Female Idol Blog Series: An Interview With Sreebala Menon

It was September last year and my life was performing Cirque du Soleil somersaults, at a very steady pace. Two months before that, I had started the WMF community and was struck profoundly by an idea of having a ‘multi-city’ film festival in India of women filmmakers; a feat that was NEVER done before. The first festival, as it was not-so-creatively called, became a harbinger of many such events and brought to my life some of the most amazing acquaintances. The festival itself was a runaway hit (read more about it here) and it was also the first time ever, done on a noncommercial nature despite its scale.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 4.32.40 PMWhen Aswani kickstarted the festival by hosting the Trivandrum chapter, she was not going to settle for just a bunch of people gathering to watch some films. Instead, she took it many notches up and brought together a panel of female filmmakers who discussed the state of women in the industry, the way forward etc – which is often pushed under the rug.

One of the members of the panel was Sreebala Menon – a ‘2005 Kerala Sahitya Akademi Award‘ winning author turned filmmaker, who has just finished making her debut film ‘Love 24×7‘. I am extremely delighted to share with the readers, the summary of a heartfelt conversation that I had with Sreebala.

About yourself – childhood and upbringing:

I was born in Thrissur, Kerala. Oldest and only daughter to ‘teacher’ parents. As a child, like every other girl my dream was to become a doctor, or engineer, or teacher as per my parent’s wish.

Mine was a rather lonely childhood as there were no children around to play with.  So I took to reading. I love spending time reading and day dreaming those characters in the novel -roaming around with them, talking to them. This habit slowly led to making my own stories. Most stories were inspiration from what I have already read.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 5.42.58 PMI pitch in  when we were asked to contribute for school magazines. My stories were rejected because it had very explosive themes which didn’t go well with the convent school management principles.  The teachers called me to the staff room and asked where do I get topics like unlimited freedom for women, prostitution and choosing career above marriage. I was afraid to mention that it came from the books I read as they will advice not to read . So I kept quiet and heard their advices on being a good girl. I won some of the literary competitions and even then I use to go overboard and always write what I wanted. Because of all these hiccups, I had a bad start as a writer.  And all of my childhood I lived in fantasies rather than in real world. The funny part is that my family was never aware of all my activities as I used to study fairy well and be obedient during almost all situations.  I hid the rebel in me. Don’t know why I did that, may be I wanted to be rebellious only through my words.

My life as a writer started while I was doing my post graduation at madras university. I was away from home and being in a hostel for the first time, I felt lonely and writing was my solace to overcome loneliness.  Stories I wrote got published in various weeklies . I started writing a series of essays for a women’s magazine which made me very popular in Kerala.  This got compiled and the book 19, canal road won me sahithya academy  award for Best humour  wriring in 2005.  Later I published my collection of short stories Slyviaplathinte Masterpiece  (Masterpiece of Slyviaplath).

Filmmaking – beginning of it – transition from writing:

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 4.31.49 PMI didn’t want to take up the job of being an English lecturer after my p.g. I wanted to do creative writing rather than teaching. And idea of being able to write a script  for a film excited me. I started my search on how to be a scriptwriter. And soon found out there is no such post as script assistant or associate.  So decided to be an assistant director instead. I didn’t have the patience to go to a film school and do a graduate or post graduate course in film making.

So decided to do a crash course and enrolled myself for a  course in C-Dit , Trivandrum – a post graduate diploma in development communication and started searching for assistant director openings in Malayalam film industry. There were none. Because no one will take a ‘woman’ assistant.

I took up a job as external programme producer in C-dit and waited patiently for an entry into films. As many of my classmates in C-dit easily became assistants to many known filmakers in Kerala I was denied a chance. I could neither change my gender nor forego my passion to be a scriptwriter /director. After two years Sathyan Anthikkad, a senior most director took me as his assistant as he has read many of my stories and articles.  He was doing a women-centric movie and was willing to try women as his assistant. Thus started my career in films.

Experiences while assisting notable filmmakers in Malayalam industry – your position, contribution, experiences as a woman:

As an assistant director it was very difficult getting used to the male dominated cinema field.  I never understood for the first two films how to fit in. It was quite different from the college/office atmosphere.  Hierarchical system existed where stars /super stars reigned and assistant directors fell into the lowest strata  together with camera assistants, light men , make up  and costume assistants. As a lonely lady in the technical department,  I was always given special privilege which were disliked by men. It also caused me embarrassment.  My gender was always noticed, discussed. Making judgemental statements  ‘You women can do this, you can never do that’ was common. Many a times I will lose patience and would react to their comments which will end up in fights. Later, I learnt to manage these and concentrate on my work. Because at the end of the day, training yourself into a good director is what mattered.

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 5.43.31 PM
I started getting chance to be part of the script discussions in the coming films directed by Sathyan Anthikkad. My dream to be able to write my own script led me to be more and more participatory in those brain storming sessions. I would always take care that women got good and positive representation in those commercial films I worked in, which is rare these days. When those films came out many friends will call up and say it is because of you in the team that we got to see such and such a woman character on screen and I smiled in reply. Those moments were gratifying to me.
Meanwhile, I was working in C-dit as programme producer to make both ends meet. The payment of an assistant director was not enough  for a living. As I chose my field of work according to my wish, I was too hesistant to ask my parents for financial help. I used to do documentaries and shorts for C-dit.

About your documentaries Accamma Cherian and Panthibhojanam and the importance of filmmakers taking up visual medium for taking powerful socio political stances – what is your opinion?

Accamma cheriyan, a 24 min film on a freedom fighter and a leader of kerala was my first documentary. In five years, I became associate director to Sathyan sir with the malayalam movie Bhagyadevatha, and I got a  salary hike. With the extra income and some external production help I did a short film Panthibhojanam based on a famous short story written by Santhosh Aeichikanam. It discussed the caste of your food. It was widely recognised at that time and even now.

Making films on relevant social topics always excited me and I consider this as the duty of every film maker. Addressing and discussing topics of current social relevance through this medium.

About LOVE 24×7

My first movie Love 24×7 deals with the love and life of two couples in the backdrop of a news channel, Naalamidam.

Screen Shot 2016-04-15 at 4.35.58 PM(Synopsis)

Roopesh Nambiar (Dileep) and Kabani (Nikhila Vimal) are colleagues in Nalamidam. Roopesh is the star news anchor of the channel and Kabani is a new trainee reporter.  Kabani comes from a very humble background and she gets bit overwhelmed during her first days in the channel. Roopesh helps Kabani to get adapted to her new life in the city and also supports her in the
office. They get close to each other in spite of the differences in their backgrounds and soon fall in love. When things get tough for Kabani in her hostel due to the irregular timings of her job, Roopesh arranges a place for her to stay. It is with Dr. Sarayu (Suhasini Manirathnam) who is a friend of Roopesh’s mother. She leads a lonely life after the demise of her husband. Dr. Sarayu is glad to have Kabani around and develops a special bond with her.

Professional life of Kabani goes really good and very soon she becomes a popular face of the channel. Both Roopesh and Kabani enjoy the complete support of the head of the channel, Ummar Abdulla (Sreenivasan) initially. But then arises some problems in the channel and things
start going against the interests of Roopesh and Kabani too, along with Ummar Abdulla. As a result of this, their career seems to spiral downward. Meanwhile Dr. Sarayu meets her classmate, Dr. Satheesh (Sashikumar) after a long time. They both were in a relationship during their college days but had parted ways due to the decisions they made regarding their career and personal life. Both of them now agree that choosing career over personal life was not a good idea.  They enjoy the company of each other and start spending more time together. Their romance is revived and both seem to be very excited about it.

The issues in the channel forces Roopesh to rethink his decision to continue his career in Naalmidam. The new plans he makes for his future does not go well with Kabani. Their relationship begins to suffer as Kabani herself is worried about her own career prospects. Dr. Satheesh and Dr. Sarayu face the same dilemma of choosing between career and love, second time in their lives. How these four people deal with this crucial question when life lands them at this crossroads and the choices they make forms the climax of the story.)

Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 5.47.17 PMA lot of thought went into making love 24×7 as I didn’t want to do’ just’ a film  to start my career as independent film maker. It searches the role women play in professional and personal arena. Two women- kabani and sarayu’s-journey to their own happiness was well received by audience as well as film critics. It also won me Kerala state film award for Best debut director 2015 and Ramu kariat award for the same.

Future projects:

I am working on my next script. Hoping to shoot it next year. Meanwhile,  I have also started making audio books in malayalam titled, Kelkkam (Let us listen), it is making available malayalam literature works as audiobooks via mobile app. In this way I am merging the technology I learned in film making with my literary pursuits.

This is the one of the many inspiring tales under the WMF umbrella. And personally, I am way too excited to take up this pet project than I am ready to admit. Stay tuned and watch this space. Here’s hoping: one is never devoid of female idols anymore!