In this series, Film Companion picks movies of the past decade with great first and last shots and asks directors to break down how they came up with them, shot them and what their significance is.
The dreamlike first shot and otherworldly last shot of Lijo Jose Pellissery‘s Ee Ma Yau are in stark contrast to the rest of the film, a more grounded story of a harrowed man trying to make arrangements for his father’s funeral and discovering it’s harder than he thought it would be.
Pellissery talks about trying to make the shoot work despite heavy rain and a turbulent sea, how unexpected occurrences can sometimes be gifts and how the film references Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957):
The film opens on a sunny day at the beach. A procession enters from the right, priests in different vestments, a band, coffin bearers. They slowly exit from the left. This is Vavachan’s (Kainakary Thangaraj) ‘dream’ funeral, one he aspires to have.
“I used to think about the first and last shots of my films a lot but now it’s completely instinctive, I just go by what I feel like. For me, the whole of Ee Ma Yau is about Vavachan’s dream and how it turns into a nightmare. So the first shot is Vavachan’s dream. The script had the line: Girls are carrying the coffin. That’s not a visual you usually see, it’s mostly men carrying the coffin. So the beautifully dressed women carrying a coffin hints at it being a dream.
The first scene wasn’t planned that way. In the script, the scene was more detailed, like you could see Vavachan’s face as he’s lying in the coffin, you could see the Russian girls carrying the coffin up close, you could see the band playing, all the details of their costumes were shown. But when we started shooting, I didn’t like any of the close shots because the detailing looked so bad. I didn’t like the finishing on the costumes, for example. And if the camera had been closer, all those minor details would’ve showed up. We had four or five cameras to shoot the procession, we were shooting close-ups, mid shots and wide shots at the same time. The wide shot ended up looking good. And since we’d planned to use this scene as the title sequence, it worked out quite well.
A lot of things went haywire during this scene. It was the last thing we shot in the film because we were waiting for the rains to stop. We also wanted to clean up the beach first and shoot on a clear, sunny day because the rest of the film has such a grey, dark tone. Finally, the rain cleared and we were ready to shoot. There were a lot of people involved in the procession, the Russian girls were actually models from Bangalore so they came in from there. So there had to be a bit of strategy in coordinating this. The night before we had to shoot this scene, it started raining again, and heavily. The whole purpose of the scene was lost so I thought we’d shoot it on another day. Some of the costumes still weren’t ready so it was okay. Next morning, it cleared so we thought we’d go to the beach and make an attempt to shoot since everyone was there. The beach looked dry, as though it hadn’t rained at all.
There’s a pole with a rope hanging from it in the centre of the frame — I think it was once part of a volleyball court. I asked the crew to remove it, they tried a lot but couldn’t because it was stuck in so deep. The longer I looked at the frame, the more the pole looked like something interesting so I let it be. There was also a waste bin there with garbage all around it so we had to clean that up before shooting. There’s a crow that flew straight into the shot, which we weren’t expecting but liked. You just have to accept these things as gifts.
We did just one take. It was a messy situation — it was very hot, the coffin that had to be carried, even without the body, was too heavy for the Russian girls, their costumes were scraping through the sand and they kept stepping on the hems and were going to fall. So I just tried for one, neat take. We made them walk a few more times so we could take close-ups, but didn’t end up using any of them.”
Vavachan and a dog that died earlier in the film wait at the same beach to be taken to the afterlife. They’re accompanied by three figures, one dressed in black, the other two in white. The boats that will ferry them to their final destination draw closer.
“We always knew this was going to be the last shot but had the same problems during the shoot — the sea was very turbulent that day. It was hard to coordinate with the boats while they were out at sea. What kept happening was one boat would arrive first and then the second would follow. We wanted both of them to arrive together but couldn’t coordinate that because our walkie-talkies weren’t working and there was no network. We had to get the shot between 5 pm and 6 pm. We hardly had time because the sun was setting. The beach was crowded, which was also a problem because we wanted it to look empty. We had to clear the crowd. We managed to get the boats to arrive together somewhat and then balanced it out with VFX.
The film looks complete even without this scene, but I just wanted it to give people a glimpse into the ‘other side’, which we’re all curious about. I don’t want to give my theory about this scene. I don’t want to interpret it because that’s questioning the intelligence of the audience. We split everything into black and white, good and bad, there’s also grey in between. So I don’t want to say where Vavachan and the dog are going and who’s come to pick them up. We originally thought of extending the scene and showing two of them getting in one boat, two of them getting in the other, but realized that wasn’t required.
The two card players you see at various points in the film are the same people you see in the end. Earlier, we’d emphasized that, but left it out. If you don’t emphasize things so much, the film looks so much neater. The film’s writer, PF Mathews, is a senior writer and has written these magnificent novels about death. It’s his area of interest. The Seventh Seal was definitely in his head when he wrote this scene. The imagery is similar. (Ingmar) Bergman’s a master we all look up to.
I wanted everyone to go silent on seeing this last scene, I didn’t want anyone to clap or chitchat. I wanted people to walk out of the theatre as though they’d just walked out of a funeral.”