He was a big man, but beneath that exterior there was a child who loved films more than anything else.
It was this passion that pushed everything else to the back seat — including his health.
Rajesh Pillai, who suffered from non-alcoholic liver cirrhosis, worked on his last film, Vettah, in between hospital treatments but did not live to see its release. Pillai died on February 27, a day after Vettah hit Indian cinemas. It releases in the UAE on March 24.
Pillai shot to limelight with the trendsetting Malayalam film, Traffic, an emotional multi-starrer that impressed with its new story and telling, natural performances. While viewers watched this gripping and fast-paced drama unfold against a ticking clock, they also grasped the importance of organ donation. His next film was a road movie titled Motorcycle Diaries, with Kunchako Boban and Nivin Pauly.
Where it began
Director Sreebala K. Menon, who won Kerala’s Debut Director award recently for Love 24x7 considers Pillai an inspiration. Menon’s husband, Jimmy James, a senior news editor, Asianet News Channel was a close friend of Pillai and she has known the director for the last ten years. “Rajesh was one of the few people with whom I discussed my story and he told me to go ahead,” says Menon. Traffic gave me the strength to step out of the regular mould of films and make the kind of films I wanted.”
Son of Professor K. Raman Pillai, a former head of the political science department of Kerala University, and the late Subhadra, Pillai attended school at St Mary’s in Trivandrum. James and Pillai were classmates until class seven, after which Pillai moved to his native place in Haripad.
“I met him again when he joined Mar Ivanious College [in Trivandrum] for his pre-degree but after two years he quit college. By then the bug had bitten him and he was keen on getting into the film industry, a decision his parents were not happy about.”
Pillai assisted several directors before he made his first film, Hridayathil Sookshikkaan in 2005. It was a flop.
Boban, who worked with Pillai on this film and subsequently in Traffic and Vettah, says, “Rajesh withdrew into a shell after that. Sanjay [scriptwriter] was instrumental in pulling him out of that phase. Sanjay put him on self-help books and encouraged him into making films again.”
Traffic’s script, written by Sanjay with brother Bobby, brought Pillai out and he donned the director’s hat once again.
Chakochan, as Boban is fondly known, recounts, “When I read the script I understood that it was strong by itself but I wondered if Rajesh could execute it well. However Rajesh was thrilled and his eyes shone. It was during the dubbing stage when I realised that Rajesh had done an impeccable job. He carried the script to a higher level.”
Pillai returned with a vengeance not only as a better director but a stronger person with Traffic.
Chakochan says Pillai was a big boy who was childish at heart. He was pure like a child and quite possessive about those he loved.
Pillai looked up to late Malayalam director Padmarajan and, like him, liked to put in a lot of emotion into his work. What worked well with the actors of Traffic was Pillai’s detailed descriptions of characters.
Chakochan says, “He briefed us on how the character walked, talked and breathed, which helped us to portray the role effectively. Sometimes on the sets there would be further improvisation.”
Sandhya, of Kadhal fame, echoes the same when she reminisces about Traffic.
“On my first meeting, Rajesh told that he liked Kadhal and was my fan. He offered me the role that Ramya Nambeesan later did. While I listened to this role, I was more keen on playing Aditi and I finally got to doing it.”
Sandhya continues, “Rajesh was a great one at narration. He explained every nuance of the character. In fact Aditi’s screen presence in Traffic is probably around twenty minutes in the entire film but Rajesh took two hours to describe Aditi. “
A perfectionist, Rajesh was never satisfied till he got the perfect shot and he had a cute way of requesting his actors for another take. “He would say, ‘Oonnu better aakkamo,’ [Can we make it little better?]. It was hard to refuse even if it was the 100th retake,” Sandhya says. “Rajesh also gave his actors a lot of freedom. He was fond of me and took the liberty of scolding me for doing a wrong film.”
Sandhya plays a Muslim woman married to a Christian man, opposite Chakochan, in Vettah.
“During the first schedule of this film, Rajesh was fine and on the sets he was in high spirits. Not once did he reveal to anyone the pain and agony he was going through.”
It was during the second schedule that he was hospitalised.
This writer had spoken to Pillai last July and he revealed that he had wrapped up the Hindi version of Traffic. This screenplay was written by Suresh Nair and the ensemble cast included Manoj Bajpayee, Jimmy Shergill, Prosenjit Chatterjee, Parambrata Chatterjee, Kitu Gidwani, Divya Dutta, Sachin Khadekar and Vishal Singh.
Rajesh had then said, “I never thought Traffic would move this far. I owe it to [producer] Listin Stephen for supporting me.”
Until Traffic happened, Stephen was distributing films but wanted to get into production and was looking for a story that would leave a mark. He found it in Sanjay-Bobby’s script.
“I spoke to Rajesh over the phone first,” recalls Stephen. “He was in Trivandrum and asked me repeatedly if I was serious on giving him the project. I assured him and asked him to come down to Kochi.
“On our first meeting he told me that many had let him down and got sentimental. I told him that I was confident of the story and handed over his cheque. Both of us were young then. It was my first into production. Rajesh also wanted to prove a point after Hridayathil Sookshikkaan. We were both aware that the approach to the story was something not seen before in Malayalam films. It was a big challenge that we both took on.”
Stephen adds that Pillai had called him from the sets of Vettah, and expressed his wish to do another film together.
“Rajesh was a good human being known for his simplicity and a childlike nature.”
Stephen went on to make the Tamil version of Traffic with Radhika Sarath Kumar.
Though the Tamil version was directed by Pillai’s associate, Shaheed Kader, Pillai had wanted actor Rahman to reprise his role from the original. But Rahman could not at that time.
“It was emotionally shattering to hear of Rajesh’s death,” says Rahman.
Looking back on the sets of Traffic, he says, “For a man of his size, Rajesh spoke like a ten-year-old and I would often joke on this. I have never seen him angry on the sets and his passion for cinema came to the fore during his narration to actors. Working with Rajesh was comfortable, he had no attitude, a jovial guy with a soft heart. He was a fantastic human being.”.
Whenever good cinema is discussed, Rajesh Pillai and Traffic will be remembered with fondness.