Staying The Course ; Venu Kunnappilly
Venu Kunnappilly made his debut as a producer with the hit, ‘Mamangam’, in 2019. He talks about his experiences in Mollywood.
By Shevlin Sebastian
From childhood Venu Kunnappilly loved watching movies. It remained his primary pastime during college and in his life in Dubai. One day, a thought arose in his mind: how can I enter Mollywood? Venu pondered over the options. He could be an actor, director, cinematographer, singer or scriptwriter. But he felt he did not have the talent for any of them. So, Venu felt the only way was to be a producer.
Through a friend in the industry, he sent out feelers he wanted to produce a film.
Vivek Ramadevan, one of Mollywood’s leading entertainment and marketing consultants, met Venu. He narrated the story of ‘Mamangam’ for over two hours.
Every 12 years, in the 18th century, the Mamangam festival would take place on the banks of the Nila river in the town of Thirunavaya in north Kerala. The Zamorin, the Hindu chiefs of Kozhikode, conducted the festival. Several years ago, they seized ownership of the festival from Valluvakkonathiri, who were the rulers of an independent kingdom in central Kerala. Every year, the Valluvakkonathiri sent their best warriors to confront and kill the Zamorin, who would always appear at the festival with his family members.
Venu Kunnappilly liked the script because he had always liked to watch historical themes in films. In his childhood, he liked ‘Unniyarcha’ (1961). This was based on Unniyarcha, a legendary warrior. She had been mentioned in ‘Vadakkan Pattukal’, a set of ballads.
Another film he enjoyed watching was ‘Kayamkulam Kochunni’ (1966). Kochunni was an outlaw who stole from the rich and gave to the poor in present-day Travancore.
To get confirmation from Mammootty, Venu met him for the first time in a suite at the Grand Hyatt in Dubai in 2017. He was taken aback by the superstar’s genuine respect shown to him. Mammootty inquired whether Venu wanted to drink or eat something. Then he asked about Venu’s family and all other aspects of his life. “Mammootty was a straight-forward, and down-to-earth person,” said Venu.
The aspiring producer was keen for Mammootty to take the lead role. Because he knew the actor excelled in historical roles. He had admired Mammootty’s performance in ‘Pazhassi Raja’ (2009).
Mammootty had played Pazhassi (1753–1805), who was the de facto head of the kingdom of Kottayam, otherwise known as Cotiote, in Malabar.
Pazhassi fought against the exploitation of farmers, through steep taxation, by the British East India Company. There were constant battles between Pazhassi and his men against the British. Eventually, the British killed Pazhassi, aged 52, on November 30, 1805, in a gun-fight at Mavila Thodu, on the border of present-day Kerala and Karnataka.
Mammootty confirmed again. So, Venu became a producer.
When the film came out, ‘Mamangam’ became a box office hit. It grossed Rs 100 crore at the box office.
Venu Kunnappilly learnt some important lessons after his first film. “If you have a good relationship with a person, it might break down when you are working together on a film,” said Venu. “So, it is imperative to have clear-cut legal agreements with all the crew members.”
To avoid a financial loss, the producer must ensure he has lucrative deals with OTT platforms and buyers for satellite rights. “So, when the film hits the theatres, you have already recovered your costs,” said Venu. If the film becomes a hit, then all the theatres income is a profit for the producer.
Following ‘Mamangam’, Venu has ploughed ahead. He produced ‘Night Drive’, and ‘Drishyam-2’ in Kannada. ‘Eesho’ is coming out next month. Directed by Nadir Shah, it features Jayasurya and Namitha Pramod in the lead roles. The shoot of the film, ‘2018’, budgeted at Rs 25 crore, is in progress. It stars Kunchacko Boban, Tovino Thomas, Asif Ali, and Vineeth Sreenivasan. The shoot of two other films, ‘Chaver’ and ‘Malikappuram’ is also taking place now.
Venu Kunnappilly also released a Hollywood film called ‘After Midnight’ on February 11, 2021. Jeremy Gardner and Christian Stella play the main roles. The meta score on imdb.com is 55 out of 100.
Mammootty and Mohanlal
In April, 2019, Mammootty was shooting for ‘Mamangam’ during the month of Ramzan. He was fasting the entire day. A battle scene was being filmed on an 18-acre land, behind Lakeshore Hospital in Kundanoor, Kochi. “After a whole day’s shoot, with no food, Mammootty had to continue shooting till 2 a.m.,” said Venu. “But he never complained at all. He was tireless on the set.”
In the film, Mammootty had to don the role of a woman. The actor was chatting with Venu and cracked a few jokes. Then the director said, “Action.” Right in front of Venu’s eyes, he saw Mammootty transforming himself into a woman. “It was amazing how effortlessly he slipped into the role,” said Venu.
The producer realised it was the passion for acting that drove Mammootty. “Whatever role he takes on, he plays it with the utmost dedication,” said Venu. Immense wealth and stardom have not satiated Mammootty’s burning drive to excel. “The youngsters of today make two or three films a year. The rest of the time they are enjoying themselves and going for vacations,” said Venu. “Mammootty’s primary focus and enjoyment is acting.”
Venu Kunnappilly met Mohanlal three years ago. The actor expressed an interest in buying an apartment in ‘The Identity Twin Towers’ that Venu was building right next to the Crowne Plaza hotel in Kochi. Mohanlal bought two apartments on the 15th and 16th floor. This was converted into a duplex, with interior staircases, and has a floor area of 9500 sq. ft.
As for Venu, he stays on the 11th floor. The view from the veranda is breath-taking. Except for the Le Meridien hotel, which is on the opposite side, the vista is one of green vegetation, rivers and the wide arc of the sky above. A sharp breeze blows all the time.
“Mohanlal is able to get along with all sorts of people,” said Venu. “He has no airs at all. When he is talking to you, he is so down-to-earth that sometimes you forget that he is a superstar. He always asks about others life and what is happening in it.”
Both Mohanlal and Mammootty have an immense positive energy about them. “It could be because they are both doing work for which they have an immense passion,” said Venu.
On how they have endured as stars for over 30 years, Venu said, “Both arrived at the right time and at the right place. They have played so many roles which have been ingrained in the Malayali psyche. We will always look at them with awe and reverence. But they have also maintained their image.”
Early life and career
Venu Kunnappilly was born in Ayyampilly on the Vypeen islands. His father cultivated prawns and did pokkali farming (pokkali is a saline tolerant rice that is grown in the coastal regions). Venu did his early schooling in the Rama Varma Union High School in Cherai. The school is over one hundred years old. The large building has a tiled roof, and British-style columns along the veranda of the ground floor. There is a sandy courtyard in front. Today, it has over 800 students on its rolls.
After completing his Class 10, Venu did his pre-degree at the Sree Narayana Mangalam College, Maliankara. In 1986, he joined the Noorul Islam Polytechnic College in Tamil Nadu to do a three-year diploma course in automobile engineering. Venu had a desire to become a vehicle inspector in the state motor vehicles department, that would assure him of a steady salary.
But after graduating with high marks, he got a job as a trainee in the Royal Enfield company. It makes the iconic Bullet motorcycles at their factory near Madurai. But he worked there for only four months before he got a chance to go to Saudi Arabia.
On May 17, 1990, he joined as the head of the automobile division at the Al Omarani company. The agency did the maintenance for all government vehicles. But Venu soon discovered that his lack of experience was creating a problem.
Venu Kunnappilly had worked with the Tata, Ambassador Ashok Leyland and Maruti cars. But in Saudi Arabia, he was working with Mercedes Benz, BMW, the Range Rover and Jaguars. Venu was seeing their engines for the first time.
The workers, Malayalis, North Indians, Bengalis, Filipinos and Pakistanis, came to him asking for solutions. He found he did not have the necessary knowledge to help them.
But somehow, he learned quickly and worked in the company for three years. In the last year, the company became bankrupt. They paid no salary. Venu found it difficult to eat. Reluctant to come back, Venu did odd jobs here and there. He worked in a vineyard at the hill station of Abha, which is 7200 ft. above sea level. The weather is mild throughout the year. People had to wear sweaters all the time. There is no air-conditioning but heaters are everywhere. There are kilometres and kilometres of vineyards.
Venu Kunnappilly had to walk a few kilometres every day to reach these farms, which were in remote areas. He earned 20 riyals a day. “It was a difficult time,” he said. “Sometimes, we encountered snakes in the fields. We had to be careful.”
Unfortunately, even though the labour rate was agreed upon beforehand, at the end of the day, the supervisors would say the work was not perfect. They would give the workers only five riyals. “It was exploitation,” said Venu. “I would feel upset, but there was little I could do, since I was living in a foreign country.”
In August, 1993, Venu Kunnappilly moved to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates. He worked as a sales executive in a company which dealt in spare parts for the Range Rover. During this time, he learned everything about the business.
Finally, in 2000, Venu took the plunge. He opened a wholesale shop dealing in automobile spare parts in the Deira market. A lot of Africans would come there. Venu would import from India and China and export to several countries in Africa. The business did well from the beginning.
In 2001, he started a packing company with his roommates, with whom he stayed before his marriage in 1997. The company specialises in blister packing. This is a pre-formed packaging, made of plastic, used for consumer goods, foods, and medicines. This has become a large company. He also opened a spare parts shop in the Congo called Auto King. In 2004, he opened a factory making lubricant oil in Ajman.
Venu Kunnappilly has made many visits to South Africa, Mozambique, Zambia, Malawi, Somalia, Djibouti, Tanzania, Kenya, Angola, Togo, Benin Republic, Niger, Burkina Faso, Guinea Bissau, Ghana, Mali and other countries.
Venu Kunnappilly said the Africans differed from place to place. The people who lived under Portuguese rule, in countries like Angola, Congo, Guinea-Bissau and Mozambique, had suffered from centuries of slavery. So, they had low self-esteem and were deferential. The people who lived under French rule, like in Togo, Burkina Faso, Ivory Coast, and Mali, were tough and bargained hard when they did business. But the smartest people were those who grew up under British rule in countries like South Africa, Zambia and Ghana. “They had self-confidence because of the excellent education they received,” said Venu.
But across all countries, one common trait was that the Africans did not trust outsiders. That has been the impact of hundreds of years of slavery. They have a fear that they will be cheated and exploited. “Now, the Chinese are exploiting them,” said Venu. “Poverty is still widespread. Many people only get two meals a day.”
Venu Kunnappilly continues his business in Dubai, building construction in Kerala and a shop in the UK. He also has a film production company in Los Angeles and a Greentech company in Sweden.
Venu Kunnappilly as writer
In November, 2021, Venu Kunnappilly published a collection of 15 short stories called ‘Victoria 18’. This was released at the Sharjah Book Fair last year. Venu wrote the stories in an autobiographical style, but it is all fiction.
Finally, when asked about his advice to young Malayalis, he said, “Please remember, life is very short. No other species has the freedom that we have. We can live and work anywhere. There are so many opportunities. Youngsters should go in search of them. They should avoid spending their time in negative thought processes and harassing people. You should have a dream. And follow it. You have only one life and it goes fast. Always remember that”