Dubai resident Joshy Mangalath rides a wave of success with Ottaal, his first script made into a film, bagging top honours.
A solitary ghaf tree in Karama, Dubai, has an unintentional role to play in shaping the cinematic career of Joshy Mangalath, who won India's top film laurel, the National Award, for best screenplay (adapted) this year for his first script made into a film, titled Ottaal. Directed by Jayaraj, Ottaal also won the Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation, the best film at the Kerala State Film Awards, and several more. This week, it clinched the Suvarna Chakoram at the International Film Festival of Kerala, the first time a Malayalam film has won the coveted laurel. It was also feted with the FIPRESCI, NETPAC and Audience Poll Awards.
A Dubai resident for nearly two decades, Joshy's tryst with script-writing was subliminally shaped under the ghaf tree, where he had held a long discussion with the late Dr. Muralikrishna, the author of Cinema - Video Technique, a book Joshy picked up from the neighbourhood book store.
An accomplished writer and a singer with several stage shows to his credit, Joshy was preparing to write his first script, one inspired by a terrible landslide in Kerala. He was moved not just by the personal tragedies but also at how man becomes helpless in front of nature's rampage.
The providential meeting with Dr. Muralikrishna gave him a burst of positive energy to write film scripts, says Joshy, who works as HR & Admin Manager with a multinational business entity in Dubai. He integrated the humanity versus environment theme against the backdrop of a maverick man he had heard of, one who used to walk around with a horse in a Kerala town.
Having admired director Jayaraj's works he reached out to him after completing the script. First cold-shouldered - perhaps being perceived as yet another film aspirant - Jayaraj was hooked when he finally got to read Joshy's creative work. While plans were afoot to make it into a movie, Jayaraj entrusted Joshy another task - a mammoth one. "He asked me to adapt Anton Chekhov's story Vanka, about an orphaned boy who works as a cobbler and his hardships. It was a big challenge, unthinkable if you may, but Jayaraj believed in me saying he liked the nature-and-man tussle in my earlier script."
Thus was seeded Ottaal (meaning a wicker basket for catching fish), a heart-wrenching tale narrated with endearing simplicity and none of the melodrama. (The film is available online on ReelMonk). Although born in Attingal, Joshy grew up in Kottayam and had visited Kuttanad, the rice-bowl of Kerala, several times. For Ottaal, he transported the milieu of Chekhov's story to Kuttanad, to depict the story of a grandpa, who rears ducks, and a little boy, whose debt-ridden parents had ended their life.
What makes the script - and the film - an accomplished classic is how it brings out multiple layers and sub-texts. On the face of it, it is about the relationship between the grandpa (played by Kumarakam Vasudevan, a fisherman with no acting experience, who was spotted by Jayaraj to lend authenticity to the role) and the boy (Ashanth). It is also a celebration of the pristine nature of Kuttanad. It is a take on environmental conservation. It is about the hypocrisies of the so-called rich. It is about child labour. It is about friendship. It is about rural communities and the innocence of childhood. It is also about hope.
Joshy says he wrote the script in just over a month, a thoroughly visual script with all the nuances. "Jayaraj has a spell-binding command on the craft and an eye for details. The film was shot in 16 days thanks to the brilliant leg-work and the chemistry between Jayaraj, the actors and the cinematographer MJ Radhakrishnan."
Shot on a modest budget, the film did not make any noise during its production or post-production. But in a jiffy, when the National Film Awards were being short-listed and Ottaal figured as a frontrunner, it became the talk of the town. Joshy, who was in Dubai when the National Award was announced, found camera crew camped by his house and received a hero's welcome in New Delhi when he went for the award ceremony. He says it was a seminal moment receiving the honour from the Indian president Pranab Mukherjee.
In New Delhi, he also found a real-life Vanka, on a visit to Sarojini Nagar in the guise of a tea-seller boy and his granddad; Joshy could do little else but thrust a wad of currency into the boy's pocket and watch him disappear into the darkness. An avid reader, Joshy believes that his extensive reading shaped his literary and cinematic sensibilities. He has also been fascinated by Iranian cinema and vouches for the evocative tales of Majid Majidi. He is also deeply inspired by the craft of Adoor Gopalakrishnan, citing Elippathayam and Kodiyettam as classics that brought out life's under-noticed facets.
With Ottaal, Joshy says his key learning was how to approach cinema as a true reflection of life - "and when that happens, the film will transcend all barriers. It will appeal to all generations; it will connect with all people. Ottaal underlined my belief that writing must be honest."
And that is what he intends to do in the future - to write scripts that are straight from the heart.