Edited excerpts from an interview between director Rahul Sadasivan and Vishal Menon after the release of Bhoothakaalam. Spoilers ahead.
If you've seen the trailer, you're expecting a mood and are prepared for a certain kind of movie. But when you're trying to pack a horror film with so many psychological aspects was it a very challenging process?
I would say that I want to place this in a horror genre, but at its heart, it's a story about this mother and son—Asha and Vinu. As you mentioned, in the trailer, I wanted to play most of the story by deceiving the audience. To keep that dramatic irony of suspense. Horror, as a genre already pushes that limits of suspense of disbelief. So trying to find the right balance was only by achieving a perfect blend of emotion and performance. And to achieve that, of course, I had to get a good cast. So, horror was always secondary, I wanted the emotional aspect of the whole film work first. That's how I even narrated the whole story to the actors in the production house, to tell them that—even though it's a horror film, it's an allegory for grief, drama, isolation, or emotional longing, and how this family is slowly going insane.
Later on, it affects their social life and it becomes a social stigma. So, yeah, that's how I framed it. The horror was always on the second side. The emotional thing had to be there, we have to empathise with the characters. That's when you feel fear and fear can be generated. So that was my main motive.
Usually, when you're making a scary film like The Nun, Annabelle, there is an element of us never approaching or meeting those kinds of people. But when it comes to Boothakaalam, we know people like Shane and Revathi.I think a large reason why that house becomes so scary is that you've seen a 1000 houses like that.
When we watch a horror film, and when we expect to see a haunted house, the first thing that comes to mind is a huge bungalow. But I wanted this house to be regular, the next door kind of a feeling, where it has got worn off paint, rusty gates, and with mosaic flooring. The house becomes the character at one point. It has to strengthen the central idea. As you mentioned, most Hollywood films show a lot of explicit images just to create fear. But my idea was not to show any gore. I thought fear can be achieved with the suggestion or absence of explicit images and how to tell a ghost story without showing the ghost. So that was my initial take the house becomes a character and how it connects with the central character and how it plays a part along the journey towards the end.
You even handle a lot of things very minimally. This is not just the shots but even the dialogues and music. What was the thought process for that?
Minimalism was the initial idea. I wanted to keep it minimal, in terms of shots and dialogue delivery. I wrote a scene with some dialogues, and I had the opportunity to improvise with the actors and put in their version of the best. We had that space to play around with the dialogue, the scene and to choreograph everything. So what you see in the film, it all feels kind of real, it's not a forced way of delivering dialogue. It can be seen in their body language, even if it's very subtle. So I try to keep it as minimal as possible because that's the whole nature of the film.
Let's go a little deeper into particular scenes. Can you tell me a little bit about Shane's character? What's his mindset when the supernatural elements start happening? Has his insomnia begun even earlier or is it the death of the grandmother that started the entire turmoil inside him?
I tried to play with deception actually. The mental illness or clinical depression or anything, all those factors were underlying elements to deceive the audience saying that the family has already got a history. When you explain something supernatural, where you can't explain, as a third person, you immediately connect with their background, past or their addiction. The genre already walks a fine line and it has to hide a few things. But at the same time, it had to reveal a few characters. So it's that balance between fear and sorrow. I feel fear and sorrow are the two sides of the same coin.
In the first half, you see Shane finding it very difficult to survive, in this complex and very perplexed world, fighting all the time, having conflicts with his mother. Nobody understands him as a person. That's the journey he carries throughout the film, towards the resolution, actually.
What is the reason behind writing a counsellor character like that? You write the counsellor as a character that you cannot rely on or somebody who's furthering her isolation.
That's where the fiction meets reality. All those questions about logic come into place. This is all about fear and when you try to express fear, it's very difficult for the third person to take it in, because fear is very subjective. If you don't convey it, the other person will take it in a very different way. So a character like George comes in the second phase of the film, and he tries to figure out what is happening. So he immediately connects them with their past. But the thing is, the real adversary is totally different, something that neither of us can understand because you can't fight it. How do you find something that you don't understand?
In the second half of the film, you can notice that Shane as the protagonist and Asha, as the mother, just go downhill, and there is no revenge motive. There is no fighting back. They are just disturbed and uncomfortable, and even when a third person comes into their life, he is helpless. But if you can't understand what is going on, how do you help them? So that's the logic behind bringing up a character like George.
In the film, if you want, you can call them ghosts, but then I look at them as the ghosts of mental illness and it can happen to anybody. Like when you go through trauma or when you grow up in a house like that, where not only does your mother have a form of mental illness, but she's brought you up in such a controlled manner where you have no freedom, and you have never had the space to even express what you feel. So when you grow up in a house like that, I felt the horrors was a stand-in for anxiety, hallucinations, depression, or anything. So how do you kind of explain this part?
It is left to interpretation. People say that it could be inside their heads because these people are visualizing things. But when you look at the surrounding you feel that it's a haunted house because that's the news that you get from the outsiders. But when you stand in the shoes of the characters, you feel that it's all happening inside their head. Dramatic irony works very well in horror films. Because that's when the audience knows, but the character doesn't. So that is something which can give you a very, for lack of a better word, haunting experience, in a very personal and relatable way.
It's interesting that you chose to introduce a character like Saiju Kurup. It was extremely scary until then. But the second you take it, and you explain it with cinematic logic, it takes me back to a comfortable space where I feel like this is not real anymore.
When a character like George comes in, there is this kind of comfort that we feel. By then we actually start to feel for the character and by then you feel that somebody else can see things that these people are not able to see. In my initial draft, the character George was trying to help them. But that is something the audience can expect and they will expect a third person to give them a solution for what they're facing, but I'm taking that comfort away. The point was to put some danger back into these two characters so that we let them try to come out of the house on their own. I wanted the characters to resolve their issues. Their resolution is what mattered for me. And they have to do it within themselves because unconditional love is the biggest thing. You can beat anything with love.