Ashwin Saravanan loves his horror. Kaavya Ramkumar loves her romcoms. Ashwin is at peace in the dark. And Kaavya thrives in light, bright spaces. The writing talent, who have been behind some of Tamil film’s most original genre pieces, might only ever write horror. But the energy that’s palpable in their beautifully-decorated Chennai apartment is something right out of a romcom.
They are perfectly in sync— one is a self-declared introvert and another is chatty and buoyant (we’ll let you figure out which is which) as they sit down to discuss their latest Connect, on an overcast December morning in Chennai. With rain providing the perfect white noise for our conversation, the mood is set. As Ashwin dims the light on an already sunless day, and sinks into his couch, Kaavya lets out a knowing laugh.
The differences in their personality and perspective is perhaps what makes up their secret sauce. Ashwin likes his horror served neat and dark. And Kaavya likes it with a side of a bright romcom. “I do like horror, but I feel the need to follow it up with a romcom so that I don't think about it soon after,” she laughs. “Ashwin, on the other hand, watches these films with the lights off. I could never do that!” Their wall of fame includes Maya, a modern horror about a single mother who takes on the challenge of watching a spooky film in the theatre alone, and Game Over, a film that details the horrors of trauma through a gamer who is given a new lease on life.
Ashwin looks at respect and trust as the pillars for any creative collaboration, and he remembers seeing that in Kaayva when he approached her to write with him a couple of years ago. Even if she is a doctor by profession, Kaavya has been writing short stories for a long time. “When you work with somebody else, your take on certain things get challenged and I think that is a good thing. It is hard to find people who read your work and make you feel like you're in a safe space. Any creative person needs to feel safe to thrive. I felt safe with her because she was someone who will not hesitate to tell me the truth and will protect my work.”
Some paint, talk or draw to express their feelings. And Ashwin writes stories that invariably have horror in them. “I find horror to be very transgressive. It is fresh every single time.” Connect follows the life of Susan, whose life takes a terrifying turn when she realises that she is stuck indoors — in the heart of the COVID-19 lockdown — with a ghost. The film’s genesis, too, can be found in the lockdown.
“Although I'm a homebody, I still felt uncomfortable sitting at home every night. It was such a bleak and hopeless time where I didn't know whether I'd be able to make films again,” he says. This was when he was reading a book as part of research for another film they had written. “And at the end of one of the chapters, there was a footnote that spoke about exorcism rituals being carried out through a skype call when the priest was incapacitated to come to a certain place. This book was way back when skype was relevant, around 20 years ago.” And he instantly saw a film there.
Kaavya, who was in Pondicherry at the time, looked at the film as a ray of hope during bleak times. The film also reunites Ashwin and Nayanthara for the second time. Her sheer vulnerability and understanding of horror adds to the genre, Ashwin believes.
“When I met her for Maya, she mentioned something to me. She said, "I personally love watching horror films, but they aren't making good horror films in Tamil." Generally in our films, stars take the foreground, and there is nothing wrong with that. But in horror, the atmosphere and the mood take precedence over other elements. And she understands that horror lives and dies by the way the film maintains the atmosphere. She came into Connect as an actor and not as a star.”
With filmmakers like Ari Aster and Jordan Peele shaking up the genre, Ashwin observes a huge renaissance that is happening with horror cinema. “It kind of started with Aster's Hereditary (2018) and Robert Egger's Witch (2015), which was followed by Midsommar (2019), Get Out (2017), Nope (2022) and Barbarian (2022). They are calling these films elevated horror. But just because it is horror with social commentary, that doesn't mean it is above regular horror. All kinds of horror are equally important,” he says. But a local favourite for the horror nuts is Rahul Sadasivam’s Bhoothakalam. “I think that is the first film we watched after our wedding. Ashwin was immediately like `let's watch it with all the lights off,’” Kaavya says, laughing.
But for a bunch of writers who largely consume horror, as they live and breathe, the couple scares quite easily. “I am scared as anybody while watching a horror film. But I enjoy it. It's part of the fun. At night, when I walk from the bedroom to this room behind our television, I do get a little uncomfortable. It is very primal, and I am quite sensitive as a person. So I go into it a little deeper than most people.” Kaavya, on the other hand — who later recounts to me her jittery moments in their gorgeous house soon after they moved in — is more interested in sculpting characters as relatable people with agency.
“You can figure out all the fancy ways to scare people. Say there is a character walking into a room, and suddenly there is something that comes out from the ceiling, under the bed, or out of the closet. It's all been done before. If you figure out newer ways to do it, great. But the fundamental question you need to ask yourself is am I with the character? I can have nothing happen in the room, but still evoke fear in people if they root for the character,” explains Ashwin.
Staging suspense with Connect came with its own set of challenges. “Usually when you shoot an exorcism, you shoot from multiple angles. But in this film, it is from one angle as it unfolds on a laptop. How do you make that compelling? The tension that comes from it is far more than what you get from a normal film. The stillness adds to a lot of eeriness. But this is new in Tamil cinema.” Writing a horror piece is as complex as finishing a puzzle, he says, pointing to Kaavya’s unfinished puzzle pieces on their coffee table. “You can never see the full picture right at the beginning.”
And it is in these moments that having a partner in the same draining job as you, helps. “This interview is in fact the first time in a long time that I am sitting and talking with him,” Kaavya says, adding that direction is not her cup of tea. “Since he is a director and a writer, he is busy in post-production. By the time I wake up, he is usually gone. And when I sleep, he comes in late.” This is when Ashwin, too, chimes in: “I am lucky to have her because she knows how taxing it is.”
But it also has its flipside. Kaavya looks at their partnership as a work-ship. “We always talk about films. Even when we went on vacation, we kept talking about films. We are always on,” she smiles.
“You also tend to automatically assume that your partner knows what you're thinking. For instance, if I am mixing the film from 9 in the morning to 11 in the night, by the time I reach home, even if she says "hello" to me, that will make me angry. So, when I come back at this time, I think she will just leave me alone, but that is just not going to happen,” he says, laughing, glancing at Kaavya, who agrees.
But what does all this horror gazing and writing mean for their binge-time ambient television time? Their Netflix algorithms have their own story to say. “I think Netflix must be confused about our profiles at this point,” Kaavya laughs. Recalls Ashwin, “We were supposed to watch The Office together. We started watching together but…”
“ Umm I am on season 5,” Kaavya finishes his sentence. “Well, there you go, I am on the pilot, and she is on season 5,” Ashwin laughs, and his wife joins him.