Nearly five years ago, Mahesh Narayanan read a new report about a female bank employee moving Bombay High Court seeking a legal declaration that the woman in a certain viral video was someone who happened to be her look-alike. The applicant went through body-mapping and other troubles to procure this document. This incident and the judge’s amused remark about someone seeking such a document stayed with Narayanan. During the pandemic, after visiting some gloves factories in Cochin, the writer-director thought of developing the script of Ariyippu by merging the story of the woman applicant with that of the stark factory setting.
“Getting to know the working conditions of the employees in these factories where they work in multiple shifts and deal with bulk orders, worked as a trigger. Certain workers shared the story of their colleagues migrating to Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand. They usually go to Delhi, where they find temporary jobs and initiate the visa process. I thought of clubbing these two stories,” says Narayanan, an editor-turned-director.
With Ariyippu (Declaration), his fourth feature film as a director, Narayanan is reunited with his previous collaborators, actors Kunchacko Boban and Divya Prabha, who play the lead characters Hareesh and Reshmi, respectively. Earlier this year, Ariyippu premiered at the Locarno Film Festival. The movie is currently streaming on Netflix. Set in a gloves factory on the outskirts of Delhi, the film’s story unfolds after a doctored video, which suggests Reshmi is performing a sexual act, is circulated in the WhatsApp group of workers. This comes as an additional setback for the couple, who after shifting from Kerala with the dream of immigrating to a foreign country found themselves stuck in their staid factory jobs when the pandemic broke out. When Hareesh files a complaint with the police regarding the video, it sets a chain of events in motion even as Reshmi struggles to cope with changes in the factory and her life.
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Narayanan, a long-time friend of Kunchacko, thought of casting him as Hareesh since the director loves to make the actor “do things that he has not tried before”. That apart, Narayanan says: “For Ariyippu, I needed relatable faces. That’s why I approached Divya too. When I put a person in a factory, the audience should find that person convincing.” The director made his actors go through the process of visiting certain factories and being trained in manufacturing gloves. “This experience eased their task of performing in front of the camera,” adds Narayanan, who chooses to work closely with his team.
The story of Ariyippu is set during the winter, the end of 2020 when Delhi’s outskirts look unwelcoming, deserted, grey, and cold. With the threat of Covid looming large, the cast mostly has their mask up. This made Narayan very particular about the eye movement of his actors. “Since our faces were covered in masks, we had to emote through our eyes. Mahesh asked me not to overdo my eye movement,” recalls Kunchacko. What helped both Kunchacko and Divya was that the film was shot in chronological order. “The wintry atmosphere, shooting in real houses and streets helped us. We could feel the ambiance and the moment. We could be true to the film’s emotions and soul,” says the actor of several acclaimed movies such as Nayattu (2021) and Pada (2022). The liberty of shooting chronologically is something Narayanan would like to have more often while making a movie unless it creates logistical problems.
Ariyippu, which was selected for the Locarno festival’s competition section, makes a powerful statement about the harassment of women and the attempt to suppress their voices, both at work and at home. Without being over-the-top it also explores the risk of being victim-shamed while seeking justice. Even though the doctored video targets Reshmi, she is made to undergo a medical check-up and police questioning, apart from being judged by her co-worker. With his male ego wounded, Hareesh see-saws between supporting Reshmi to doubting her. “I have tried to keep the characters grey. I don’t want viewers to follow only a certain character. Why can’t they follow both the leads and their journey,” says Narayan, its writer, and director.
The experience of working as a film editor for nearly 15 years has tremendously contributed to Narayan’s storytelling. “Writing remains my primary challenge. I like to narrate a proper script to the actors. Once the editing is done, I look at the movie with objectivity. It’s about re-looking and shuffling. My final draft (of my script) is done when my final edit is done. Until then, it’s fluid,” says the director of Take Off (2017), CU Soon (2020), and Malik (2021).
What makes the filmmaking process easier is the understanding that the team shares and the ecosystem they create together. Divya says she “trusts the team totally” while Kunchacko believes that Narayanan knows his “inside out”. The actor says, “I trust his process. Process means after you get the script, you build a perception regarding your character and work on your director’s inputs.” He adds that his rapport with Divya, who used to call him by his character’s name Hareesh, helped.
For Divya, who was cast for the first time in the lead role, it was not a difficult task because from the time she read the script, she imagined herself to be Reshmi. “I was able to feel Reshmi strongly. Her mannerisms are different from mine. But Reshmi resides in every woman. I could identify with her emotions as well as the stand she takes at her workplace and against her husband,” she says. Both Kunchacko and Divya — who found their roles “mentally and physically challenging” — were nominated for top acting award at the Locarno festival. This film was also a major step for Kunchacko towards shedding his “chocolate hero image”. That’s something he has been trying to do for a while.
In Ariyippu, some of the strong statements about morality, sisterhood, and compassion are unspoken. Instead of spelling out, the movie tries to remain rooted and honest to its surroundings, leaving to the audience to derive their takeaways. “The movie questions the characters’ inner thoughts. It creates drama with those nuances,” says Narayanan, and adds “Streamers have given us a lot of freedom. Filmmakers now don’t have to filter everything. They can choose to be more raw and sensitive.”