Based on Vaikom Mohammed Basheer’s short story Neelavelicham, the original 1964 film titled Bhargavi Nilayam had both terrorised and captivated an entire generation. And it was with great caution that director Aashiq Abu decided to reimagine the movie in 2023, with Rima playing the lead role of the dancer/spirit Bhargavi.

This time around, the makers have been able to retain the name Neelavelicham (blue light) as there are now options to show colour!

In a free flowing candid conversation, the dancer-actress opens up about how the film has been an almost life-changing experience, how it turned her to the path of ‘unlearning’ and much more.

To remake an iconic movie from another era would have been quite intimidating. How did all of you approach it as a team?
We have been discussing this project for quite some time now; whether we should we stick to the original screenplay (written by Basheer himself), or relook it from a contemporary space. But none of us liked the word ‘remake’. Finally we decided we would ‘reimagine’ it in our way, with complete respect to the original.

And I think that was the moment we all relaxed, because the magnitude of the project did put some pressure on all of us in the beginning. Each person who reads the story would have a version in their minds and this movie is Aashiq’s vision of the story.

Also there needs to be something new that we, as artists, should bring to the table, or else there’s no point making a version of this movie after 60 years, of which numerous directors and producers have tried to buy the rights.

What about your character, Bhargavi? Did you read the short story and watch the original movie multiple times or did you decide to do neither?
Yes, I read the story. And it was quite interesting because I had to unlearn everything that I have learned over the years, all of our ‘contemporary values’, to become this character. We live in a different era, and look at romance and femininity differently. But Bhargavi was a woman who lived in this 60s, who was very naive, vulnerable and in love. At the same time, she was Basheer’s heroine. He never wanted his women to be coy. Bhargavi was gutsy as well; she made the first move in her relationships and was open about it. So I had to kind of keep both of these in mind and it was quite a challenge.

At the same time, I realised that it takes courage to be that vulnerable and that hit me. I really enjoyed being that romantic soul who believes in love without any boundaries, ready to surrender. I think we all have that person inside us. The world that we live in today, we are not allowed to explore it enough. And I took this opportunity to let go and let the character take over for some time.

As an artist, you let your character and your emotions take over for some roles and I think I let Bhargavi do that to me a bit. And sometimes I retain a bit of it. I’m definitely carrying Bhargavi with me throughout my life. I think that’s why actors are so blessed; we get to explore these sides of us that we are afraid to approach.

And the story happens in another age. Did you do any particular homework to get the body language right?
We had just moved on to celluloid from stage and the body language of the actors was a little exaggerated during that era. But I didn’t want it to look like I mimicked them and wanted to keep it as real as possible.

You know what the bridge was? The music. I fell in love with the songs and the lyrics. I suddenly realised I’m an old soul. We started the shoot with a song and I walked on that bridge and got into the movie.

I guess you’re still in that in Bhargavi effect…

Yeah, yeah, totally. I still dress like Bhargavi and I wear her anklets.

There are films that grip you and refuse to let go. I remember the same after Rithu, 22 Female Kottayam, Nidra etc. I’ve heard of legendary actors who break off immediately after ‘cut’. I’m not even a method actor but I wish I could do that.

We were shooting in this 13-acre property with an old house, which we converted into Bhargavi Nilayam. It was like getting into another era and we were cut off from the rest of the world. And there was so much of night shoots that we completely lost track of date and time. I don’t think I’ve had this kind of an experience before and it was almost life changing for me.

You really had to believe in another time, a slower pace, where you would fall in love with a person without meeting them every day, without communicating, without even seeing each other! We want to give the audience a different experience, where they can be cut off from our fast paced world, relax and go back to simpler times for two and a half hours.

Even your 2009 movie Neelathamara was shot in a different era right?
Now that you say that, I realise I’m actually one of the few actors who has done a Basheer and an MT Vasudevan Nair character.

Even Neelathamara was a beautiful experience for me. I was doing Rithu on one side which was about a contemporary IT girl. I was lucky as an artist to do something like that as my first film. I was being apprehensive about playing this settu mundu-clad woman. But I remember MT sir conveying his approval during a dress rehearsal through his characteristic nod.

Even my voice is not the typical kilinadam (high pitched voices of many female dubbing artists) that you usually hear in films. But both my directors — Lal Jose and Shyam Prasad sir — were convinced that I should use my own voice for these characters.

I’m thankful because otherwise I would have had to get my voice dubbed throughout my career. All these people trusting in you at the beginning of your career can really do wonders to your confidence, I realise, when I look back.

For Neelavelicham too, we had this whole conversation on whether we should tone my voice down. And then we decided that no, we won’t do any of that. Why do we assume a particular kind of a body language or voice would denote women of a whole era?

You described your co-actor Roshan Mathew as the ‘best person in the industry’ somewhere on social media.
I was the one who felt that Roshan should play the character of Sasikumar. And Roshan surprised me, by how he took it to a completely different, nuanced face of this very soft masculine space. I think it’s part of his character as a person, who he is, how understands his masculinity and relationships. He brought that element into Sasikumar which is quite endearing. It’s important in the film that the audience connect to his emotions.

There was this one scene where I am crying, and we say the same lines to each other. I wasn’t sure how he was going to do it and thought he would be this protective, masculine alpha person. But Roshan delivered it in such a gentle and soft manner, giving into the emotions, rather than holding back. And I was surprised as an artist and as a human being. Because there’s such grace in letting go when it comes from a man, and I have always wanted to see men like that in real.

The movie has a lot of dance sequences. Was that decided after you, a professional dancer, was cast for the lead role?
The same song and dance sequences were present in the original film as well but we have used them more as a narrative tool to build the romance between Sasikumar and Bhargavi. Because our film is relatively shorter than the original.

Usually people are quick to judge a version of an iconic song but they seem to like the new versions of Anuraga Madhuchashakam and Thamasamenthe in Neelavelicham.
Yes, these are iconic songs and while Chitra chechi (singer KS Chitra) was nervous but excited, Shahabaz Aman and Bijibal were like, ‘I can’t do this. The pressure is too much. And we shouldn’t do this’. Aashiq had to fight with them to convince them. But we are all a bunch of die-hard romantics at the end of it all and decided that the experience is something we want to go through, even if we were making a mistake.

After this film, do you feel that working with the right team or people who get each other is important for a film to come together?
I’ve always believed that, right from 22 Female Kottayam to Rani Padmini to Dr. Biju’s film… when you really enjoy the process; you are completely present in the moment. You know you have given all your heart to it and that happens only when there’s beautiful synergy on set.

If you are in a bad space, if there’s negative energy around, if you’re intimidated by something or there are hierarchical issues, it will show in the final product. Because we are all human beings and you’re working with human emotions. That is what you’re portraying or capturing.

What else is coming up?
What I’m doing next is also a dancer role but it’s completely different. It’s for a series on Hotstar and the shoot has started. My character is that of a small town girl who moves to Bangalore and comes back to find her roots.

What is happening on the dance front?
At Mamangam (Rima’s dance school) we recently did an eight-part video series on the weaving process in Chendamangalam (the handloom capital of Kerala). I had worked with the weavers’ community during the floods, when they had lost all their products. Later on, we worked with this organisation called Save the Loom and documented the whole process of handloom weaving so that people understand what goes into the making of a mundu, right from getting the yarn to dyeing it, washing it, preparing the loom and then the weaving process. We’ve cut it down to eight different phases and have choreographed it in such a way that the visual movements are taken from the day-to-day body language of the weavers.

Working with the weavers has been a beautiful process. For Rs 400-500, you will get a power loom-made mundu (dhoti). But a handloom mundu will cost Rs 1000, because there are some 35 people involved in the making, who have to labour for two days for that one piece of fabric.

Where will it be presented?
A handloom museum is being built at Chendamangalam which will open at the end of this year. I’m doing a live presentation as well and we hope to present the the video series and the choreography at the museum.

Your travels seem to be to unconventional places often. Your last trip was to Hanoi in Vietnam, right?
I somehow make time for travel always.

There was a time when travelling was all about group trips. But now it’s about quiet time. I love my solo travels more now and if I get a chance I do as solo trip. I do touch up the touristy spots but the rest of the trip would be somewhere quiet, like deep in the jungle.

I also have this girl friend with whom I do a trip every year. We decided to go to Vietnam this time, after I finished shoot of Neelavelicham. I was also trying to see if I can completely cut away from the film but no, even Vietnam couldn’t do it.

In your Instagram profile, you describe yourself as an ‘artivist’ and ‘unlearner’.
Now I’m only an unlearner actually!

These are all phases of your evolution as a person, I think. There was this time when I was very clear that I wanted to use my art to engage with society and the world I’m living in. But I feel that if I let the activism part take over, my art gets affected. I get the most happiness when I’m engaging with my art and I want that to take precedence. As a person, I’m 100 percent sure that I will continue to engage with the world around me but I don’t have to make a statement out of it. That’s why I’m unlearning a lot of things.

You learn, and you unlearn on the way.

By Asha Prakash