Monday 10 January 2022

"We want our films to have soul, to be memorable" - an interview with Babitha Mathew, award-winning film director

"I never thought or believed I would make a movie" said Babitha Mathew, director of the upcoming Malayalam language movie Pyali, when we spoke recently via zoom. 

Pyali will be the Kerala born and based director's first full length feature film. It tells the story of two Kashmiri street children and their daily struggles living alone in a Kerala slum. Older brother Ziyah, aged 14, takes responsibility for the care of his little sister, five year old Piyali as he attempts to make a living, keep her safe and realise her dreams. In India (and elsewhere) many unaccompanied children are drawn or forced into organised begging and at one point Pyali asks her brother "...who are beggars?" Ziyah, determined they won't beg, answers "beggars are those who take money and food from people without doing any work, but we aren't like that. I go to work, right?" The story was written by the director's husband, Rinn AX.

"I had to coach her in the correct expression and pronunciation of every word"

The film took five years to complete. Babitha explained "we spent two to three years to find a producer before Sofia Varghese of NF Varghese Pictures came forward. There was also an extensive search to fill the lead roles. We needed actors who both looked, and could act like, Kashmiris, who are often a little shy and reserved". Pyali is played by six year old Barbie (also known as Arravya Sharma). Despite her age she is an experienced actress and has been in more than 100 ads and a Hindi language TV serial. I was astonished when I learned that Barbie does not speak Malayalam. Babitha explained "I had to coach her in the correct expression and pronunciation of every word. She grasped things very quickly. Barbie is a born artist and extremely professional. She understands continuity, different camera angles and many other technical matters".

George Jacob plays Ziyah and is new to the film industry. He was born and grew up in Dubai and was unfamiliar with the lives of street people.  Before filming began he was given training in how his character would speak, behave and respond to his surroundings. Babitha recounted how he was sent to buy a pair of chappals, the open sandals worn by many Indians. "He had only ever worn shoes and came back with a very nice pair that cost 6,000 rupees (almost £60). I took him back to the shop and bought some for 200 rupees. He wore them from then until filming was complete". 

I asked her about the difficulties or special responsibilities of working with children. She explained "this is not a children's film, but the lead actors are children. That means we had special responsibilities which we took very seriously, ensuring that they had proper breaks and enough rest time".

"I wanted to give myself to movies, to learn more"

I asked her how she came to be involved in the film industry. "I always loved movies," she said "I studied Business Management and then worked for various corporates for six years, but film was always my main interest, and I spent most of my free time watching movies. I was curious about how films are made and began to do my own research. I taught myself about everything to do with film, such as script writing, directing and camera work". She continued "I never had the chance to help on a film or to do a course - I learned film-making by doing it". In 2016 she decided to quit her corporate job - "I wanted to give myself to movies, to learn more. I couldn't do anything while working"

Her story is unusual as is the fact that she is a female film director. Even today, few women are found behind the camera in the film industry. Babitha said "many people have been surprised to see a female director".  She is also a mother. Her daughter was born five years ago, but this did not mean taking time off. "I started making Pyali when she was just a few months old. I held her with one arm whilst directing with the other. I called action whilst feeding her". She acknowledges the support both her and her husband's families give, how proud they are of her achievements and how difficult it would be to manage without them.  

"All creative discussions begin and end with an argument"

Her husband, writer and interior designer, Rinn, is also passionate about film. Babitha said "He has written stories since childhood but had never showed them to anyone. When I read them I realised that they would make  good movies". They also worked together on Kiss, an award winning short-film which they made in 2014. It considers inter-generational relationships, the passage of time and loss. Kiss was shown at various festivals, including the prestigious Pune Film Festival  and introduced the couple's work to a much wider audience.

I asked how it is, living and working together, and if artistic differences cause problems between them. She laughed and said "we talk about film all the time. We often disagree on how to do things and all creative discussions begin and end with an argument. But we complement each other and this helps us to do our best work". She also says that being married to and living with her creative partner means they can talk about their work at any time - "there's no real division between work and home life". 

They are currently working on another full-length film featuring just one character. In the meantime, Pyali has already won two Kerala State Film Awards and is generating much interest both in India and overseas. Due to Covid it is not yet on general release, but the world premier may take place next month. The trailer indicates a beautifully shot film, sensitive portrayals of the main characters and an engaging storyline. I asked Babitha what she wants to achieve with her work. She said "We want our films to have soul, to be memorable". Initial responses indicate that Pyali fulfils both of these ambitions.

Please note all images in this post were provided by Babitha Mathew.

You can see the trailer for Pyali here.

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