Akhil Paul Interview – From being another middle-class boy to becoming a filmmaker
Nearly a decade ago, Akhil Paul was any other middle-class boy with dreams in his eyes about a future in the movies, pursuing his Mechanical engineering course. Opening himself to films from various languages and genres, he was clear about his tastes and the stories he wanted to tell in the future. The release of Prithviraj’s Seventh Day proved that here was a youngster with a clear head and possessed the knack to tell layered stories. Cut to 2020, the Malayalam film Forensic saw him up the ante as he co-directed and wrote it with his college mate Anas Khan. Post the unanimous reception to the thriller, his joy knew no bounds. While the film’s theatrical run was contrived owing to the pandemic, he’s excited to witness the reception for Forensic among digital platform audiences. The youngster discusses Forensic and a lot more in this interview with LetsOTT.com …
After debuting as a writer with Seventh Day, it took almost six years for you to write your second film and even co-direct it. Where were you all these years?
I took up my MBA course in Marketing and the course got completed only in 2019. While pursuing my MBA, I and the co-director, writer of Forensic, Anas Khan prepared a script that we would eventually narrate to Mammootty. He was completely impressed with the script and incidentally, the first person to suggest that we had the skill to direct the movie together. The movie though didn’t materialise because of budget and locational issues. Tovino (Thomas) has been a good friend of mine ever since we associated for "Seventh Day" in 2014. We both came from middle-class families, had parents who were teachers, finished engineering and pursuing a career in films unsure of our future - our struggles, aspirations were relatively similar. He always kept telling me that he is yet to do a film in the thriller genre, during which I and Anas had narrated a one-liner in the psycho-thriller space (this was even before Ratsasan released). He was excited about the idea in the latter part of 2019 and that’s when Forensic came into being.
Directorial duos are a rarity in the film industry, a handful of them who made a mark include Abbas-Mustan, Krishnan-Panju, Sajid-Farhad and Raj-DK. You and Anas Khan truly entered an exclusive league…
I and Anas were students of Mechanical Engineering at TKM College of Engineering and passed out in 2012 as graduates. It has been a 12-year journey and it’s the biggest advantage we had as a director duo. We have been thick friends and had an amazing rapport, discussing movies – what we liked and disliked, regularly travelling to the railway station, going near the Kollam beach among many things we did together. Our families are very close to each other, we faced ups and downs together when the Mammukka film couldn’t work out. It’s quite easy to communicate with him because we’re best friends, just like I’m with Tovino. It’s all the more gratifying sharing the success of Forensic with two friends.
How similar or different are your sensibilities as writers/directors?
Despite being good friends, our tastes in filmmaking are vastly different. While working together on a sequence, the different approaches were of great help. We both write every sequence individually – that’s the reason we had almost three or four versions of every scene in Forensic. It made our job easier to pick the best of everything and present them in the final sequence. There was no ego – even if we had arguments, it was for a common intention to make a good film.
Forensic is a riveting thriller without a doubt, but don’t you think you could have approached the child-psychopath angle in the story more seriously?
We thought of such an angle initially but we already received considerable criticism about the excessive violence in Forensic. We were not so confident in pursuing that idea to the next level. That’s the reason we played it up till interval and focused on the mind games of the hero-villain equation later. While releasing the film on an OTT platform though, we are excited to listen to what audiences have to say to us about the child-psychopath killer possibility in the story. It’s not an angle that any mainstream Indian film has delved into.
The flashback in the final stretch of the film exploring the psychopath’s backstory received considerable criticism. Did you foresee such a response?
I was very convinced about the flashback from the time we wrote it. We expected the criticism from what we heard during our preview shows as well. I made my point clear with the note we put at the very beginning of the film, “Psychopath crime doesn't have any motive, the crime itself is his motive!” Keeping aside the flashback and the revenge aspects we’ve shown in the final stretch, it’s quite obvious that the killer has been a psychopath since his childhood. Those who didn’t like the flashback segment are the set of viewers who’re seeing Forensic as a mere revenge story. However, the bigger point we’re trying to make is that the character is already a psychopath – he was merely triggered by Mamtha Mohandas’ character. In real life, a psychopath needn’t necessarily have a revenge angle to go about his killings.
It’s quite surprising that not many films have delved into a thriller through the eyes of a forensics department official…
Yes, that’s what excited us the most. "Seventh Day" too is a crime drama at its core but is packaged as an investigative thriller told through the eyes of a cop (though the climax twist completely changes that perspective too). When we were discussing this psycho-thriller story (Forensic), I told Anas that I was getting repetitive in exploring a crime from the perspective of the police department yet again. While doing our research, we realised that no Malayalam thriller was made revolving around the Forensic Department, which gave an edge to our idea. We went to Kerala Police Headquarters, Forensic Science Laboratory, talked to cops and scientists and gathered enough information for the movie.
Did the writer-director transition come to you naturally?
It would be a genuine answer to say that it came to me naturally. While writing the screenplay and dialogues, I can do justice only when I understand the mood of the film well – be it the visual tone, the lighting, the place, its atmospherics and the music. Having been someone who has never gone to any filmmaking school, I understood screenwriting from the films I have watched. I really knew that the detailing and nuances of the craft mattered.
In my brief career, while I was narrating scripts to Prithviraj, Mammukka or Tovino, I told them the movie through the shots, the use of slow motion, the sounds, the way the character walks – Mammukka had told me that this is exactly the knowledge one needed to make a film too. The script narration for Forensic was no different, I had written the entire film (including the minor sequences) and visualised in the form of shots and explained it to my producers. It’s a process that gave clarity to the producers and made me feel confident as well.
The biggest strength of Malayalam cinema besides its writing has been the fact that its actors have maintained a fine balance between mainstream/masala films and story-driven outings. It widens the scope for writers to conceive newer stories. Doesn’t it?
It’s a relief for young directors and writers like us that we don’t need to be restricted to a particular genre or force an introduction song while making a film with superstars like Prithviraj, Mammootty, Mohanlal or even Tovino. We don’t need to follow a specific pattern in the Malayalam industry at all. They have always been open to all kinds of sensibilities and roles. I don’t see it as a recent development either. Mohanlal and Mammootty in the past have done with films with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Padmarajan while being part of mainstream projects helmed by Priyadarshan and Joshi. It’s also an exciting prospect for an actor to do genres and themes that have never been done before – it works both ways (for the writer and the actor/star).
Do OTT platforms deserve the credit for pushing the reach of Malayalam cinema to newer quarters?
You are really right and it’s easier to discuss this through Forensic. The film had released on February 28 and went onto collect Rs 18 crores in its 11-day theatrical run. Nearly Rs 15 crore was earned from theatres within Kerala and the rest was through the release in other parts of the country/world. This pandemic is the greatest crisis a filmmaker could face without finding an avenue to showcase their work. The OTT platforms are a terrific resource in this hour and I can’t wait to see what the audience has to say about the film when it releases in May on Amazon Prime Video. Tovino, my entire team and I are very excited and thankful to this platform.
You’ve hinted at a sequel to Forensic in your previous interviews. Would you want to explore a crime angle from a different department (now that you’ve done it through cops and forensic teams)?
My idea is to still use the forensic science angle in a different case. Tovino was even suggesting if we could continue the story in the OTT platforms as a web series. We are still thinking about how to explore the possibility of a sequel for Forensic through the characters played by Mamtha Mohandas and Tovino. If given a chance, I may even opt for a child-serial killer angle on a deeper level in the web-series format because digital platforms give that liberty. I hope to make something that we haven’t attempted before.