‘It’s about sportsmanship’

Ajay Govind, writer-director, talks about his upcoming venture Madappally United

Writer-Director Ajay Govind dons multiple hats. An English Literature Graduate from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University, Govind has engaged with a range of projects all across India. In 2014, his debut feature film After the Third Bell released in theatres across eight cities.

Since then he has made multiple award winning short films as well as music videos. He wrote lyrics and composed three songs for Samir Soni’s psychological thriller My Birthday Song.

His upcoming second feature is a children’s film set in Kerala titled Madappally United with cricket as its central theme. It features 45 debutants along with senior actors like Srikanth Murali, Savithri Sreedharan. The film is all set to start its festival run.

 In this interview, Ajay Govind reflects on the inspiration behind  making a film centred on cricket in a football-crazy state, challenges of shooting outdoors and working with child actors, and his release plans for the film amidst all the Covid-induced chaos.

 Excerpts:

 What’s the vision behind making Madappally United (MU)? How did you conceive the project?

Well, it began with a couple of questions. How do children handle conflicts that rise from the lack of resources? And how might that be different from how adults handle them? This thought came to me when I saw a group of dejected children being sent away from their playground, which happened to be an open space next to a crematorium. At first, I was struck by the fact that owing to rapid urbanisation an open space next to a crematorium was the only playground these children had. But I also instinctively knew that children, being the way they are, would probably think of it as  just another place to knock the ball around.

While this incident didn’t happen in Kerala, the basic idea stayed with me. Soon after, I happened to work with a wonderfully energetic group of children at the Madappally Government School (in North Kerala) for a documentary I was making on the support that the UL Foundation was providing to strengthen some schools in the area. During that time, I realised that my story idea had found a context, characters, and a community. And the sheer beauty of the coastal village was a real bonus.

Cricket is the central theme of your film. But it’s not just a film about cricket. For, it tries to examine human follies at a much deeper level. How challenging was it to achieve this, especially with cricket as the backdrop?

It was always very clear to me that MU was a film about sportsmanship, not about a sports team trying to win or defeat. So cricket was always very much in the backdrop. The cricket kit is what brings them together, but that’s just a starting point.

For the filmmaker in me, the relationship between the children – with one other and their parents – was important. The story, essentially, is about the games the children play and the ones that the adults around them play.

Rules are very important in sports. And I also wanted to explore the relationship children have with the rules that they are taught in school, when there are no adults to tell them what to do. The fact of the matter is that these revelations, to use a cricket analogy, can come to you between overs also. It may not necessarily happen after you win or lose a match, as is usually the trajectory in sports films.

MU is not intended to be a film with dramatic revelations, to be honest. It actually celebrates everydayness. The only reason this was challenging was because I was working with these 11 kids, who were constantly wondering when they will get a chance to play with the cricket kit they were walking around with (chuckles).

The poster of Virat Kohli serves as an important character early on in the film. What was the idea behind using it as a plot device?

It’s interesting you bring this up because the film does have a subtext of sports as a unifying factor. While cricket doesn’t feature as a sport in the film, per se, the film has a lot of cricket references.  After all, heroes are the same everywhere – Kohli and Dhoni, specifically. Another angle is that while the male heroes are commonplace, the film also makes a reference to the ignorance of cricket fans towards female cricketers.

It’s amusing that in a football-crazy state like Kerala, every time I mention the film’s name there is an immediate assumption that it’s a football film. The fact is that a sport evokes all kinds of emotions and that is what I want to tap into.

A still from Madappally United

In the film you work with 45 actors who are making their debut. What was the experience like, working with newcomers? How did you prepare them for their respective parts?

Casting is so important in a film like this. On paper there was already the possibility of finding new talent for at least 20-25 key roles. I was lucky to have Rajesh Madhavan as the casting director. He has been on the casting team of some wonderful Malayalam films. We auditioned nearly 80 children from the Madappally Government schools where we found our core MU team. What a truly talented bunch! I just can’t wait for the world to see their performances.

During and after the auditions for both adults and the children, I remember Rajesh and I discussed the process of working with first- time actors. One of the things that stayed with me was that the actors only need to know what they are doing in that scene without burdening them with other unnecessary information about the story arc. In fact, the children still don’t really know the entire story. They must have pieced it together in their head and would constantly try to second guess during the shoot. But I would like to believe this process has extracted some interesting and original performances. We, of course, did readings with all the experienced actors to ease them into the process.

A lot of the older actors, although debuting in film, were theatre actors. So they didn’t have trouble with dialogues or characterisation. It’s the children who blew our minds. They remembered their lines, even improvised every now and then, and constantly impressed everyone during the shoot, including the industry veterans who acted with them.

Madappally United is mostly shot outdoors during the day time. What kind of interactions did you have with your DoP to get the look right? Were there any references that helped finalise the look?

At the face of it, MU is a simple film because it is shot outdoors and has real locations. What makes it challenging is that it’s largely a one-day story set across locations. The DoP Tanweer Ahmed spent a lot of time with the direction and production teams on the location recce. Maintaining that light continuity was the biggest challenge for him and a lot of our decisions on shot design, among others, revolved around that.

The other thing we discussed was letting the kids just walk and talk. Once the kids got together as a unit, they just moved about. You don’t constantly see their close-ups, reactions or so. In fact, multiple times we shot in a way to make the audience just watch this group of children. So the idea was, in a way, to treat the camera like that, just observing a story as it unfolds at its own pace.

The film is all set to start its festival run. What are your release plans?

Yes, Madappally United is all set to start its festival run and I hope it is watched by festival audiences across the world. To be honest, amidst all the Covid-induced chaos and uncertainty, it’s difficult to say what kind of a release the film will have.

Having said that, I must say I am extremely grateful for our decision to shoot the film in January-February 2020, rather than April-May. If that were the case, we would literally not have been able to make the film. And having reached this stage, I can only hope that we get an opportunity to take the film to the widest possible audience in 2021.

(Cover image : Filmmaker Ajay Govind)

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