Berlinale 2016 Winner: Filmmaker Jayaraj on Making ‘Ottaal’
A still from Jayaraj’s <i>Ottaal</i>
A still from Jayaraj’s Ottaal

Berlinale 2016 Winner: Filmmaker Jayaraj on Making ‘Ottaal’

Jayaraj Rajasekharan Nair’s Ottaal (The Trap, Malayalam) has won the Crystal Bear given by the Berlin Film Festival’s Generation Kplus Children’s Jury. Unfortunately, the director could not be present in Berlin, but the award was collected by producers K Mohanan and Vinod Vijayan, and Ashanth K Sha, the lovely child protagonist of Ottaal, to a rousing applause from the audience. The film is a lyrical portrait of a childhood robbed by child labour.

The jury citation read, “This exceptional movie touched us all with its irresistible images of nature, laid-back music and amazingly gifted actors. The unique way of filming certain details blew us away. We think it’s important that such a sad and serious topic be tackled in a movie though the film also managed to capture the humour and joy of life.”

Ottaal, an adaptation of Anton Chekhov’s Vanka, is about the tender relationship between a young boy and his grandfather, set in Kerala’s backwaters. The boy’s parents are farmers who have committed suicide because of debt, and the grandfather is forced to sell the child as child labour to a fireworks factory, as he is ill and won’t live long. But the film rises above the issue with a haunting, exquisitely photographed, lyrical portrait of childhood. The much-awarded director, who has directed over 40 films in a 23-year career, talks to The Quint from Kottayam.



A still from Jayaraj’s <i>Ottaal</i>.
A still from Jayaraj’s Ottaal.
How does it feel to win the Crystal Bear in Berlin for Ottaal, your third film at the Berlin Film festival?
This is unbelievable, I dedicate the award to my mother, who passed away recently. The award is very unexpected,though I knew that the three screenings had been very well received. Berlin is a great festival and I am very happy to win there. I’m sorry I could not personally collect the award, as I am in the middle of shooting for my next film Veeram, but I hope to be in Berlin with Veeram. The first time I went to Berlin, it was winter and from the air, I could see the ground covered with snow. I attended the European Film Market and was amazed by how many possibilities there are for a filmmaker to sell his film to the world. People took films very seriously and applauded at the right places. Karunam had full house audiences, people were touched and there were good questions during the Q/As. I even sold the film after the festival, and the film was released around Germany. It was made on a very low budget and for one or two years after that, I kept getting money as the film kept travelling. After Karunam, I felt my films were not good and after a long time, with Ottaal, the film seems to have touched hearts.


A still from Jayaraj’s <i>Ottaal</i>.
A still from Jayaraj’s Ottaal.
Ottaal is a lyrical, very low-budget beauty. How did you pull it off?
You don’t need money to make a good film! Ottaal’s budget was so low, I recovered the full budget with just the award money so far, even before Berlin.When a producer gives me money, I’m afraid of the pressure; you are distracted from the important things. Money is a burden, of course! How did Ray make Pather Panchali? He struggled to make the film, and it is the ultimate film. Pain is a driving force to write well; pain is needed to guide you to the right thing. Surrounded by luxury, you can’t write as well.


A still from Jayaraj’s <i>Ottaal</i>.
A still from Jayaraj’s Ottaal.
What was your vision of how you would shoot it?
The film is about a tragedy of a child forced to do labour, who is writing a letter to his grandfather. Rather than emphasise the tragic reality, I preferred to show how the boy was missing the beauty of life and his childhood. Nature is influencing the boy. He is missing an education, yet living in the glorious beauty of life. Kuttanad is the only beautiful part left of the backwaters, with migratory birds and duck farmers. I wanted to connect more emotionally than visually with the audience. The response in the Kerala theatres was very bad, but I had a simultaneous online and theatrical release, and online is picking up. It is an experimental film in that it is set in reality, does not have mainstream elements like song and dance, and is 90 minutes duration. I was sure, if I give the film 100%, there will be awards. But it is ironic: If the film gets an award, the audience will run away; they should flock to see an award-winning film.


A still from Jayaraj’s <i>Ottaal</i>.
A still from Jayaraj’s Ottaal.
What were the challenges of adapting Anton Chekhov’s short story Vanka for a feature set in Kerala’s Kuttanad?
Vanka was a short story, so in fact, it was very liberating. I took the emotion from the short story and created a bigger canvas, where the boy writes a letter to his grandfather, complaining about the difficult life in the factory, and posts the letter to his grandfather without a proper address. His innocence was important to the film, and I emphasise the element of hope. Joshy Mangalath wrote the screenplay and I wrote the dialogues. He’s a nature lover, and for me, that was more important than even his writing skills. I am very inspired by classics like Bicycle Thieves and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. We connect with the films’ emotions even today.
What was your brief to the brilliant cinematographer MJ Radhakrishnan?
The film is about the tragedy of child labour, but I was very clear the cinematographer should focus not on the tragic part of his life, but on the beautiful part of his life that he misses. Secondly, we never really planned the shoot. At 5.45 am we would board a small boat. Every day nature offered us different visuals that we had not even planned. There were water lilies, migratory birds, grey clouds—all the contribution of nature.


A still from Jayaraj’s <i>Ottaal</i>.
A still from Jayaraj’s Ottaal.
So, much of the shoot was spontaneous?
Five days before the shoot, I did not even have my cast finalised. But I was absolutely sure they would come to me, that locations would be found, if I was open to it, and I did not worry. I give full credit to nature and to my actors. I was only an organiser of the film. We found Ashanth K Sha so unexpectedly. I was visiting a friend in Kochi, when Ashanth and his father, also an actor, coincidentally visited him. The grandfather, Kumarakom Vasudevan, is a fisherman. I asked if he would act, and he said if you pay me, I will do anything you want. We went for lunch to a toddy shop, and I invited a character from there to act in my film. Even the Nameless Dog in the film was a stray dog who joined us and who acted very nicely. We did a lot of candid camera. I am very influenced by Paolo Coelho’s The Alchemist. When you do something wholeheartedly and without any (ulterior) motive, all nature will support you.

(Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist.)

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