Some films live forever. Some die. Most films were never alive, to begin with. Yet some remain unforgotten, stuck in purgatory, waiting to be finally laid to rest. Like ghosts, they haunt a few, narrating tales of injustices suffered. O' Faby (1993) is one such film. Made by K. Sreekuttan (Sreekumar Krishnan Nair), it holds the distinction of being the first feature film in Asia to combine live action with animated characters. An important fixture in the lives of most 90s kids born and raised in Kerala, the film, unfortunately, hasn't aged too well. But the fact that such a film was even attempted over 25 years ago still evokes wonder.
Sreekuttan is the third son of M. Krishnan Nair, one of South Indian cinema's biggest filmmakers. One of the rare directors to have worked with the superstar trio of NTR, MGR, and Prem Nazir, there were many Fridays where two of his films would release (more than 100 in total) simultaneously. "At his peak, he would direct one film in the morning, run to the sets of another and end the day by working on a third film," reminisces Sreekuttan, about his father who made classics like Rickshawkaran, CID and Naan Yen Pirandhen.
Known for his wacky ideas (he thought up a toy machine gun in the '60s) and creativity, it fell on Sreekuttan to take the family legacy forward. He began working as an assistant to director Hariharan, who was himself an assistant to Krishnan Nair. He recalls this period fondly citing the many late nights and movies he would binge-watch with writer Raghunath Paleri. One such memory was the night they watched Who Framed Roger Rabbit? in a theatre in Kozhikode. "I remember not being able to sleep that night. How did they do it? I thought I understood filmmaking and here was a film where real people were interacting with cartoons. Could it be real people dressed to look like cartoons? Call it my naiveté but I made a vow to my friends that I would one day make such a film. My friends thought I had gone crazy."
His first independent film though was Pavakoothu a 'regular' feature starring Jayaram and Parvathi. Dealing with the theme of adultery, the film failed, forcing Sreekuttan to return to his guru. As he worked on Hariharan's Sargam, "the universe had started to conspire" to take him closer to his dream.
Sabu, Sreekuttan's friend had invented a mechanical robot which had become the toast of the town. Capable of performing poojas, the robot was being highlighted in the press. An NRI, Simon Tharakan, saw this piece of news and travelled to India to meet the inventor. "Simon sir was a visionary with a very scientific bent of mind. He was obsessed with doing things differently and when he met Sabu, he said he wanted to produce a film." But there was one condition. The film had to be…unusual.
Sabu and Tharakan then visited the sets of Sargam. Unbeknownst to Sreekuttan, the duo observed his work, analyzing if he could be the director of this very "different" film. Tharakan was impressed with how he handled the set. Phone calls were exchanged and meetings were set. But they couldn't come up with an idea to work on. So Sreekuttan moved to Kochi to focus on this project alone. After weeks, almost like a dream, Roger Rabbit popped back into his head. "I told Simon sir about making a part live action, part animated movie and he was thrilled. But I had no idea how to go about it even though he gave me a lot of confidence. In fact, Simon sir was an artist himself and he even started sketching cartoon figures. We had finally arrived at our own unusual idea."
An "Oliver" Twist
A script began to take shape. Simon Tharakan started writing a story based on the character Fagin from Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist while Sreekuttan focused on the film's technical aspects. O' Faby was born as the friendly cartoon wizard who would help a teenager out of trouble. Roquey, Tharakan's son was to play the film's teenage hero, along with a cast that included Sreevidya, Nagesh, Nassar, Thilakan and Manoj K Jayan.
Months had passed and the actors had started to arrive for the shoot. "But we still hadn't figured out how to shoot it." One of the ideas mooted was to shoot the film like how double roles scenes were being shot then. "But we needed a dummy in the place of the cartoon character for actors to emote. As we were figuring out how we would do this, I ran into actor Mela Raghu." A little person, he was more than glad to be a part of the film. The universe had conspired again.
A costume was created to resemble the sketches of Faby and given to Raghu and it was told that he would not feature in the film's final version. Each scene was first shot with Raghu as a rehearsal for the actors to get the dialogues and movement right. A camcorder attached to the camera was used as a monitor to hold positions and acting. After this, the scenes were shot again leaving spaces to be "filled in later" with the animated figures.
With the physical shoot of the film done, it was time to get started on post-production. Animation in films, until that point, was restricted to making titles or for those rare advertisements. Even songs which featured similar techniques was far too basic for the ambitious effects of O' Faby. Sreekuttan, with the two versions of his film, went to Bombay to meet his animators.
They met Ram Mohan, widely regarded as the father of Indian animation, and explained his plight. "He blasted us during the meeting. He asked us how we had dared to attempt such a film without an animator for pre-production." What was worse is that the crew didn't even storyboard the film. Not knowing the future of the film, Ram Mohan gave them drawings for the cartoon characters along with a template of expressions for each situation. "The drawings were there. We also had the fully-shot film. But how do we put those images into the film?"
Impossible is everything
A roadblock had been hit. People considered the film impossible to make. They were being advised to drop the production. "Someone gave us a contact of a Hong Kong-based company that could help with our situation. We started exchanging mail and I started feeling positive. But that's until they gave us a quote. They asked for Rs.500 per frame…we needed them to make 64,000 frames for us."
Sreekuttan had given up. He was going to be the director who squandered an entire film's budget. On the side, Simon Tharakan and his associates tried their own methods to come up with a solution. The system then for animation was to use a Rotoscopy machine, which would help artists trace over motion picture footage, frame by frame. "We even managed to find one machine in Bombay. But they said they could only lend it to us for two hours. With just one machine, it would have taken us two decades to complete the film."
It was a period of the Bombay riots and a phase of great confusion. "I remember praying to god hoping for one of the bombs to kill me." But there was hope, again. Roy Thararakan, Simon's brother, mooted the idea of building make-shift rotoscopes. A basic Click 3 camera was bought and a halogen light was fixed onto it. Each film from O' Faby's reels was then fixed onto the Click 3 camera for the image to get magnified, making the tracing simpler.
It worked, and 50 more Click 3 cameras were ordered. Around 50 artists too were hired full time to sketch the cartoon characters. From morning to night, these artists would sketch and colour these cartoon characters into cel sheets. "This process alone went on more than a year."
These sheets had to then be sent through a process of composting for the images to register in another reel. "In all, we had close to four full reels of the different stages of the same film (first reels with dummy actors, reels with spaces left to animate, the third semi-saturated negative and finally the negative with the developed animation on it)." With over two lakh feet of film, this makes O'Faby the longest Malayalam film, even though its running time is under two hours.
When the two worlds met
"I still remember seeing the trial reel of both the live action and animation coming together. It was such a relief. It's like I could breathe again." After a year and a half of sleepless nights, the film was finally completed. At around Rs. 1.4 crores, the budget was massive, even for a film with a superstar. "Completing the film itself was considered a miracle. A lot of effort was then put in to advertise the film. Simon Tharakan even chose to distribute the film himself. There was a lot of hype around its release."
The film released in August of 1993 and it bombed. Despite all the effort, the audience just didn't seem interested in the film. "I was heartbroken. Of course, I knew that the film wasn't perfect but we didn't foresee this kind of a reception."
What was worse was the reaction from the people around him. "It's not just the audience. Sometimes, if someone had just encouraged me to move on, my life would have been very different today. It may have been my fault, but everyone deserted me…everyone. "
Which is why he's irked by the film's "second coming". He says he gets a message on Facebook every other day with a millennial explaining how important O'Faby was to them. In fact, even the sci-fi film he's working on now is a result of this resurgent love for O' Faby. Tentatively titled Wizardry Of Time, Sreekuttan is in talks with Ben Kinglsey's agents to cast him for the lead role. "I'm known everywhere now as the director of O'Faby. But I wish some of the appreciation had come earlier. My father passed away many years ago. It was his dream to see me become a big director."