Back in 1985, legendary Malayalam writer Padmarajan got together with director Bharathan for the sixth time to make Ozhivukalam. A drama about a teenager's efforts to get her widowed mother remarried, the film starred Rohini, Srividya and Prem Nazir. Although its title translates simply to 'holidays', it dealt with complex themes of adultery, repressed trauma and guilt. Ozhivukalam had only three songs, and it also had superstar Prem Nazir in a negative role. But these were not the reasons why the film became a hard-sell to distributors. It was simply the technicality that its runtime was just 100-minutes, back when the average Malayalam film was an hour longer.
Theatres surviving solely on Malayalam films couldn't quite figure out how to programme Ozhivukalam. Should the interval be extended or should an extra show be added? The idea to ask Bharathan himself to add extra scenes was mooted, before it was avoided, wisely. But the exhibitors still went to him to figure out a solution for the opposite of the problem they're used to dealing with on their own (they usually cut scenes or songs if a film's termed slow). Bharathan did have a suggestion for their conundrum that was both economical and entertaining. He simply asked theatres to play twenty minutes of Tom & Jerry after the interval. Everyone was happy and the film managed to get a release.
Sound-mixing engineer AS Lakshminarayanan had worked on Ozhivukalam too and this little piece of history was narrated to the director of Mughizh, Karthik Swaminathan, when the length of his film became a point of contention again. The 63-minute children's film started off as a quick project he wanted to make with his old associate Vijay Sethupathi (the star was completing two other films). What was originally planned as a 25-minute short grew to its present length now.
"Scenes I had written as a one-minute sequence became three minutes long when we shot it," says Karthik, a day before the film's release. "Because it was planned as a short film, we did not worry about selling it or other commercial aspects. We simply wanted to be honest to the idea and this freed us to let the process dictate the runtime. So, if an actor wanted to take their time to convey a set of emotions, we could afford the space instead of rushing it."
It's an approach that helped the film's theme. Revolving around a little puppy and its family, it is the dog that decided the way scenes played out. "Dogs don't act. They only react. What we were trying to capture is how the actors are reacting to the dog, making their performances even more natural." This approach is what eventually led to what he calls a "hybrid-duration short film."
But a lot has changed since the release of Ozhivukalam. Not only would slyly screening Tom & Jerry today be highly illegal, but it wouldn't have solved the problem either. In contrast, the multiplex model today is far more accommodating to films of varying lengths. The present lack of content post Pandemic has contributed to programmers thinking out of the box too.
"In Tamil Nadu, the only other Tamil release was Sivakarthikeyan's Doctor, that too on Saturday," says Thomas D'Souza, Vice President, Programming PVR Cinemas. "We could either repeat a film from last week on a few screens or take a chance with Mughizh which had a big star as its face, even if it is shorter in length."
Due to a general lack of supply, multiplex partners were able to offer prime screens at important time slots. Mughizh is releasing in 20 screens across the State apart from shows in Mysore, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Delhi. Given that it's a children's film, the film will also be screened in PVR's Playhouse auditoriums that are designed with kids in mind.
Programmers, though, are still undecided on whether a one-hour film requires an interval. "We might start with a note that says the film will play uninterrupted," D'Souza adds. "We have screened short films before but in a different format. This is the first time we're doing this with a Tamil short film. If it works, we can rethink new ways to package experiments."
One such idea is to use smaller films as inserts in between features to increase the efficiency of screens. "If there's no cap on the total number of shows we're allowed to project, we will have the option to programme a one-hour show when we get gaps between shows. This will also give casual moviegoers in malls the room to watch a film based on their convenience."
As for the makers, Vijay Sethupathi Productions, they wanted to make it clear to the audience that the film is only 63-minutes long. The listings on both the BookMyShow and PVR's apps state 'short film' right next to the title. "We wanted them to know what they're watching and we didn't want to misuse their expectations by seeing Vijay Sethupathi or Regina Cassandra on the poster. Usually, a film with a star would only project that aspect of it without paying attention to the content. This leads to disappointment and the audience doesn't give the film a chance after that. That's why Mughizh's posters highlight Shreeja Sethupathi first, Regina next, and only then Vijay."
But will the audience appreciate paying the full ticket price for a film that is only half the duration? "Some Hollywood films, especially animated ones, are under 90 minutes anyway. But in Tamil Nadu, prices are capped and we cannot make changes based on duration," he adds. "If we had the option of flex-pricing, like we do in other states, we can definitely work out a system where we screen short films for a fraction of the full ticket price. That will really help the industry as well."
Either way, the move is one filmmakers need to welcome with a cheer, says Karthik. "Instead of forcing a song or a fight to make the film a certain length, all of us will have options to make exactly the film we want to. If the screens themselves are supportive of it, it proves that theatres too can be just as open to experiments as the OTT platforms are."