Kunchacko Boban, Mahesh Narayanan on Locarno Competition Title ‘Ariyippu’ (EXCLUSIVE)

Acclaimed filmmaker Mahesh Narayanan and popular actor-producer Kunchacko Boban are re-teaming for “Ariyippu” (“Declaration”), the first Indian film in Locarno’s international competition in 17 years.

The Malayalam-language film follows Hareesh (Boban) and Reshmi (Divya Prabha), an immigrant couple from Kerala working in a medical gloves factory near Delhi, who aspire to go abroad for a better life. During the COVID-19 lockdowns, when an old video resurfaces among the factory workers, it opens up a Pandora’s box that threatens the couple’s jobs and marriage.

Narayanan got the germ of the film’s idea from a newspaper article about a female bank employee who had approached the Mumbai high court demanding a “declaration” clarifying that a video which had been circulated in her bank was a look alike and not her. That idea travelled with Narayanan for a while until he hit upon the premise about a migrant couple working in a gloves factory.

This is Narayanan’s fourth film as director and though seemingly thematically different from each other, they are always based on personal struggle.

“Even though ‘Take Off’ was viewed as a rescue/survival drama, the story has other layers to it. It’s the story of a divorced nurse who tries to hide her pregnancy from her son from her first marriage. It itself had so many layers to tell where her son himself is questioning her motherhood. I often try to bring certain contemporary topics about what our country or region is going through. In that manner, the story will get more shades and relevance,” Narayanan told Variety. ” ‘Malik’ was viewed as gangster drama, but if you observe it closely, it’s about the resistance of marginalized communities fighting for the land they own. ‘C U Soon’ again was about the labor trap which still prevails in our society.”

“Here in ‘Ariyippu’ also, there is an issue which is still relevant among the labor class during these COVID times. So there is some kind of thematic similarity in all these films,” adds Narayanan. “My form is somewhat deeply influenced by a way of documentary filmmaking. That can be called a conscious choice, as it has got more connectivity to people. With ‘Ariyippu,’ I have tried to push myself a little more than my regular space of mid-stream cinema. Even though the story is relatable to common people, I didn’t want to corrupt it with regular dramatic twists and turns.”

Narayanan is one of the renaissance men of Indian cinema. Besides writing and directing, he debuted as a cinematographer with “Malayankunju” and is also a veteran editor with more than 60 film credits, many of which starred Boban. Narayanan’s directorial debut “Take Off” featured Boban in a pivotal role. For “Ariyippu,” Boban also serves as producer via his Kunchako Boban Productions, the first one under the banner. Producers also include Boban’s famed family studio Udaya Pictures, Narayanan’s Moving Narratives and Shebin Backer, who co-produced “Take Off.”

“Mahesh has happened to edit more films that I’ve starred in, than any other actor and so he has been someone who has encouraged, supported and persuaded me to try out different kinds of movies and characters, to keep breaking stereotypes,” Boban told Variety. “Naturally then, when we decided to produce a movie together, we wanted to make a movie which would be memorable and make us proud.”

“The character of Hareesh is one of the most intense roles that I’ve done in my career. ‘Ariyippu’ is a marital drama that simultaneously deals with the protagonists’ personal issues as well as a scam that’s going on at their workplace, which affects both of them,” adds Boban. “The kind of emotional turmoil these characters are going through was so intense that even after the day’s shoot, I’d be totally exhausted and drained when I got back to my room. It was nothing like some of the clichéd characters I might have portrayed in some of my earlier films as Mahesh was hell bent on showing me in a different light. The character of Hareesh has so many shades and layers that it has become one of the most exciting roles in my career where I was able to reinvent and remould myself to get under the skin of such a complex character, the likes of which I have never got to attempt before and kudos to Mahesh for making this possible.”

“As a large portion of the film’s narrative takes place during a few intense days and sleepless nights for my character, I cut down on my sleeping hours to four or less and also skipped my exercise regimen to develop a paunch,” says Boban. “I also felt that I carried the pulsating emotions of my character Hareesh with me throughout the shooting schedule, whether on or off camera, which made it a truly memorable experience for me as an actor.”

Next up for Boban as a producer and actor is “Nna Thaan Case Kodu” (“Sue Me”), directed by Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval; a political thriller directed by Tinu Pappachan; “Padmini” by Senna Hegde; and a project that will reunite him with his “Anjaam Pathiraa” director Midhun Manuel Thomas.

Narayanan has “Phantom Hospital,” based on the research of Indian journalist Josy Joseph on a medical scam, in development.

“To showcase my film in a premiere festival before its release was always an ambition for me. That finally happened in ‘Ariyippu.’ I am really happy that the Locarno selection committee picked this film, understanding its relevance and values,” says Narayanan.

“This is absolutely huge for us. To get such a launching pad for our film has also resulted us in getting invitations to many other festivals across the world,” adds Boban. “We are extremely happy, proud and honestly even relieved that the efforts that we’ve put in with a great deal of passion and commitment, is bringing in such good results. It is mind-blowing and so surreal, I’m just really grateful for it all.”

“Ariyippu” premieres Aug. 4.

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