'Ours is a disaster movie with no big stars, songs or commercial ingredients.'
'Yet, it is Malayalam cinema's highest grosser.'
Even though it's the highest grossing Malayalam film of all-time, and one of the highest grossing Indian films of the year too, not many outside of Kerala had heard of 2018: Everyone Is A Hero till it was selected as India's entry for the Oscars.
Speaking to Rediff.com Senior Contributor Roshmila Bhattacharya, Director Jude Anthany Joseph, who has also written the screenplay with Akhil P Dharmajan, reveals that he himself was a victim of the 2018 Kerala floods which inspired the epic survival drama.
Were you expecting to be India's entry for the Oscars?
Not at all.
A week before the nominations were announced, I had read in an article that a film called Rocky Aur Rani Kii Prem Kahaani was the frontrunner in the Oscar race.
So though I had personally sent my film to IFFI and IFFK, I did not hold much hope for the Oscars till I got a call from CNN for an interview and learnt that 2018 was the official Indian selection.
It reminded me of Paulo Coelho's famous quote, 'And when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you achieve it.'
Since its release, I had felt that my film did not get its due appreciation. Maybe now it will.
What's the way forward, given that the Oscars demand a lot of lobbying?
My producer has a production office in Los Angeles and will try his best.
My mind tells me that even without lobbying, we will bring the Oscar home.
Most of the big hits, be it in Hindi, Tamil, Telugu or Kannada, have been action films or romances with a much-wanted star, fights and songs.
Ours is a disaster movie with no big stars, songs or commercial ingredients. Yet, it is Malayalam cinema's highest grosser.
I attribute that to a strong emotional connection with the audience.
Whether it's Baahubali or Jurassic Park, these films have worked because viewers wanted the people's king to win and the visitors in the park to be saved from the dinosaurs.
Human emotions are universal everywhere.
Our film was made on a budget of Rs 26 crore (Rs 260 million), and this includes the remuneration of 129 actors, the fees of the technician, production and location costs, including hotel stays.
We have already earned Rs 200 crore-plus (Rs 2 billion), over Rs 175 crore (Rs 1.75 billion) coming from the theatres alone.
The dubbed Tamil, Kannada and Hindi prints were not ready on time and could be released only after two-three weeks.
We didn't get enough theatres then and I was disappointed.
But now, people have started asking where they can watch 2018.
Are you planning to re-release the film following the Oscar buzz?
We might if there is no breach of contract with our OTT partner SonyLIV.
The producer released the film worldwide, including the US, but we missed out on a few markets like Russia and China.
Around three weeks ago, we were approached to release 2018 in these countries.
How did the idea of a disaster film take root?
I was a victim of the 2018 Kerala floods myself.
My house was flooded and I lost a lot of things.
I moved to my sister's home and was depressed for a while.
Then, ironically, an NGO called Bodhini, approached me to make a short video that would offer hope to people, some of whom were suicidal.
Earlier, I had made a short film free of cost for Bodhini to screen at schools.
It's on Child Body Safety titled No. Go Tell, along the lines of Aamir Khan's Good Touch vs Bad Touch and has got a lot of views on YouTube.
(Chuckles) Every year, on Children's Day, I get messages that I should watch my own film.
On Bodhini's urging, I started reading newspapers and watching videos on the flood.
I realised that this subject could lend itself to a fascinating film as it underlines the triumph of unity.
All of Kerala, from ministers and MLAs, the police, army, navy and air force, health workers, media and the common man came together in what is a huge success story.
So the film came out of real life?
I started working on the script, stitching together small stories like that of the Polish tourists caught in the deluge, a pregnant woman who is airlifted by the Indian Air Force, a former military officer who drowned while rescuing others and got a one column mention in the newspapers.
I narrated it to my producers, actors, technicians and friends and they loved it. So with my production designer, I started working on a huge water tank in which houses could float to economically execute the plan.
The film was announced in 2018, we started filming in 2019 and had planned to finish by May 2020.
But in March 2020, with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was almost shelved.
The producer wanted me to plan another film, but for two years, I tried convincing him to make 2018.
Finally, we resumed shooting in May 2022, finishing in November and releasing the film in May 2023.
Did COVID-19 bring about any changes in the script?
Yes, it did because the pandemic disrupted my life again.
Since I wasn't doing anything during the lockdown, I had enough time to work on the script.
I was diagnosed with COVID twice, along with my parents, despite locking the door and taking every precaution.
When I was in quarantine, life seemed so empty, the end seemed near, and there was nothing to do except prep for this film.
In May 2020, when we started shooting, I was working with the third draft.
When shooting resumed in May 2022, I was on my 12th draft.
You must have got lots of appreciation. Any reaction from a flood victim that stands out in your memory?
I met the pregnant lady who was air-lifted and saved.
She had had her baby and was crying because the scene in the film was so real, exactly how it had happened.
She, her husband and parents hugged me after watching the film.
It was very emotional.
While the jury voted unanimously, a section believes that your film doesn't stand a chance against stronger competitors.
Yes, I have read such comments, people have the right to express them.
If the criticism is genuine, I will try and correct it in my next film.
For now, even negative comments make our film a talking point.
I know it's potential.
The floods united people in bad times, helped them overcome negativity.
Maybe 2018 will too.
What did you think of RRR which won an Oscar for Best Original Song?
RRR was a huge commercial success.
Baahubali was great too.
But it was (S S) Rajamouli sir's Eega which left a huge impact.
Of the films you have watched this year, which ones made an impression on you?
I have watched a lot of films in different languages but none really impressed, not even mine.
There was nothing like Tumbaad, Visaranai, Asuran or Vada Chennai.
Even the political drama Maamannan, I feel Mari Selvaraj can do better.
An interesting film you directed is Nakshathrangalude Rajakumaran, Mammootty's biography.
It's a short film actually.
I would love to turn it into a feature film, but Mr Mammootty insists his life is not interesting enough to merit one.
I was working as an assistant director when I approached him with the idea in 2012.
He agreed and I started writing the script.
While the scripting was on, I was offered Ohm Shanthi Oshaana with which I made my directorial debut in February 2014.
When I went back to Mr Mammootty, he told me, 'You have made a superhit film, why do you want to film my story now?'
Even last month I went back to him only to hear, 'No, no.'
Maybe once you bring home the Oscar, he will agree?
I hope he does because I intend to make the film someday.
I would require him for just two-three scenes in the last portion.
Since the story is focused on his youth and childhood, I would have to take his son Dulquer Salmaan or some other newcomer to play him.
Are you a Mammootty fan?
No, but Nivin Pauly (actor-producer) is and he recommended a book based on Mr Mammootty's life.
I read it and was inspired by this emotional story of a man who was raised in a village, Chempu in Vaikom in the Kottayam district.
Even as a nine-year-old boy, he wanted to became a mega star, and starting out with small roles, went on to become one.
It's a very inspirational story.
Your own story is very interesting too, given that in 2014, you changed your name from Sijo Joseph to Jude Anthany Joseph.
It was because of a close friend, a distant cousin, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
The family was very depressed knowing he had just a couple of years to live.
That's when I read about St Jude and wondered why people were praying to one of Jesus's 12 apostles who had betrayed him.
I learnt that this was another Jude, a cousin of Christ, and when I visited his church in Cochin, I was asked to pray for nine consecutive Thursdays and my wish would come true.
On the sixth Thursday I learnt that my friend didn't have a brain tumour, his report had got mixed up with someone else's.
I was ecstatic, and since I had promised St Jude that if my wish was fulfilled, I would praise his name to the world, I changed my name to Jude Anthany so everyone, like you, would ask me why and I could talk about the saint.
So what next Jude Anthany Joseph?
I'm doing a Hindi film, an emotional father-son relationship which might work.
Also a huge Telugu film, another relationship drama, with Chiranjeevi sir.