Malayalam cinema's ace script writer Syam Pushkaran on the art of storytelling

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Syam Pushkaran has written the scripts for Malayalam films like ‘Salt N’ Pepper’, ‘Kumbalangi Nights’, ‘Maheshinte Prathikaram’, ’22 Female Kottayam’, ‘Idukki Gold’, ‘Mayaanadhi’ and ‘Joji’.

Syam Pushkaran, widely regarded as one of Malayalam cinema’s finest script writers in the modern era, believes in the importance of storytelling, in any walk of life. It doesn’t matter whether you are a salesman, manager, lawyer or politician, if you are a good storyteller, he says, you will excel in that sphere.

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In this interview, the scriptwriter of Salt N’ Pepper, Kumbalangi Nights, Maheshinte Prathikaram, 22 Female Kottayam, Idukki Gold, Mayaanadhi and Joji, notes that Indian cinema and Malayalam movies, in particular, have the potential to attract a global audience. It’s a matter of time, he says.

Syam Pushkaran (37) was the recipient of the National Film Award for best screenplay for the movie Maheshinte Prathikaram in 2016. Excerpts from the interview:

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Storytelling is seen as a key skill even in the corporate field, or for that matter, in most walks of life these days. If you are not a storyteller, you are bound to struggle to get your point of view across or impress an audience, especially in today’s world of influencer marketing. Without an effective mode of communication, you are a poorer professional. Storytelling is no longer the forte of writers alone; it has become an essential skill for anyone.

Good storytellers use keywords to communicate. They give listeners a visual pattern; give it a visual spin. When you say you were born in a coastal village, by detailing that place a bit, you transport people into that world.

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But that does not mean you have to become verbose. If too many words are used to tell a story, then it could become difficult for the audience to process it. Yet, the communication has to be done without losing the fun quotient.

Even when I talk with my friends, I try to keep the conversation short but interesting. I’m always conscious of not allowing a lag in storytelling. I observe, listen and try to remember all the interesting stuff that happens during the course of a day. Let people talk, and that’s when you realise that people in general are good storytellers. Just observe how people gossip. They bring a lot of craft into it! It’s a survival tool.

Do you change your approach when writing a script for the big screen as compared to OTT platforms?

Writers have greater freedom in OTT. In the theatre, people will expect greater entertainment, where we have to guarantee cinematic orgasm. There’s a lot of time and effort required for a family to go and see a movie. They have to spend on fuel, go to the theatre, pay for parking, buy snacks, etc. It will cost Rs 2,000 for a family to see a movie. That’s like three-four months of subscription on Netflix. So, they expect that much more.

Theatres can create a mass hysteria that OTTs cannot provide. But some writers may prefer to work on OTT movies, as they can write a script exactly the way they want it. It’s more like a writer’s self-expression. There is no need for an uplifted climax that is often required for a cinema hall screening.

What’s your approach to scriptwriting in general? Cinema is a visual medium and sometimes it is good to keep dialogues under check. A film-maker like Rajeev Ravi, for instance, has tried to keep conversations to a minimum and use them as a means to elevate the visual storytelling.

There are great movies which are dialogue-heavy. On the other hand, there are wonderful movies which keep dialogues to a bare minimum. I like to keep a balance.

Cinema is a director’s medium and the writer has to understand that. There are occasions when a writer can get upset about how a director is interpreting a scene or situation. A director has to take into account many parameters while shooting a scene. Often, the location demands a change in dialogues and the writer has to rewrite the lines appropriately. The writer’s vision has to co-exist with that of the director.

How do you see regional cinema’s development and popularity since the start of the pandemic?

The audience, nationally, is beginning to love regional cinema, like the Malayalam movie industry. We are a small industry, but people are loving it for the way we are treating the subjects. People love underdogs anyway.

National viewers are looking for slice-of-life movies, and that’s what we give. Our film makers and technicians had made a mark in Bollywood many years ago, and OTT has only helped to spread the message faster. People are getting positively surprised about our content – movies like Alphonse Puthran’s Premam started that trend – there was always a lot of goodwill for Malayalam cinema through our scripts, actors and technicians, but now that goodwill is getting converted (as business) in the internet era.

The Malayalam industry has always made movies with smaller budgets, but that’s changing slowly. A movie like Minnal Murali was made on a bigger budget. People have realised that there is a market for Malayalam cinema beyond Kerala; that’s evident when we get business calls from the industry circles. The screen writers have to start thinking about subjects that can make use of these larger budgets. They have to start thinking bigger now.

This is the era of social media and as a result, scriptwriting is under greater scrutiny. People are better updated and are more aware of current affairs. Also, the moods and tastes are changing faster than ever before.

It’s an opportunity. We can learn so many aspects of cinema through the internet. I have gained significantly by learning and listening to the great storytellers by constantly scrolling the web. I have followed a lot of the work of Hollywood screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, A Few Good Men, To Killing a Mocking Bird, Moneyball). Internet will lead to the creation of more writers and filmmakers.

Creating memes is another novel way of storytelling, and it’s something that has emerged after the social media became popular. I have tried to create memes during the pandemic. It’s challenging to create memes because one has to create images that connect well with the issue; you are trying to tackle a current issue through that meme and still communicate effectively. You have to catch the attention of an internet user even as he/she scrolls down a sea of content. It’s a very different mode. It’s not the same as cinematic storytelling.

Malayalam cinema always had scriptwriters of the highest class. Do you see many good scriptwriters now in the industry, compared to the number of brilliant directors that we have?

Padmarajan, Dennis Joseph, Venu Nagavalli, Srinivasan and Raghu Paleri are some of my favourite scriptwriters. Today, we have many brilliant directors but scriptwriters are very few. Screenwriting is a different game. There are so many elements to it.

What I have realised is having a conflict in the script is an essential element of storytelling. The conflict brings in the emotional connect.

How do you pick a script for a particular time? How do you prioritise the scriptwriting ideas?

If the mind keeps reminding you about something, if a particular subject or concept keeps coming back to you, then that’s the script that you need to be writing. It’s kind of instinctive. At the seed stage, you speak to only one-two people, then you make a one-liner and then finally the full script.

I also have a core group of people, across different age groups, that I keep talking to. It’s like an open, democratic discussion where everyone is free to express their opinion on the script. It’s a focused group. Scriptwriters in Hollywood do a similar thing.

Do you foresee Indian cinema cornering global attention? Do you see signs of that happening soon?

If you see a movie like Parasite, the Oscar award-winning Korean movie, you realise that we too can get to that stage. Of course, we need to put in that kind of an effort. A filmmaker like Lijo Jose Pellissery (Angamali Diaries, Amen, Jallikattu) is pushing for it. It will happen. The signs are very good.

Do you have directorial ambitions? Your association with director Dileesh Pothen (‘Maheshinte Prathikaram’, ‘Thondimuthalum driksakshiyum’, ‘Joji’) has gained near legendary proportions in Malayalam cinema.

Yes, it will happen soon. A director, too, is a storyteller.

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