For his fourth feature film, Life Is All About Friends (UNNI), a French/British/Indian co-production of Patou Films, Flying Elephant Films, and Maya Films, writer-director Murali Nair cast four boys in the main roles — Master Ajith, Master Sarath, Master Likhil, and Master Noble. They are all students at Sree Krishna High School where he himself once studied.
When the camera takes us to Alathur village, to the film’s location in southern India, we discover the boys pulling pranks on their teachers and classmates, spying on girls, ditching class, and boxing or wrestling at every opportunity. But we also find them empathizing with each other despite their parents, who saddle them with shame and grief in an otherwise free and stimulating world. A magic show, a local festival, and a special day at the movies show us the wonder of their would-be paradise.
I interviewed Murali Nair after a screening of Life Is All About Friends (UNNI) at the 2007 Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles.
Diane Sippl: Can you describe the region where UNNI takes place?
Murali Nair: It’s shot in central Kerala, a small state in the south of India between the mountains and the sea. Kerala is different from the rest of India because there are lots of old communities there that are very interested in education. Kerala is a state where there is a 100 % literacy rate, and in general the public is very aware of social issues. Schools throughout India are comprised of many, many cultures, because India’s a huge subcontinent. But you can only represent one place at a time. My film shows village life where I come from, then and now. UNNI is based on my memories, even if none of the scenes in the film is totally true.
Diane: Are any of the children in your film professional actors?
Murali: None of them had acted in films before, but I gave them extensive training for two months before we began shooting.
Diane: UNNI is set largely within a school and its immediate surroundings. How did you choose this location?
Murali: Alathur Lower Primary School, near Kodakara in the Thrissur District of Kerala, is a municipal government school, one of the few places in Kerala where the state school was much better than the private schools. We all went to the same school — all social classes and castes — and everyone respected the teachers and wanted to become one. This school is about five miles from where I went to school, 25-30 years ago. The people all know you there. The same tables and chairs are there as were used then. I didn’t specify a time period in my film. The area is immune to changes, yet we enjoyed an immense freedom, and I hope life will go on there like this for another hundred years.
Diane: How did you become a filmmaker?
Murali: I grew up in a small village in Kerala where my parents are farmers. I got my Masters degree and became a geologist, so I traveled over lots of India, into different religious and tribal areas, but I felt a bit cut off, since I was a very sociable person. I thought filmmaking would give me job satisfaction by letting me express myself.
I took a short course in filmmaking, but it didn’t satisfy me. Yet in Bombay I found the opportunity to work with a Hindi film director as his 3rd Assistant Director. I had studied in my mother tongue, Malayalam, and even though now I know four languages, I didn’t know Hindi when I went to Bombay
Diane: Did your family support you?
Murali: Well, my family found filmmaking to be not so useful; farmers work around the clock, and they saw filmmakers as frolicking their time away. So I didn’t communicate with my parents for two years. I was embarrassed — they didn’t know I was working on films. That man who employed me as a 3rd A.D. when I didn’t even know his language became my mentor. To make a Hindi commercial film in Bombay in those days took a long time, about three years. I went with this director to do the shooting in Darjeeling.
Diane: How does UNNI compare to your earlier films?
Murali: It’s not similar in style and content to the others; rather, it has its own development. The first three were all political, like humanist novels. I’ve always been political. Those earlier films were a bit surreal.
Diane: What filmmakers or models for production inspired you?
Murali: I don’t believe that each film should have a traditional plot, a Hollywood-style story arc, with a beginning, a middle, and an end that brings a resolution of the conflict. My films are about my understanding, my abilities, my weaknesses, who I am. You can’t hide this. It just all comes out.
So filmmaking for me is not about family or money or a set approach, but about expressing my emotions. My influences from world cinema are negligible. My films come from my life — my experiences, needs, impressions. I do love Bresson’s films very much, though.
Diane: What are the backgrounds of the main characters in UNNI?
Murali: The boy named Unni comes from the upper-class caste, the Nair community. The black boy, Gopi, comes from fishermen; in general they are the lower caste throughout India. The fat boy is Catholic. The shortest one (the darkest one) is also from a lower caste. The ethnicities in my film are not equal. These kids see their own skin color in the mirror every day as they grow up, and that image really controls their development.
Diane: Did you experience stigmas of race or social class or ethnicity as you came of age?
Murali: Kerala, on the southwestern tip of India, has a long tradition of mixed cultural influences. By 52 AD we already had Christianity. Then the Jewish and Islamic cultures entered the area, and we had all three. In 1947 India won its independence from the British and a few years later we saw the rise of Communism, which flourished from 1951-1954. Feudal farmers had lots of wealth, and it was taken from them. We dropped our sir names that designated social castes, such as “Nair.”
Diane: How do you feel about those times?
Murali: This was a very progressive era. A big effort was made toward building up libraries; literature was translated from everywhere in the world. Hospitals and schools were developed to such a level that people who trained and studied there then went all over the world to work and advance their fields. Movements emerged for literary and scientific advancement. Live theater really took off, and cine-clubs sprang up. Just as the French are still living from the benefit of the summer of 1968, we Malayalis are living from the benefit of the first communist government!
Diane: Did you join the cine-clubs then?
Murali: From the 1950s through the mid-1980s (when I was 21 years old), the culture really blossomed. Yet in my childhood I wasn’t allowed to practice any of the arts or do any recreational reading at home. My parents considered it loafing, a waste of time. I was permitted to see one movie per month. Absolutely no TV was allowed in our home until the late ‘80s. Television wasn’t introduced to India widely until then. Meanwhile, with the same atmosphere you see in my movie, where they gather to look up at the big screen, we had film clubs. Costa-Gavras and Godard were household words.
Diane: These are quite politically-minded filmmakers.
Murali: We had a Green-style alternative farming movement, and I went through all the different stages of Communism in the early ‘80s. From 1981 to 1986, my years at the university, there was lots or organizing — the students and the farmers still have unions — and there were lots of strikes. I particularly remember one incident of my college days. Once I belonged to the SFI (Student Federation of India) and we held a long strike in Kerala. These were very common. They tried to privatize the medical universities.
But then it seemed that politics was kind of cheating people; the Communists suddenly shut down our strike and called us back. I led a more radical strike for three days, and it brought me to doom. I carried it on through the Greens with friends, on the model of One-Straw Revolution, an organic farming experiment described in this Japanese book.
Diane: So would you say your screenwriting model came from political books?
Murali: At the time, literature was thriving in Kerala. Legend of Khasak was a book anyone in Kerala read. O.V. Vijayan was my biggest influence; he wrote a great short story called “Wart,” and I made a film based on it. Vijayan was also a very good political cartoonist.
Diane: What kinds of devilment attracted you? The boys in your film are fairly precocious.
Murali: There is a culture gap between Kerala and the rest of India because of Kerala’s political orientation and reputation. At the same time, Kerala’s culture is regarded as high on sexuality by the rest of India. But in Kerala we were never shy about sex, trying to hide it. In the rest of India, all hell would break loose over these attitudes, but in Kerala we accept them. Maybe that’s a result of the extremely mixed, old culture without any one rigid religion or ethnicity, even regarding the use of the veil. In Kerala we have been very open and very tolerant for a very long time.
Diane: Some of the boys in your film wear markings on their faces. Do these come from Hindu practices?
Murali: Well in Hindu philosophy, there are many gods, gods for everything. Three primary ones are the trinity of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva. The upper class designated Brahma as the god of creativity. Vishnu, created by the people in business and commerce, is the merchant god, protecting all. Shiva is the god of killing. While he is temperamental, he’s also a cool guy, he’s amazing — he drinks, smokes, eats anything (which is not allowed for other gods); he can do whatever he wants. He dances a lot, in many forms.
And there are four castes in India: priests (who might worship Brahma or Vishnu or Shiva); merchants (who worship mostly Vishnu); warriors (who might worship any god); and menials (who worship no one; they have no god — they are “born to be kicked”). Menials try to worship Shiva, and whoever does so might wear white powder on the face, which is ash. The boys in the film wear it for the festival held in the temple just before the movie is shown.
Diane: I seem to recall seeing Shiva in UNNI’s film-within-the-film.
Murali: The film that the school children go to see in UNNI is Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, based on stories they read for fun that they check out from the children’s section of the library. That very old film stars Kamal Hassan, a big South Indian actor from the ‘60s and ‘70s. There’s a Shiva scene in the film even though the story is about Aladdin.
Diane: Are these old films ever shown in commercial theaters in Kerala?
Murali: There is still no cinema theater in my village today. When someone wants to show a film, they borrow a 16 mm print and a projector from the next town and gather everyone to see the film outside.
Diane: Where does the dance come from that the boys do near the end of your film?
Murali: Their performance looks a bit rap-style, but it uses a new rhythm that has been developed recently in Kerala. I wrote the words for the chant. The instrument that the boy plays is a chenda — a cylindrical drum; we say, “you can hit it on both sides and it won’t cry.” It is used at some temples, but others have used the same instrument outside the temple and changed the rhythm and the way they play it, making it more stylistic and theatrical. The chenda has traditionally been played standing in a static position, using lots of repetition, but we made it more mobile, with gestures and dance movements and words of our own.
Diane: After the LAIFF, you’re traveling to Cannes. What will happen there?
Murali: My first film, Throne of Death, won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1999. Then I made my second film, The Dog’s Day, with my own money. My third film, The Wart, was a co-production between Japanese TV (NHK) and Indian (NFDC). All three were shown in the official section at Cannes. UNNI, my fourth film, took me back to France for a co-production. My co-producer was Jean Roke Patoudem. It’s the first film in a trilogy, but I’ll make other films in-between.