In this conversation with Nandini Ramnath, filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery speaks about his film Churuli that was screened at the IFFK 2021, the visual ideas he discussed with cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan and why he thinks Malayalam cinema produces unique films. Edited Excerpts…
Churuli was a fascinating experience. I had so many reactions to it. It had elements of a thriller, a folk horror, an existential quest within the film. And there was a science fiction element. Were all these elements there in the story (by Vinoy Thomas) on which you had based the film?
Not exactly. The short story didn't have all these elements. It was more of an existential issue that was discussed in the story. Two policemen chasing a convict end up doing the same kind of crimes that the convicts had committed. We had to put together all those thriller, science fiction and other elements to give it a different kind of a setting, something that's unusual for Malayalam cinema. This gives you a lot of surprises, I guess.
What kind of place is Churuli? The film is open to multiple interpretations, but is it a holding zone of criminals? Is it a purgatory? Or is it one long bad dream?
For me, churuli is something like a spiral or a labyrinth that you enter and lose track of your journey. But at the same time, existential questions remain both in the film and the story. There are ideas like heaven, hell, and purgatory in the Bible. An idea formed in me over Ee.Ma.Yau and Jallikattu to make a trilogy, but I hadn't planned it when I started Ee.Ma.Yau. All these films have something in common, which is life, death and afterlife.
So, it's better to keep it undefined so that each person who watches the films has to find answers to these questions by themselves. The film has its unique setting.
The physical location is very important for the film. Tell me how you found this location?
I haven't come down the hills since Jallikattu (laughs). We shot somewhere close to where we shot that film. It's a place called Kulamavu in Idukki. We went deep inside the forest. They have a tribal setting there. A lot of the actors are from the settlement. For instance, the person who works in the toddy shop is a person from there. The man everyone fears in the film is actually the moopan of the tribe. A lot of other people there happened to be greatly talented even though they were first time actors. They've given a new look to this kind of cinema.
One of the key scenes is where you go from one world to another, a jeep goes over a small, precarious bridge…
The bridge scene transports you from the real world to a world not so real or a world of mysteries. We looked for a lot of bridges to shoot without any expense. But later we had to set up a whole bridge for the shoot. Our art director was Gokul Das. A lot of people haven't noticed his work in Jallikattu or Churuli because it doesn't look like they're sets. I should thank and congratulate him for both these films.
Tell us about some of the visual ideas you discussed with Madhu Neelakandan, in terms of the lighting, frames, there's a lot of fluid camera movement, the lenses you've used…
Madhu chettan just painted Churuli, I would say. We discussed the kind of feeling one must get when watching the film: the greenery, the lushness, the fear and mystery one should feel. Such things came together so smoothly in the film because of his work. He prepares a lot and my way of working has a lot of impulse and spontaneity in it. We found a balance by the end of the film. Most of the night sequences were shot somewhere between night and day and he made it look clean. I'm glad I got an opportunity to get him on board and this kind of a result.
Non-Malayalis marvel at the kinds of films coming out of Malayalam cinema. This also says a lot about how evolved the audiences are…
I should say that the outlook of filmmakers and producers has changed drastically because of the kind of film movements from all around the world. According to me, it's much easier to reach a film nowadays. If your favorite filmmaker in Spain is making a film, you can reach that film. It gives you exposure to world cinema. The kind of ideas you pick for making a film also slowly become more global. I'm sure ideas are more universal nowadays. I feel filmmakers from all over India make films that are more universal.