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‘What is it that YOU really want to do in life?”

When she was posed this question as a fresh, 19-year-old commerce graduate – on the cusp of embarking on a post-graduate degree in business management – Anjali Menon, acclaimed Indian filmmaker and winner of several national and international awards, recollects it was the first time she had to introspect on what she enjoyed doing.

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‘Until then, I was merely following the path I thought I should follow,’ says Anjali, who was in Dubai recently filming crucial scenes over two days for her new directorial venture, Koode, releasing today across India. ‘As a high academic achiever and having aced the aptitude tests for MBA, moving on to a field that would groom me to be part of the family business had seemed the right thing to do.’

It wasn’t until her father’s friend, with whom she shared a close bond, asked her to reevaluate her decision that Anjali realised ‘I had a choice in the matter.’

Fortunately, she didn’t have to ponder deep enough to arrive at an answer. ‘I was always interested in the creative arts,’ says Anjali, an alumnus of the Indian High School and Our Own English High School in Dubai. ‘Even as a nine-year-old, I had put up a play with friends, arranging all the props and costumes. Reading, writing and performing came so naturally to me that I spent more time on stage than in the classroom.’

‘‘Go the other way then, what are you doing here?’ was her uncle’s candid response. ‘It was he who nudged me in the direction of the path I have since chosen.’

Anjali then enrolled for a course in Communication Studies from Pune University. ‘Initially, there was a lot of resistance in the family,’ she remembers. ‘My parents thought this was just a passing fancy and when I began to take a definitive interest in filmmaking – one of the course modules, they began to worry! Ours was a business family; we had no film industry connections. So, for them, it was very difficult to understand where this new-found interest was coming from.’

But, for Anjali, having grown up on a treasure-trove of mythological stories that her mother narrated to her each day – ‘sometimes just to make me eat’ – it was fiction that she relied on to transport her to a magical world. ‘I have always been a dreamy child. I made up my own friends and my own stories and poems, immersing myself in this fantasy world of mine. Growing up in Dubai as a single kid, as my brothers were at boarding school, it was stories that gave me refuge. Filmmaking thus seemed a wonderful medium where all of my interests came together – the art of storytelling, performance, theatre, poetry, music….’

A course at the London Film School followed three years later – ‘a decision that was met with a lot of hesitation and misgivings”. Here, she gained exposure to every aspect of filmmaking, and honed her skills in writing and directing.

One of her most cherished moments, she says, came about when her film Black Nor White, which questioned the compromise of values and was set over the course of 24 hours, was chosen to be screened at the graduation ceremony. ‘My parents were present and as they watched it with me in the theatre and listened to the appreciation and applause that followed – I think that’s when they understood what this means to me; and how incredible the world of filmmaking was with its power to transform and inspire. Since that moment, I have received nothing but wholehearted support and encouragement from them.’

For Anjali, her family has always been her strength. ‘They are my pillars; my complete foundation comes from them. I wouldn’t be who I am today without their continued support.’

It is her parents that she credits for her exposure to the world of literature, arts and culture. ‘Growing up in Dubai, my parents were very keen that we were not deprived of the cultural values of my home country because of their decision to move away from India. During my school years here, I was trained in Indian classical music and dance; my mother initiated me to Sanskrit poems and literature through her vivid storytelling, and my father introduced me to Malayalam authors, poets and travel writers. They made more effort than other parents to create a cultural ecosystem around us that was vibrant with Indian ethos.’

But it was her upbringing in the UAE, she adds, that helped ‘in forming my world view, shaping my thoughts, and has had a pronounced influence on my stories and characters. I’ve grown up with a hybrid sensibility, identifying myself with different cultures. Yet, it is also an outsider’s view where you observe with a perspective that does not lie within the system, making it a more objective view.”

Calling herself a reverse migrant – someone who has lived most of her life abroad but consciously chose to go back and live in her home country, Anjali says the experiences of migrants is something that needs to be told. ‘We tend to belong to many places, but in reality, we don’t actually belong anywhere. This can give you a sense of rootlessness; but it also helps you to grow roots wherever you are. My childhood years in Dubai has shaped my consciousness and thinking because it is an amalgamation of so many cultures. I believe, wherever we are, it is important to hold on to our roots and at the same time imbibe from what we see around us.’

It was into this fountain of childhood memories and her unique experiences as a second-generation non-resident Indian that Anjali dipped her pen into while writing the script for her first feature film, Manjadikuru (Lucky Red Seeds). ‘Childhood was a subject close to my heart; and I was keen to make it in Malayalam, which meant the setting would be Kerala, a place that for me evokes memories of my childhood vacations.’

Told with utter simplicity and honesty, the film is viewed through the eyes of its 10-year-old protagonist who arrives in his homeland for his grandfather’s funeral. Juxtaposing his adult reflections with the childhood visual narrative, the story was themed on the rootlessness of migrant life, and a homecoming. The film, however, ran into trouble with its production partners and was called to a halt during the final stages of production. A condensed version of the film made its way to festivals where it struck a chord with people from diverse nationalities. ‘Though the story’s sensibility is very Indian, people told me how the movie made them weep, how it brought back memories of their own childhood.’

This emotional engagement of the audience, she says, has been her greatest reward. ‘My biggest thrill is when the emotional shift happens within a person who is watching it.’

Anjali’s style of storytelling with its simple, natural dialogue rendition, resonated with the audience the world over. Not many, however, knew that it was only during the making of Manjadikuru that Anjali learnt how to read and write Malayalam! ‘I think and write in English,’ she laughs. ‘The first draft is only for me; so, language is incidental at that point.’

Dialogues are written only after the location – and sometimes even the casting – is decided. ‘For me, location is important because that is where my characters live and this influences how they talk and what they do. Only when the entire backdrop is ready do I get a sense of what my characters will say for then they begin to speak to you.’

Incidentally, her scripts for both Manjadikuru and Ustad Hotel won the National Award for Best Screenplay while Bangalore Days won Best Screenplay at the state level.

In her new project Koode, Anjali has deliberately trimmed down the dialogues to a bare minimum. ‘Some of the actors were not even given a script while the lead actor had one in English. He knew what was to be said in every scene, but I wanted him to say it in his own words.’

Anjali believes it is as much the actor’s responsibility to create a character as it is that of the writer or director. ‘A character is created and shaped by the writer, director and actor. This three-way partnership is further embellished by the costume stylist, make-up artist, art director, and many more. So, at a certain stage in the filmmaking process, I constantly talk to my actors about their characters. Somewhere along the way, I begin to question them about the character – will he/she do this or say that – and it is they who now come up with the answers. It is interesting how their attention goes to something I may have missed.

‘The collaboration I have had with the actors and technicians for Koode, creating the story as we go, is exactly the kind of filmmaking I have been wanting to do. Even though we have a script, how that story unfolds on the screen is something that has to evolve with everyone taking responsibility for it.’ Filmmaking is a very collaborative art, she reiterates. ‘If there was one less person on the set, may be the film would look different. As storytellers, we are mere conduits through whom the energy flows and translates into stories. We cannot take undue credit for everything.’

Anjali is now taking this penchant for storytelling into the area of cultural conservation and travel with Lore, her newly formed company. ‘The aim is to offer little pockets of experience in immersive cultural travel. We are in our early days, but this is something that inspires me, and it instills in me a certain responsibility to help preserve our original stories.’

Cultural homogeneity is taking over Indian cities, as we are growing into a mass consumption society, she says. ‘I think our beauty lies in our indigenous culture and we need to retain this diversity. It is important therefore to bring our narratives back and introduce people to our culture through travel, stories and shared experiences.’

For this story teller, who writes stories that makes our hearts come alive with hope and joy, her idea of perfect happiness is ‘watching a movie, especially small, simple movies with so much soul that stay with you long afterwards.’

‘I think the best things in life are always simple,’ she adds. 
‘My life too is made up of a lot of beautiful little things and today, I am happy in the place that I am. For me, film is only a medium – tomorrow, I could move on to a new format of storytelling. I believe, it is the journey that is far more important.’

Exploring family relationships with Koode

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Koode is an intimate narration of one person’s journey interwoven with the lives of those around him. The movie 
is not very dialogue-dependent; what has been left unsaid is far more important and that, I think, is very similar to how life is. This is what pushed me to do this film.

‘The movie has been shot on the outskirts of Ooty, Tamil Nadu, in hitherto unexplored places, as the narrative needed to come out in a space that has a quaint charm of its own. Its protagonist is a character working in a Gulf country. (I guess, the NRI in me is still alive and kicking!). The scenes shot in UAE over a couple of days are very significant to the movie – it shows how a little bit of backstory can change the narrative of the entire story.’

Anjali Menon filmography


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Lucky Red Seeds, 2008, theatre release in 2012

Heartbreakingly beautiful, Anjali Menon’s first feature film explored the story of a homecoming and a person’s journey in search of his roots and was told with such poetic grace that it swept awards at every national and international film festival that it was screened. Set in late 1970s Kerala, her home state, the movie brought to life the magic of childhood in a past era interwoven with the tale of lost innocence. The film won awards for the Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Cinematographer and Best Emerging Talent at the South Asian International Film Festival in New York in 2009. It also won three Kerala State Film Awards, amongst several other national and international awards.

Happy Journey 

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2009, Writer/Director

Part of the segment of the 10-film anthology called Kerala Café, this is a quirky take on male/female power relationships with a surprising twist at the end.

Ustad Hotel

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2012, Screenplay

Winner of three Indian National Film Awards including Best Popular Film, this charming fable of relationships with a cast of endearing characters is a lovely coming-of-age entertainer that revolves around Malabari cuisine and the city of Kozhikode’s warm hospitality.

Bangalore Days 

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2014, Writer/Director

A heartwarming story of three cousins, this peppy, fun movie is a wholesome entertainer that maps the transformative stages of the lives of its protagonists. It was the highest grossing Malayalam film of the year and won three national awards including Best Screenplay.