It’s been seven years since director Ganesh Raj and cinematographer Anend C Chandran took us on a wonderful trip to Goa and Hampi with their romanticised version of college IVs in Aanandam (2016). In his sophomore directorial, Pookkaalam, Ganesh is back with another feel-good comedy.
Centred around an old couple in their nineties, the film explores what happens when after several years of marriage — on the day of their granddaughter’s wedding — the couple decides to get divorced. When Chandran’s warm camera tones and Ganesh’s light-handed treatment becomes apparent, you know what you have signed up for.
In a conversation with Vishal Menon, the duo speak about exploring a serious topic within the feel-good space, and how their visual design and casting choices helped maintain the breezy vibe.
Edited excerpts below:
There are a lot of news articles about old-age couples wanting to get a divorce. It is a great idea for a movie but what were the obstacles in the execution?
Ganesh: I asked a lot of my friends about what they will do if their grandparents decide to get a divorce. Their initial reaction was to just dismiss the issue completely. And most of what they told me is featured in the film. The idea was to make the movie look absurd in the beginning. And as it slowly progressed, especially at the start of the second half, I wanted people to empathise with both grandparents although they might have initially supported only the grandmother (the grandfather seeks divorce first after he chances upon a 50-year-old love letter written to his wife).
This is a story of patriarchy and a vehicle for me to say a few things I wanted to convey. When the film ends, I want people to feel that just because someone is old, it does not mean their issues don’t matter. I also wanted it to have a happy ending because all of us do stupid things we regret later but people can still forget and forgive.
Is there a specific reason the film is set in a small town?
Ganesh: We haven’t mentioned any place in the film. The local ambience and feel make people think the place is a small town in the foothills of the Western Ghats. That said, I don’t think the story will fit within a city backdrop; it has a certain quirkiness that can be explored only when it is set in a local town. In cities, this will only be a small piece of news consumed somewhere in an apartment building.
There is a clear difference in the way the past and present scenes have been depicted in the film. What was the plan you had in place?
Ganesh: From lightning patterns to the camera lenses we used, everything was different for the two portions. Both parts were also shot during two different schedules. The beginning of the movie was 1937, and back then the aspect ratio was 1:1. So we shot it like that. Next, the scenes featuring Roshan Mathew were from 1953, so the ratio was 4:3. Jagadish ettan’s primary flashbacks were in the 1970s, which is when we used 70mm. We also shot it with an anamorphic lens since it is a very romantic lens that has softness.
When did you decide to treat this movie with so much brightness and colour?
Ganesh: I first wrote the first 20 scenes very seriously. The story showed the realities of old age in a stark manner. However, the curiosity aspect was missing when it was treated hyper realistically. Similarly, when you hear the one-liner of the plot, you may find it cute. But if I can’t maximise the feeling, I am not doing justice to the story. So, the story is neither completely exploring the harsh realities of old people, nor is it just all cute. Instead, this plot is fun, but there is a certain seriousness to this fun and that is the beauty of it.
I think it’s the bright colours and happy visuals that give the feel-good effect. Everyone ends up being happy in the movie. If we release the same movie in black and white, we might get a completely different response. Similarly, the response might be different if we change the name from Pookkaalam to something sadder or darker.
Anend: Basically, even though we can bracket Pookkaalam as a feel-good film, we have tried to expand that bracket. We have tried to make it more interesting by addressing a grave topic in a feel-good space. Whenever we initiate something new, people are confused about where to place it and how to categorise it. That’s what we feel when our film is getting mixed reviews now. And we are not saying this just to comfort ourselves.
The film is largely compared with Home (2021)...
Ganesh: People are comparing our movie with Home because there is a dearth of family stories. And if I am not wrong, the last movie in which an aged man was the lead character was Home. That is more of a comfort zone thing because movies can be easily categorised and I do not have any issues with that.
People tell me that they were reminded of their own father and mother after watching the movie. And this is the kind of response we were hoping for. A couple of individuals said they apologised to their wives after watching the movie. I can go on and on about the technical sides of the film, but the movie has moved many people personally, even a few who don’t care about movies.
Were there any problems with the casting?
Ganesh: It was difficult to market the film as both our main leads were older people who cannot travel much. Besides, it was not a laugh-riot sort of movie that caters to youngsters. I won’t say these were problems but there were constraints. It is the kind of movie that has to work in theatres. Also, when we did the OTT previews, most platforms who saw the movie wanted it. And it was a sign of relief. It was huge for me as a director that such a risky project was safeguarded before its release.
The surprise picks in the cast were Basil Joseph and Vineeth Sreenivasan…
Ganesh: Initially, I thought this should never be a courtroom drama. Besides the fact that I am not a big fan of procedural courtroom drama, I also believe that the problems of the old couple cannot be solved at the court. It is different when youngsters file for a divorce. However, the legal aspect should be there in the story. I also wanted the balance of comedy because it would have otherwise become a serious movie. So, the legal track in the movie itself became the joke as two people without any morals became lawyers on both sides.
One of the lawyers I spoke to told me that she will never take such a case as she considers it to be shameful. And that only someone who is that desperate to make a name for themselves will take the case. So, it made sense to have a character like Basil’s. About Vineeth ettan, I also wanted to treat the move as trivial. That is when I got the idea to treat the judge as an eccentric and magical creature. I deleted the logic from it and his character became a judge who says whatever he wants to.
How did you guys decide to work together?
Anend: We have known each other for 10-12 years and I have filmed all of his works. Hopefully, I will also shoot the rest of his movies.
Ganesh: I met him for my first short film. At that time, he was working with Alphonse Puthren’s short film Eli, which was produced by Vineeth ettan. So, when I told Vineeth ettan that I needed a cinematographer to shoot a short film, he put me in touch with Anend. I spoke to Anend and a few days later, it turned out that he was moving into the same apartment building where I was staying. So we became neighbours and discussed everything together. That’s how we did many corporate videos, music videos, a short film in 2012 and Anandham 4 years after that. And now, Pookkaalam.
Ganesh, you have worked with Anend for all of your films. How has this camaraderie helped in ideating the visual design for Pookkaalam?
Ganesh: When I work with him, I am not tense. I know that when I give my 50%, the other 50% will come from his part. Filmmaking is a very excruciating process. For instance, the writing process alone takes more than three years. So everything has to be in sync to focus on developing the characters and the world around them. Only then do we begin to think about the visuals.
Annandam was a cooler movie, but Pookkaalam has warmer visuals. It is not always about pushing it. It is also about toning it down and pushing it in a different direction. But before focusing on the visuals, a story should come to mind. When I delve into it, the visuals will slowly find their way. I like thinking about them for a long time. Then, whatever Anend and I think, we combine and work together.