After controversies in Malayalam cinema, while most celebrities prefer to remain tight-lipped or diplomatic, someone like Sandra Thomas is a delight for journalists. An ardent and outspoken person, Sandra, unlike her peers, likes to call a spade a spade.
The producer behind popular movies like Aadu, Zachariayude Garbhinikal, Philips and the Monkey Pen and Adi Kapiare Kutamani, is now all set to make a comeback with male star Nala Nilavula Ratri. In this conversation with CUTSandra is at her best as she reacts to relevant topics including the male ego and film houses’ decision to distance themselves from actors Shane Nigam and Srinath Bhasi, as well as allegations of the menace of drugs in the film industry.
Please tell us how you tackled your first project…
When Sajid Yahia (director) approached me with his cousin’s story about Friday (2012), I liked it. I knew nothing about the process at the time. I wasn’t very serious. I thought if it didn’t work out, I might as well give it to someone else. I just wanted to learn about the process. I had enough money for an actor’s advance. There was a point where the project fell through and we felt desperate. However, I continued because I was aware of the real incident that happened in Alappuzha.
I then approached Vijay (Babu) of Surya TV who initially showed no support but was ready to bear half the burden if I got Fahadh Faasil’s date. Luckily for us, he was inside and everything fell into place. The rest is history.
How do you choose your topics?
I’m not very picky. I’m open to any stories as long as they pique my interest. But before I give the go-ahead, I discuss it a few times with my inner circle and if they respond the same way, I know I can go ahead with it. This is not a decision I can make alone. Still, cinema is consumed by many people.
Have you ever made a movie that you didn’t like the script of, but you did it anyway because the people around you loved it?
There was a time when I did. When I worked at Friday Film House, some of these decisions were wrong and some were right. Vijay and I even fought about it. We always had different opinions about everything. Right now, I’m the only one who decides. So things are going well.
As a female producer, how did you feel about gender influence when you entered the industry?
It’s an ongoing challenge that started with my first film. Usually, people who have worked in all these companies have a better understanding of office politics and people management. Since I’m not, it was hard for me. I dove into this business straight out of college. I’m straight. I can’t be diplomatic. I don’t understand the backroom games. Although these issues have lessened now that I am in a certain position, one has to deal with newer issues considering the involvement of a woman.
It is not easy to deal with the ego of men who do not like questions, unlike a man who does the same. We must exert twice as much effort as men do; only then do they recognize us. But there’s a thrill to it – to be part of a male-dominated industry and run it all is a matter of pride for me. When I first started I got a warm welcome from all over. They saw a woman making a film alone with respect. But the attitude is still along the lines of, “She can share dias with us, but she shouldn’t dare question us.”
I still feel it Perumtachan effect to some extent. I think all problems would disappear if everyone was perceived as equal. Everyone wants to survive. There have been times when your self-respect has been put to the test, and in such cases, you can’t help but choose that over money. If someone treats you with disrespect, it is better not to work with that person again.
How do you see the difference between a female producer and a male producer?
Well, it’s easier for men to find projects when they’re dating others. The approach is completely different. If I tell someone not to do a certain thing, they will take offense. But with a male producer, they take it for granted. How dare a woman say no, right? Also, if some problems happen, it is easier for men to solve them. They pat themselves on the back or hang out in the evening. But for a female producer to resolve such an incident, a third party is needed or we have to go and apologise.
Some directors prefer not to hire female crews on the set, fearing untoward incidents. Have you ever thought so?
I don’t mind Also, as a woman, I find it easier to deal with women than men. But it’s true, problems can happen, especially since women are a bit more sensitive. And if the crew is all women, there will be no problems.
How far has the producer in you developed since the Friday Movie House days?
When I was running Friday Film House, I was like an impulsive teenager who reacted very emotionally to everything. It used to affect me. I didn’t know how to deal with people. But many things have changed since my pregnancy and motherhood. I am a much more compassionate person today. I’m a strict producer, but outside of work I’m very friendly. I wish people would just accept me for who I am. Anyway, I have no plans to change myself to please others.
You are known as an outspoken person. Has this quality influenced your career?
Yes, it affected my career. But today, I also realize that many people, especially women, who face gender bias and struggle hard to balance work and personal life can relate to me. People in the industry are also gradually acknowledging me and my words. While these are advantages of being an outspoken person, there are also an equal share of disadvantages. I can be really rude at times and this has caused a few break ups. So my outspoken nature comes at a price.
The current raging topic in Malayalam cinema circles is actors not cooperating. What is your opinion on this matter?
Honestly, it’s a nightmare to deal with uncooperative actors. I prefer to be direct and transparent. When we hire actors, we send them the script first. They agree to be part of the project after reading the script, right? So there is no question of ordering changes during the shoot. But in Shane Nigam’s case, I don’t know what is wrong with his request to check the edited footage. It only becomes a problem when he tries to involve himself in the process and demands modifications according to his wish.
You were one of the few who voiced their support for Shane Nigam….
I see Shane as a young man with a bright future. But all these contradictions can affect his mental health. I am really concerned about him; probably because of my maternal instinct. I’m still not sure what happened on set RDX. Could be some silly ego conflicts. This is common in multi-starrer films, where the makers present scripts to each actor, highlighting him as a character. But once these actors start filming and realize the extent of their fame, it becomes a problem.
I guess that happened here too. But whatever the problem was, it should not have been brought to public attention. It had to be decided amicably within the association. The emails Shane and the producer (Sophia Paul) sent were leaked and made matters worse. There is absolutely no confidentiality of the proceedings. So what is the role of these associations?
Would you dare cast Shane Nigam or Srinath Bhasi in any of your upcoming films?
I’m not sure about that. As far as I know, the film authorities have reached a consensus with the exhibitors by ensuring that films featuring Shane Nigam or Srinath Bhasi will not be released in theatres. These are influential people who can also block digital and satellite rights. As a producer, how can I invest in a film with them even though I know I won’t be able to get it back? After all, cinema is a business. I can’t put myself in trouble to help others.
And what about the widespread allegations of drug use on film locations?
It is true that drug use is rampant in Malayalam cinema. It is high time to control it because there are many problems associated with it. People who take these drugs do not sleep at night, so they are always late for the shots. We also don’t know when they are sober. They will nod to all our instructions, but they will not listen to us. They constantly forget the time and dates. At the end of the day, it’s the producer who suffers.
Have you thought twice before setting up your new production house?
Not once, a hundred times. I wasn’t that interested in going back. I even thought that I was not a suitable person for cinema. It’s a very stressful job. I gained a lot of weight due to stress eating. So I never wanted to go back. But my family loves movies and they constantly encouraged me. When I used this gap, I wondered what my purpose in life was. To take care of my children and raise them? They will grow up anyway. I wanted to do something. Then I thought why not give the newcomers a chance? Help them survive and stay in the industry. It is very difficult to enter the cinema and even more difficult to survive here. So I wanted to be a bridge in that space. Whether they are actors or technicians, I wanted to give them an opportunity. This desire made me return to cinema. Right now, I believe this is my life’s purpose.
Nalla Nilavulla Rathri is a thriller, your first foray into the genre…
Lately we have been watching a lot of female oriented movies. I wanted to do something for men. Also, my husband is a thriller fan. I don’t necessarily do it for him or other men; there’s just room for it – the all-male film that revolves around their lives and celebrates their friendship… It’s an edge-of-the-seat thriller.
Do you think OTTs are useful?
Of course they are. This is another new platform. But the same issues persist with OTT that we faced during the theaters. When we approach them with a movie, the first question is, “Who’s the lead?” They don’t want to know the content or the story. Be it satellite or OTT, the industry is driven by the actors. This is one of the main reasons why producers do not offer new talent.
What is the main need of Malayalam industry?
Good writers. We lack people who read a lot, who lack life experience… So I think what we need most are good writers who also read. And more women need to enter the industry. Only then will there be real change.
Have you ever regretted it when a script you rejected turned into a hit?
No. When I reject a script, I always say it didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t mean every producer will feel the same way. Surely someone else will like it and should refer to others.
Was there a project you were interested in but didn’t start? Like Om Shanti Oshaana? You originally had to create it…
I was really upset when this happened. It was in the days of the Friday movie house. I arranged the apology letter in my office. I wasn’t mad at Midhun (Midhum Manuel Thomas). But I didn’t want to do another project with him anytime soon.
However, he approached Vijay with a story for a short film. But Vijay wanted it to be a feature film. They didn’t tell me at first, fearing my reaction. When I found out, I was very angry with Vijay as he knew how the incident happened Om Shanti Oshaana it affected me.
But then he told me, “It’s just business; why be angry with someone for a long time?” Honestly, I enjoyed the whole shoot Goodbye (directed by Midhun). This is probably the most enjoyable film I’ve ever worked on. But what Vijay did upset me. Because you don’t expect your business partner to be willing to work with someone you’re not very good with.
(TNIE Team: Cithara Paul, Sajin Shrijith, Vignesh Madhu, Krishna PS)