A gender-bending, genre-defying Malayalam-Hindi bilingual film, Geetu Mohandas's "Moothon" (The Elder One), shot guerrilla style in Mumbai's red-light district, premiered at the 44th Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in the heritage Winter Garden theatre on Wednesday night.
The principal cast members, including lead actor Nivin Pauly, Shashank Arora, Sobhita Dhulipala and Roshan Mathew, were in attendance.
Ahead of the screening, actor-turned-director Mohandas was on the stage along with co-producer Anurag Kashyap, for whom this was the third straight year in TIFF.
Two films directed by the Bollywood maverick "Mukkabaaz" and "Manmarziyaan" were premiered here in 2017 and 2018 respectively.
"Moothon" tells the story of a 14-year-old boy, Mulla, who travels to Mumbai at great risk to look for an elder brother, Akbar, who left their Lakshadweep island home many years ago. The older sibling is now an underworld lynchpin and the ingenue finds himself trapped in a world of vicious gangsters, foul-mouthed sex workers, child traffickers and cross-dressers.
The film erases gender lines and deals with sexual identity and orientation in a milieu where force and violence are always employed to settle matters. It subverts the notions of masculinity that underpin gangster films by presenting a male protagonist whose vulnerabilities are all too obvious.
About her decision to cast Malayalam cinema megastar Nivin Pauly in Moothon, Mohandas said: "He is my neighbour. I keep bumping into him in the elevator. I was looking for an actor who would exude innocence and a certain rawness. The fact that he is a superstar helped."
Pauly pointed out that for both the two languages that he speaks in the film the Lakshadweep dialect and Hindi he had a coach. "The Malayalam used in "Moothon" is slightly different from the language we speak in Kerala," the actor said.
"It is always great to be in TIFF. The audience here is wonderful," Kashyap said. Later in the evening, in the post-screening interaction, the filmmaker joked that he and Mohandas always fought over whose film cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, the "Moothon" director's real-life spouse, would work for.
"I have been working on this project for nearly three years," Mohandas said. "It took off when it was selected for the Sundance Screenwriters Lab." Mohandas' first directorial venture, "Liar's Dice", India's 2013 entry for the Oscars, played in both Sundance and the International Film Festival of Rotterdam.
Mohandas acknowledged that the Lakshadweep leg of the shoot was a breeze, but filming in Kamathipura was tough. It was here that Rajeev Ravi's skills in no light came in handy.
"We shot in real places with real people and placed the actor there," said Mohandas. "We filmed with a 10-member crew and a very small camera.
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