Prithviraj Sukumaran: '9' will redefine Malayalam cinema

The genre-busting sci-fi film hit UAE cinemas this weekend

RG5PHD Bollywood actor Prithviraj Sukumaran during the press conference of film Aurangzeb in Mumbai, India on May 9, 2013. (Rupesh Khot). Dinodia Photos / Alamy Stock Photo
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New sci-fi-meets-horror-meets-thriller 9 is set to redraw the map for Malayalam cinema, according to its star Prithviraj Sukumaran.

The genre-bending film, which tells the story of a father’s struggle to protect his son from nightmarish visions and crippling fear, has already marked some notable firsts. It is the first Malayalam film to be distributed by Sony Pictures Entertainment in India, and also marks a debut outing for Sukumaran’s newly founded Prithviraj Productions.

It is also one of the biggest global Malayalam film releases to date, hitting screens in the UAE, India, Singapore and Australia simultaneously this weekend, then rolling out in the UK and US next weekend. The film is unique in more ways than that though, says its star.

"This is something really new in Malayalam cinema as a genre," Sukumaran told The National at the film's UAE premiere in Dubai. "It's something I've never really seen or heard of before. I've done more than 100 films, which is a sizeable chunk of life in cinema, so if something can startle me then I think we can say we're looking at something fairly new."

The actor added that reviews have been "overwhelmingly positive", with his mission for the film being to "create something totally new". "The best we can hope for us that people walk out entertained, engaged, and having seen something they haven’t seen before, and we hope we’ve succeeded," Sukumaran said.

It’s true that Malayalam cinema is known more for its brooding dramas than for epic sci-fi, or the glitz and glam of its all-singing, all-dancing Bollywood sibling, so where did Sukumaran look for inspiration for his latest role?

"I'm not sure I've ever seen anything like this in Hindi, so I couldn't really pick anything out there," he says. "Even in western cinema I couldn't come up with a straight comparison. It's not an out-and-out sci-fi like 2001: A Space Odyssey, nor is it a horror like The Exorcist, nor is it a straight thriller. The really crucial point of the narrative is this father/son relationship you see. I guess the closest comparison I could come up with is maybe a M Night Shyamalan film, the way he kind of designs the plot narrative."

Writer and director Jenus Mohamed agrees that the film is something of a watershed moment for the Malayalam industry. “What we wanted was to make an attempt to do something totally new in Malayalam cinema," Mohamed said. "It really is the very first genre mash-up in Malayalam cinema. It’s all in there – sci-fi, horror, thriller, family relationships.”

So why has it taken so long for the industry to come up with this kind of a concept? The answer is simple, according to Sukumaran – like many things, it's down to money.

“There’s this misconception that this genre needs extremely big budgets,” he explained. “I’m not saying you can make a sci-fi with nothing, but there is a way to pull something like this off to global standards without having to spend a huge amount. That’s something Malayalam producers had thought was not possible. Way back when I first got the script and was pitching it to producers, the feedback I was getting is ‘this isn’t possible.'"

Fortunately for audiences, one crucial person could be convinced – Sukumaran himself. “I couldn’t convince them, but Jenus could convince me. So I took production on myself. It’s not a small film, but it’s well within the constraints of a Malayalam-budgeted film. I think that when you see it you won’t think there are any compromises.”

With the film in cinemas this weekend, Sukumaran hopes it can now herald in a new era in his homeland's film industry. "I hope after this if another film maker comes along with a big idea and can't get any support, he can say, "well 9 happened, so we can make this happen too.'"

9 is in cinemas now