Can a house stifle and goad its tenants, eventually coaxing them into murder? Or does it merely reflect their murderous instincts all along? In the recent Malayalam release Kala, a house becomes a battleground, weaponized against the very man it's named after. In Macbeth adaptation Joji, it's a tomb inside which a family is doomed to languish until its domineering patriarch dies. In Irul and Aarkkariyam, houses with inviting facades conceal more sinister interiors and bodies beneath the floorboards. These Kerala places and properties double up as crime scenes, symbols of wealth and the discord it can sow, and death traps that slowly snap shut. While the remoteness of these homes is a consequence of real-life Covid protocols, this isolation also bleeds into the lives of the characters who inhabit them. The writers and directors of these films talk about how they envisioned these locations, what the process of finding them was and why they're so important to the atmosphere.
Home invasion thrillers work because they strike at one's fear of being attacked where they feel the safest. In Kala, however, Shaji (Tovino Thomas) feels unsettled in his home long before the attacker shows up. While the house is named after him, it actually belongs to his acrimonious father. It's another in a long line of taunts, reflective of the gap between his lavish ambitions and his meagre current circumstances. Shaji's lack of control over this property becomes even more apparent when a past enemy arrives to settle scores. Everyday household items become instruments of violence against him — he gets smothered by clothes hanging out to dry, strangled with a telephone cord and has his back lacerated by a thorny plant.
"The biggest hurdle on this film was the location. We looked at houses 24×7 for a month, going all the way from Wayanad to Kochi to Munnar," says co-writer and director Rohith VS. He drew on his childhood while writing the film, envisioning Shaji Nivas as the kind of house he grew up seeing — an upper-middle class one that reflected the transitional architecture of the late 80s and the early 90s, when Malayalis began adding terraces to their homes. It also needed to be isolated from the mainland and appear cramped indoors. "If the house was more spacious, then the characters would have been more relaxed," he says. "Congestion creates drama. That was the atmosphere at my mother's house."
The house needed to be at a height to reflect the economic disparity between Shaji and his nemesis. Plus, it had to have a sprawling estate where they could engage in a series of brutal, bloody battles on dry land, in the muck and in a lake. That last bit came to Rohith when he saw a house in Thuravoor that had a "100 percent perfect Tarzan atmosphere". Two weeks before the shoot began, however, its owners got cold feet and denied him use of the location. He settled on using a similar house nearby that didn't have a backyard or a lake. The property that eventually appeared in the film was a combination of five different locations.
How did Rohith decide what household items he would turn into weapons? "It was all very relatable. Everyone has a banana plant in Kerala so Shaji had to get hit with a bunch of bananas. In fact, I even wanted him to get hit with a pineapple," he says.
For formidable patriarch PK Kuttappan (PN Sunny), his sprawling rubber plantation is his kingdom. For his family, it's a prison, and he, their warden. The sparsely furnished two-storey house reflects his miserliness and lack of affection for his family. Every object in the bungalow is utilitarian, not decorative. Its walls are bare. There are no family photos. The message is clear — for the kingdom to flourish, its ruler must die.
The house and its suffocating atmosphere were so crucial to the plot of Joji, writer Syam Pushkaran says he decided to only start plotting the film once a location was found. On realizing that several films would be set indoors during the Coronavirus-induced lockdown in Kerala, he wanted a house that would stand out. "We wanted a Christian house, but avoided the typical Kerala Christian house with a tiled roof and a mosaic floor. Instead, we looked for a terrace house built between 1995 and 2000. These aren't too common here," he says. Another thing he wanted to avoid was wallpaper. "Wallpaper isn't a thing in Kerala but cinematographers and cameramen add it to houses so the background gets some colour. We deliberately avoided it so we could stand out."
During their first recce, the team found the house they were looking for in Erumeli, its isolated location meant to reflect Joji's (Fahadh Faasil) isolation from his family. The crew replaced all the furniture with XL-sized versions to illustrate Kuttappan's imposing stature and make Joji appear smaller and even more insignificant by comparison. It took two months and Rs 15 lakh to build the pond at which several of the film's crucial scenes are set, including Joji's disposal of the evidence linked to his father's murder.
"The idea was that Joji, as a child, had a fort at this pond," says Pushkaran. "Whenever he felt abandoned by his father as a child, he would go there and cry. The pond was a comfort to him. He returns there after the murder to seek comfort." While the writer wanted to avoid "cliche" outdoor shots of Kerala's rubber plantations, they appear during a moment in the film that illustrates how Joji's begun to view his house differently.
"After his father's murder, he's liberated and so he goes for a jog. It's then that he realizes that his house isn't that bad. When he jogs back, it's like a king returning to his kingdom."
When Sherley (Parvathy Thiruvothu) and her husband (Sharaf U Dheen) pull up to her father's house at night, it's bathed in a warm, inviting glow. There's a new bed for the couple to sink into at the end of their long drive. There's an abundance of religious iconography on the walls. There's also a corpse beneath the kitchen floor.
Co-writer and director Sanu Varughese was inspired by American Beauty (1999) and the idea of a perfect suburban facade that hides dark secrets. "That contrast was important because Ittyavira (Biju Menon) is a religious man who murders someone in the belief that what he did was right," says co-writer and director Sanu Varughese. "He knows the Christian God of the Old Testament would do the same. Unlike the New Testament God who is Jesus Christ, the Old Testament God is a God who kills, a God who destroys."
It didn't take long for Varughese to find the house he was looking for. The third house he saw during a recce resembled his father's ancestral home, an aspect he was keen on. "These older Kerala houses, even if they're beautiful, have a new style of construction because the residents feel compelled to extend the facade. I wanted something like that, something very typical of the Malayali mentality," he says. The five-acre compound's isolation from the main road created an eerily noiseless atmosphere devoid of traffic or cattle sounds. It also had a pond and an attic, two elements crucial to the script.
Since Varughese is a Syrian Christian and the house he found was in Pala, the Catholic heart of Kerala, his next step was to visit several houses in the area to figure out what religious imagery was popular there. An image of St. Sebastian that recurs in the movie is a scarier version of how the saint is usually depicted. The pond Ittyavira bathes frequently in is also a nod to Catholic rites, a baptism by which he tries to cleanse himself of his past sins.
The remote house inside which most of Irul is set belongs to a murderer. Is it Alex (Soubin Shahir), who's convinced his girlfriend (Darshana Rajendran) to leave her cell phone at home and join him for a weekend getaway? Or is it Unni (Fahadh Faasil), who masquerades as the owner and opens the door to them, only to feign indifference once a body is discovered in the basement? Packed with knick-knacks and more theatrical than realistic, the house seems like the kind of fanciful setting a novelist like Alex would envision. Still, it's Unni, with his luxurious robe and tinted glasses, who blends in with the surroundings much more believably.
"I wanted the house to have a sense of romanticism," says director Naseef Yusuf Izuddin. "The intent was not to make it creepy. There are candles, there's a well-stocked bar, all of this creates a welcoming atmosphere. I wanted the audience to feel safe and comfortable. It's only when the characters go down into the basement that the mood changes." He also envisioned the house as an ancestral property with a Catholic architectural style, reflecting an inherited wealth passed down through generations, and appearing "trapped in time". It needed to have a large living room so the three characters could move around freely and converse for long stretches of time, without the audience feeling visual fatigue.
After a month of searching, the Irul team found their setting in the middle of the remote Pattumala tea estate in Idukki. They added textured wallpaper, a mini bar and opulent furniture to create an ambiance of wealth. Since the house was a single-storey property, Izzuddin set some scenes in a bedroom on the ground floor, then used CGI to make it seem like the room was on the second floor instead. A staircase in the house, used to connect the two floors in the film, leads nowhere in reality. The crew built the basement as a set at an abandoned tea factory five minutes away.
As the audience tries to figure out who the killer is, visual cues hint at shifting perspectives. "The house has an arch in the middle of the hall. So the initial sections of the movie take place on one side of the arch and the characters slowly move underneath it. By the end of the film, they're on the other side of the arch," says Izzuddin.