Debutant director Kavya Prakash on helming the woman-centric Malayalam film ‘Vaanku’

‘Vaanku’, which releases on January 29, is based on a short story by Unni R

When Raziya says that her dream is to call the faithful to prayer from the mosque, it has a ripple effect on her family, friends and society. Vaanku, based on a short story from acclaimed writer-scenarist Unni R’s eponymous collection of short stories published in 2018, narrates Raziya’s story as she tries to find her voice as part of her spiritual quest.

Directed by debutant director Kavya Prakash with Bharatanatyam dancer Shabna Mohammed writing her first screenplay, the film stars teenager Anaswara Rajan in the lead. “It is a female-centric film that has a strong cast. Perhaps Vineeth, who plays Raziya’s father, is the only male actor with a substantial role,” says Unni.

It was during a conversation with veteran film director VK Prakash, Kavya’s father, that Unni narrated the story of Vaanku and suggested that it would be an ideal story for Kavya to direct if she wanted to make a feature film.

Unni says that it was around 95-97 when he used to stay near the Masjid-i Jahān-Numā mosque at Palayalam in Thiruvananthapuram that the seeds of the story were born. “I used to find the muezzin’s call to prayer intensely musical. I wondered what it would be like if a woman were to perform the same duty. That is how I conceptualised Vaanku,” says Unni.

Kavya recalls she was captivated by the story although she was nervous about working with an acclaimed writer like Unni. “Nevertheless, when Unni sir asked me if I wanted to direct it, I took up the offer. He felt that a woman’s perspective would make a difference to the screenplay and that is why we approached Shabna to write,” says Kavya. Although the story unfolds in Kottayam, they decided to narrate the film in the background of Ponnani in Malappuram district

Unni and Kavya felt the story would resonate more with Raziya’s story if it took place in a background with a strong Islamic culture and tradition where every Muslim child is familiar with the religion’s beliefs and tradition. In spite of her background, Raziya is eager to do something out of the ordinary as part of her spiritual evolution. “Shabna herself grew up in such a place and so she was able to transpose it to the background we required. Her inputs and insights into the story convinced us that we were in the right direction,” says Kavya.

Shabna says since Vaanku is a story that every woman can identify with, she was able to do it quite easily. “Much before the film offer came, I had read the story and enjoyed it. Every woman would have faced gender discrimination at some point in her life. Moreover, there are so many restrictions on women. Sometimes, we might have wondered whether the problem is with us for asking for more of space or with society. So when I got the opportunity to work in a film that talks about gender, space and choices, I was more than happy to take it up,” says Shabna.

Unni adds that when a story is given to a director, the director’s perspective will be in the film. “It has to be her take as the story is going to be interpreted in a different medium. If it is going to be an exact replica of the book, one might as well read the book.”

Unni believes that there is a deep spirituality in the story that has been captured by Kavya and Shabna. “Had they missed that, the film would not have done justice to Raziya,” he points out.

Shabna has also acted in the film as Kavya was convinced that she would be the best person for that role. “Both Anaswara and I knew each other well and so we were able to bond quickly as mother and daughter. As she is an experienced actor, she was able to guide me regarding camera angles and techniques,” points out Shabna.

At the end of the way it is about a woman and how she tries to make her dream come true, sums up Kavya. For the director, the biggest challenge was to get producers for a female-centric film without big names or a male star cast.

Kavya says that the casting was an organic process as the film progresses through four female characters enacted by Anaswara, Nandhana Varma, Gopika Ramesh and Meenakshi Unnikrishnan. She adds that was lucky to get an experienced crew in DOP Arjun Ravi and editor Suresh Urs. Ousepphachan has scored the music for the film.

Shot in Ponnnai, the film was set for a release on March 13, 2020 when the lockdown came into effect. “It came as a huge disappointment but my producers Sirajudheen KP and Shabeer Pathan believed in the film. They were willing to wait for theatres to open although we did have offers from OTT platforms. They told me that is a beautiful film that deserved to be watched in theatres,” says Kavya.

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