'Nayattu was interpreted in ways I had not even imagined', says Shahi Kabir

The policeman-filmmaker won the national award for his screenplay for Nayattu

82-Shahi-Kabir Shahi Kabir | Vignesh Krishnamoorthy

When the 69th national film awards were being announced in Delhi on August 24, writer-filmmaker Shahi Kabir was at Ilaveezhapoonchira in Kerala’s Kottayam district, 3,200ft above sea level. As a civil police officer once stationed there, Kabir had worked in a cramped tin shed that doubled as a wireless station for the Kerala Police and living quarters for the policemen manning it.

The staying conditions have since improved, but Kabir skilfully recreated those days for his directorial debut―Ela Veezha Poonchira―a murder mystery involving two policemen, in 2022.

His latest trip there was to see Nidhish G., a fellow officer, dear friend and the scriptwriter of Ela Veezha Poonchira. “The place has connectivity issues, making me completely inaccessible,” Kabir told THE WEEK in his baritone. “I do not know who delivered the news, but someone told Nidhish that I was chosen for the national award for best original screenplay for Nayattu.”

Directed by Martin Prakkat, Nayattu was a story of three civil police officers who find themselves on the run after being framed in a case under political pressure. “Nayattu was based on a real incident that occurred in Piravom (Ernakulam) during the 2011 elections,” said Kabir. “Two dalit children were injured in an accident involving a trio of police officers. The issue gained a lot of attention and the officers had to go into hiding. I took only this thread from the real incident; the rest of the story is fictional.”

Nayattu offered a poignant take on how the deeply hierarchical policing system in the country falters, simultaneously letting down society and its own officers, all the while grappling with relentless political pressure.

The film also delved into the complex internal states of its characters. This emotional exploration was evident in Kabir’s first movie as a writer, Joseph (2018), and Ela Veezha Poonchira, too. This knack for observation, he said, came not from his police work, but from his avid interest in reading books on human psychology. “However,” he said, “I do not possess a formal academic degree in psychology or any other subject.”

In a way, he credits the Kerala Police for nudging him towards his film career. “My journey in the police department began in 2005,” he said. “Initially, I was posted at police camps, but when I started working at local police stations, I saw the emotional challenges people faced. I have always had a bit of extra empathy in me. We dealt with negative issues on a daily basis, and it started to affect me deeply. So, I yearned to explore something beyond this realm. I realised that cinema might be an avenue worth exploring.”

Camp life influenced the scriptwriter in him. “I never wrote a story during my school or college years,” he said. “However, during our time at the camps, I would share numerous stories with my colleagues just to pass the time. It was not long before they encouraged me to transform these stories into scripts.”

After the release of Nayattu, some critics called it a film with ‘anti-dalit politics’. Kabir, though, said that once a film is released, neither the writer nor the director has control over the way the audience perceives it. “Nayattu was interpreted in ways I had not even imagined,” he said.

Over the past two decades, Kabir has intimately seen the myriad emotions people face; he has a remarkable ability to grasp the subtle intricacies of these emotions, making him an exceptional storyteller deserving of national recognition.