Actor-producer Vijay Babu on Lal Jose's 'Nee-Na'

The effortless straddling of genres and generation traps has been the trademark style of director Lal Jose. He repeats his triumph again with Nee-Na, a film that has been close to his heart for many years.
Now playing at theatres in the UAE, Nee-Na also can stake claim to have successfully stood up to the onslaught of the season’s superhit film Premam. Written by newcomer R Venugopal, an advertising professional, Nee-Na has not only become a box-office success but also a talking point among the critic circle and social media for its bold theme.
The story of Neena, played by newcomer Deepti Sahi, who relishes in debunking societal perceptions of what a girl must or must not do, and Nalini (Ann Augustine), the traditional, sweet home-maker, Nee-Na could have been the archetypal ‘female-centric’ film but for the surprise factor sprung by actor Vijay Babu.
A producer and film marketing professional in his own right, Vijay has defined his credentials as an actor of substance in his role as Vinay, an advertising professional. Neena storms into his otherwise homely life and how he and Nalini go through its aftermath is what the film is all about.  But in vintage Lal Jose fashion, the film breezes into the next level in almost all areas – be it cinematography by Jomon T John or music by Nikhil Menon, who also makes his film debut.  
And Vijay Babu, who calls Dubai his home and a city that enabled him to evolve as a person and professional, feels vindicated. After all, being on and off-screen for nearly two years, he has been finally recognised by critics as an actor of substance.
“Even while I used to get appreciation from the public, the critics have largely seen me as someone who stepped into acting for the fame it brings. They perhaps felt that I was using my so-called influence as a producer to bag roles,” smiles Vijay. “But I never had any doubt about why I had taken up acting and how serious I was about it.”
Lal Jose cast Vijay at a time when he was basically behind the camera, charting out production schedules and running some fantastic guerilla marketing campaigns that helped his production house Friday Film House, a name to reckon with in Malayalam cinema.
He had made a noticeable presence as actor with films such as Honeybee and gained acclaim for his roles in Philips & The Monkey Pen  and Bicycle Thieves. He also gained a good share of limelight with the Mohanlal-starrer Peruchazhi, another home production.
But what Nee-Na has done to his career was something that satisfies him as an actor. “Honestly, I am scared now. I have not signed up any external project after Nee-Na and have had to cut a sorry face before several producers to the extent of affecting professional relationships. But I would rather cut a sorry face before them than with the audience.”
Vijay’s character on-screen is probably an anti-thesis of whatever he is in real life. “I walk fast, talk fast and am a real multi-tasker. I cannot sit quietly for five minutes at a stretch. We had known each other for long and Lal Jose was aware of my gestures and mannerisms. Ultimately, what he made me do was to behave before camera, not act.”
Vijay is happy for the acclaim that has come his way, and he can only thank Lal Jose for that. “If the talent is in you, he will bring it out. That is what he does with every actor.”
He says the film has a hidden thread of destiny written all over it. “Every one of us in the film was connected in some way or other. Jomon had suggested my name to Lal; I had mentioned about Deepti Sahi to him. Likewise, Venugopal had suggested roping in Nikhil Menon, a new composer for the movie. As for Ann, who is married to Jomon, we have been thick friends. So, it was almost like a family holiday for about 40 days of the shooting.”
But it was a shoot unlike ever before for Vijay. Lal Jose had given strict instructions to him not to laugh in sets and to retire early every night. “It was all part of getting me into character and the result shows.”
Defending the film for its strong take against alcoholism, Vijay says Nee-Na has a strong message that everyone can relate to. “It is about trust and honesty, and conveys a message – be it to parents or children.”
While Nee-Na has redefined his credentials as an actor, Vijay says his choice of roles will be defined by the character and not hero/villain tags. He will next act in his home production, Muthugavu, directed by a newcomer Vipin Das, in which he will play a role with negative shades.
As for Nee-Na, which has completed a glorious 60 days in Kerala, Vijay feels it will find strong resonance among the UAE audiences. “Dubai is the city that made me. I know the closeness and family bonding among the people and I believe that Nee-Na with its urban milieu will find instant appeal among NRIs.”

On his journey from Dubai to cinema

Vijay Babu is a name that used to appear in the title credits of Malayalam films under the obligatory ‘Thank You’ notes. Eventually, he appeared in blink-and-miss roles, and the more observant ones connected that as gestures of gratitude by filmmakers.
After all, he was a force to reckon with for emerging and even established filmmakers. He was heading a leading television channel in India, which arguably had the largest film library and was out there lapping up every film by paying phenomenal satellite rights.
For the less initiated, ‘satellite rights’ are the make or break deals when it comes to film production. Often, the producers recover their costs with just the royalty paid by television channels. And Vijay was a key decision maker, his instinct working like magic.  
Formerly, a Dubai-based television professional, Vijay had stepped into the Malayalam film arena at one of its most exciting periods. But he stayed put in the backstage for nearly five years, doing the occasional cameos, but watching and learning the industry.
Although noticed earlier for his rather meaty role in Honeybee, and despite the heady fame and critical appreciation of his performances,Vijay says he is a reluctant actor.
None of the roles that he was noticed for (the others being in Escape from Uganda and Bicycle Thieves) were planned for him. “The actors whom we approached for my role, as a strict Math teacher, in Philips & The Monkey Pen… didn’t find it interesting; they were keener to play the lead,” says Vijay.
While Monkey Pen… had audiences and critics take serious notice of Vijay, it is Bicycle Thieves, in which he plays a maverick advocate that came as the real icing on the cake. “I was in fact insistent on not doing the role, because it was extremely challenging and crucial to the movie,” says Vijay.
And what is perhaps refreshing about a conversation with Vijay is that there is neither the feigned humility nor the arrogance. He is matter of fact. That comes with his career background, and a clear purpose in life.
“I have always wanted to be associated with movies,” he says. “Even if I were still in Dubai, I would have been involved in film production.”
Instead, after a few years in the city, he returned to India, headed a channel, and benefited from the opportunity to closely interact with filmmakers and listen to their stories. “I can say with absolute conviction that we helped spot several new and talented filmmakers, who would otherwise have had no opportunity to accomplish their dreams.”
Vijay, however, pulled himself backward from a headlong rush into film production. “It is one thing watching the industry from far, and another to see it for real. I studied the industry for about five years before finally launching our production house.”
Philips and the Monkey Pen has come to be the defining film for Friday Film House, and also underlined Vijay’s confidence in his ability to evaluate a film’s potential. “When Rojin Thomas and Shanil Muhammed narrated the story, we knew instantly that we had a win
ner. We then had no idea they will go on to direct the film. But we took the chance.”
It has been a while a film with a child as a central character has worked at the Malayalam box-office. While Master Sanoop, the brother of actress Sanusha, delivered a spectacular performance, Vijay as Pappan, the teacher, who terrifies students with his rather dictatorial approach, offered the right foil. Together, the film walked into the hearts of moviegoers for its sensitive and clean narrative.
“There is not a bad word in the film; there are no scenes that need statutory warnings to come scrolling over the screen,” says Vijay. “But if the film hadn’t worked, I would have rewritten all my notions about cinema. I had such confidence in it.”
Vijay also brought out his marketing genius to promote the film. He did direct marketing to over 1,350 schools over 60 days, hosted special screenings for school principals and created the right buzz at the right level.
After having had to battle for theatre space and postponing the film’s release at least two times, when Monkey Pen released, the initial box-office collections were rather dismal. “But I told my team not to lose heart. And sure enough, by the first week, word of mouth picked up, and today, even after 40 days, the film has house-full collections in all key release centres,” Vijay says.
Balancing his responsibility as producer and actor, Vijay now finds more time for acting. And he has his hands full.
“I think there is a space now in Malayalam cinema for someone of my age,” says Vijay.
From the thank you credits to title roles and the producer tag, Vijay has moved several rungs up, indeed. That is one success, gained through a confidence in oneself and a definite sense of purpose.

On the making & buzz of Peruchazhi 

To break even in three days, despite an INR10 crore budget – that is the box-office magic that Peruchazhi, the Mohanlal-starrer had pulled off.
For Bollywood, familiar with its INR200 and INR100 crore club, the figure might appear paltry. But in Malayalam cinema, this is momentous by all measures, and no matter how the film fares in the coming days, it has made its date with history.
And for the film’s producer Vijay Babu, who also plays one of the eight central characters of Peruchazhi, the success is a vindication of his trust in the film’s one-liner.
Peruchazhi comes with no pretense of high art,” he reminds, referring to the disclaimer at the start of the movie to “leave your brains behind and enjoy.”
“This is a celebration of Mohanlal, as how we wanted to see him on-screen,” says Vijay, who has been redefining the norms of the Malayalam film industry, with innovative marketing blitzkriegs and a new approach to film production.
He had tasted box-office and critical acclaim earlier with Philips and the Monkey Pen, in which too he played a central role. “When we made Monkey Pen, the criticism was how we could entrust a movie to two 21-year-old directors,” says Vijay. “Now, they ask, why we assigned our big budget production to a director from Tamil cinema.”
To the uninitiated, Peruchazhi is directed by Arun Vaidyanathan, an Indian-American director, who debuted in films with a Tamil feature,Achchamundu! Achchamundu!
“My answer to both is that a film’s crew and cast are decided by its content,” says Vijay. “We had a very interesting premise for Peruchazhi, in which we transplant the pettiness and hilarity that we often see in Kerala’s politics into the US milieu.  It is a satire – and one that Malayalis the world over will relate to because at the end of the day, every Malayali follows politics at some level.”

Vijay planned out Peruchazhi with extreme care, given that a chunk of the film was shot on location in the US, and also gaining credit as the first Malayalam film to be shot in the Universal Studios in Hollywood.
Almost everything – from the Devyani Khobragade episode that rocked Indo-US relations to visa and travel formalities – posed challenges for the
 Peruchazhi team. “Our biggest challenge was the dollar rate,’ says Vijay. “We had to finish the film on schedule and on budget, racing against money exchange rate fluctuations.”
He entrusted all logistical aspects of the film to a legal firm in the US, ensuring the film’s seamless completion on time. “And it further helped that the director is US-based,” adds Vijay.
Vijay says Peruchazhi brings out the humour, the naughtiness and the inimitable charm of Mohanlal like never before. Lal plays a wily politician who is brought to the US to orchestrate the US presidential campaign. Now, don’t blink in disbelief. As Vijay says, this is a spoof and satire. “We wanted audiences to watch it like a Jim Carrey movie.”
Also starring Mukesh, Baburaj and Aju Varghese, and Ragini Nandwani on the female lead, Vijay says his own role in the film was another chance encounter much like his role in Monkey Pen. “We approached a number of actors, who fit the requisites of a savvy Indian-American. While all of them were eager to be part of the team, none of them could accommodate 80 days of shooting schedule in the US.”
When Mohanlal also gave the encouraging nod, Vijay took on the role of the poll team member of a US presidential candidate, who calls on the services of Jagannathan (Lal) to turn the tides.
Vijay says the name of the film is a perfect fit to the sly characterization of Jagannathan. “In south Kerala, we use the word ‘peruchazhi’ to describe those who will go to any extent to get their goals slyly.”
The film has every component that will appeal to the mass audience, and Vijay says the biggest marketing tool of the film has been ‘word of mouth.’ “With the largest opening for any Malayalam film to date in 500 screens globally, we wanted to make sure it was seen and heard. From local trains to bus shelters and social media, our marketing strategy was to ensure Peruchazhi positioned itself for its genre – a mass commercial entertainer.”

Ultimately, it is also a tribute to the Mohanlal everyone loves. The film has several references to yesteryear Mohanlal movies and characters. “In my childhood days, Onam meant a great movie of Mohanlal or Mammootty. Peruchazhi is our Onam gift. As our tagline says, ‘this Onam, celebrate with sumptuous feast, new clothe and Peruchazhi.”

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