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Malayali filmmaker Shalini Ushadevi on winning the National Award for the Best Screenplay for the Tamil film ‘Soorarai Pottru’


Shalini is now working on the screenplay of a true crime series for Netflix and will soon be writing and directing a Hindi movie

Shalini is now working on the screenplay of a true crime series for Netflix and will soon be writing and directing a Hindi movie

Filmmaker and screenplay writer Shalini Ushadevi is flying high on accolades as she bags her first National Film Award for Best Screenplay (original) for the Tamil film Soorarai Pottru, which she co-wrote with Sudha Kongara, the film’s director. In fact, Soorarai Pottru, partly inspired by the life and times of entrepreneur Captain G R Gopinath of low-cost carrier Air Deccan, won five National Awards — the most for any film this year — including the awards for Best Film, Best Actor for Suriya and Best Actress for Aparna Balamurali, its lead stars. 

As someone who often shuns the limelight and prefers to let her work talk, we find Shalini at her home in Thiruvananthapuram fielding dozens of congratulatory calls, posing for photos and being garlanded with innumerable ponnadas (shawls) from well-wishers. Taking a breather she says, a tad self-consciously, “The award came as a pleasant surprise. All the attention, not so much! I am touched by all the support, though.” 

Fahadh Faasil and Anumol in a still from Akam, directed by Shalini Ushadevi
| Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In tinsel town

After graduating in direction from the Prague Film School in the Czech Republic, Shalini debuted in filmdom as the writer and director of the Malayalam film Akam (2011), a modern-day adaptation of Malayatoor Ramakrishnan’s seminal novel Yakshi. It stars Fahadh Faasil and Anumol in the lead and tells the story of a young architect who begins to suspect that his wife is a yakshi (demoness).

Soorarai Pottru (2020) is only her second ever credited screenplay and first big-budget film. It narrates the tale of small-town guy Nedumaaran a.k.a. Maara (Suriya), an air force pilot, who aspires to start a budget airline and the hardships and apathy he faces on his quest to give wings to his dreams.

Suriya and Aparna Balamurali in a still from Soorarai Pottru

Suriya and Aparna Balamurali in a still from Soorarai Pottru
| Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Shalini and Sudha worked on the screenplay of the film for almost two years. “Sudha had already written the story when I came on board. Essentially, the film is a business tale. To turn what is a fairly dry subject into a screenplay with heart, an underdog story that could resonate with everyone, required a lot of work and re-work from us. Sudha was particular about the script being airtight and had a very clear picture about it,” says Shalini. 

The duo structured the screenplay to traverse between the past and the present and managed to pull it off rather brilliantly. “The idea was to show the struggle of an entrepreneur. To marry the two timelines seamlessly was a real challenge. For someone like me who is terrible at math, screenplays are the closest I get to making things fit mathematically and finding a balance,” she says. 

Another aspect of the screenplay that won the hearts of both the audience and critics alike was the character of Bommi (Aparna), Maara’s wife and boss woman in her own right, who is struggling to set up a bakery business. “She doesn’t strive to be likeable and she is not okay being a martyr. She is a woman with her own ambitions, has a rich internal life and her own obstacles to overcome. It was important to us that Bommi’s journey as an entrepreneur was as important as Maara’s,” says the writer-director, breaking off rather resignedly, to attend yet another unexpected ponnada felicitation. 

Art of story-telling

Back in the hot seat a short while later, Shalini contemplates her love for filmmaking. “As a literature graduate, I like storytelling in its many forms. I like the art of cinema and like every aspect of filmmaking. That said, the backbone of a film for me is the script; it’s always the hero of the film. I enjoy writing both fiction and non-fiction. My training as a journalist also has helped me identify subjects, decode research and find the heart of the story. To tell it cinematically is something that I enjoy,” she says. 

So, what makes a good screenplay? “You have to be invested in the characters, be engaged in the plot and be able to, as they say, ‘kill your darlings’, that is chop out anything and everything unnecessary,” she explains, adding that for Soorarai Pottru she has applied lessons learnt from her work on Akam. “I made my first film to my own metric. This time around I was constantly thinking about the audience and their wants and needs. Ultimately it is for them that we make a film, right?” 

Not one to rest on laurels, Shalini is already hard at work on her next screenplay — a true crime series for Netflix, produced by India Today. She is also writing and directing a Hindi movie for a major production house, to be announced shortly.

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