have always been inspired by art of storytelling in Iranian cinema: Filmmaker Ajay Govind
I have always been inspired by art of storytelling in Iranian cinema: Filmmaker Ajay Govind

Q4. You have worked with 45 debutant actors in the film. How challenging was it to prepare these young newcomers for their respective parts?

A. It was surprisingly easy to work with the debutante child actors. I remember senior actors in the film like Srikant Murali, who is also a director, being very impressed with them. I think the key challenge working with children is to direct their energies. Once you do that, then you can direct their performance. One of the ways in which I did that was by involving them in the writing process. I organized a workshop where they engaged with the scenes, named their own character… things like that. At the same time, I never revealed the entire screenplay to them. They just need to know bits and pieces that they have to perform. This cue was in fact given to me by Rajesh who has worked with first time actors earlier. So, for the kids it was a constant guessing game. Why are we in a police station? Did someone die? What happened? On the other hand, it helped that most of the adult debutants came with a strong theatre background so the challenges were more technical and to some extent about modulating their performance for screen versus the stage.

Q5. While cricket is an important element of MU, the film also offers a strong social commentary. Tell us about the creative thought behind why you chose to delve into the very many complexities of human psyche in a children’s film about cricket.

A. MU was never really about one thing. Like all films, it was a lot of different elements packed into one narrative. And I think the journey motif allows for that to happen easily. Cricket, as it happened, was just incidental to the story. Dr. Ratee Apana, the Executive Director of the Indian Film Festival of Cincinnati had made a very interesting observation about the film. She said she saw the film as a “snapshot of our lives”. And that’s really what it is. Our childhood shapes so many of our notions and beliefs that are central to us as adults. The things that make adults take each other to court, what did they mean to us when we were kids? We were able to imagine and create solutions. We were able to move on. In a way, precisely because these are such weighty issues and complex problems, it was important to pack them into a simple story about a group of kids going out to play with a new cricket kit.

Q6. You have made references to Virat Kohli and Dhoni in the film. Was there a thought behind assigning favorites to some of the characters?

A. Well, sporting heroes are sporting heroes for all of us. Kohli was especially important to mention because he was part of a #LetKidsPlay campaign which came out around the time I was writing MU. The character of Apoos mimicking Dhoni’s match-winning speech was again just a very real moment that most kids can relate to. Additionally, having posters of sports heroes is such a common thing with kids. So, it also became important from an art direction perspective, when we were looking to dress up the houses of some of the kids. There’s also a scene where the girls are unable to recollect the name of the women’s cricket team captain. Sadly, that’s as realistic as the rest of it.

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