How Director Midhun Murali Made the Prize-Winning ‘Kiss Wagon’

‘Kiss Wagon’ is an experimental blitzkrieg and it won the Special Jury Award and the FIPRESCI prize at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).
How Director Midhun Murali Made the Prize-Winning ‘Kiss Wagon’
How Director Midhun Murali Made the Prize-Winning ‘Kiss Wagon’

A multi-media film of almost three hours, with no faces, only silhouettes which ebb and flow back and forth, in both time and space, across genders — a constructed incoherence — Midhun Murali’s Kiss Wagon is both unwieldy and simple. Following someone who has to deliver a mysterious parcel to a strange address that would help give the world colour, it is ravined with sub-plots, pockmarked by bursts of energy, and only bookended by colour; the film is black and white for most of its runtime. With a prologue, an epilogue and chapters titled The Egg, The Larva, The Pupa, the film charts the lives lived under the overwhelming, panoptical presence of a religion-state (always referred to as “them”, othering it). 

Kiss Wagon is a perpetual motion machine. When the laws of inertia are discussed in the film — something about a body at rest staying at rest until it is acted upon by a force, much like a body in motion staying in motion until it is acted upon by a force — this idea of perpetual motion is broached. The film, too, as though moving from nowhere, keeps tunnelling without any propelling force that might be depleted. It can be both energizing and exhausting to be in its shadows.

A still from Kiss Wagon.
A still from Kiss Wagon.

Murali, a merchant navy sailor, came up with the story of the film at sea. Credited with animation, editing, music, sound design, story, and direction, he collaborated with Greeshma Ramachandran. Both lent their voices to multiple characters. 

Murali spoke to Film Companion about Kiss Wagon, which premiered in the Tiger Competition at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR), and won the Special Jury Award as well as the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique or International Federation of Film Critics) prize. The conversation is edited for clarity and length. 

I have to ask you about the run-time. It is unusual to have such a long film, because there is a sense of films “deserving” their time. Did you arrive at this run-time or were you always clear about the duration? 

I have made two films before this, both of them were under 90 minutes. This one, I knew right from the beginning, it will be long, because what we are battling against are religious books. If you pick any religious book, you will see it is thick — that is how religions convince people about their theories. 

I was thinking how even in 2023, religion keeps manipulating people’s brains. Even space scientists are going to churches and temples. Perhaps, because mosques and temples are very big, they are larger than life? Everything in religion is big. That is why we added a lot of sub-plots. It was intentionally long. 

A still from Kiss Wagon.
A still from Kiss Wagon.

About the aesthetic itself, I wanted to make this film because today what we see are filmmakers converting what is there in text to the screen through performances, delivering a story through the actors. They are not trying to reinvent cinema as a medium. I wanted to rely on cinematic aspects, conveying emotions only using composition, cuts, sound design. Dialogues too are part of the sound design — wall to wall dialogues through the three hours, full of human voices. I intentionally wrote more dialogues to make the sound design full of human voices. This is against what we see today as “cinema”. 

Without seeing the eyes or lips, can you feel the anger and fear and excitement? Luckily we got a story that could be told through this manner. 

Normally, filmmakers want to tell a story. You wanted to challenge cinema and found a story for that? 

Yes, that is how I always work. Whenever I think of a basic plot, the first thing in my head is an edit pattern and sound design. Then I fill in the blanks. It should look like an epic film, but at the same time, through visuals and techniques, it should be abstract, too. 

Time and space are both things that are incoherent and slippery in this film. It takes some time to settle into the incoherence of the film. How do you, as a writer, protect your film from becoming totally incoherent? 

I am a person with a limited brain capacity. I come from a very religious family. My mother used to ask me to read the Bible. But whenever I read it, after two paragraphs I am totally out. I don’t understand what is happening. Sometimes there are 10-15 names in one paragraph itself. A lot of things are going on. 

Even now when I am watching a film like KGF and other mainstream movies, I won’t understand a lot of things. I am more into the aesthetics of storytelling. My first brush with such a director was Ram Gopal Varma, because then, most filmmakers relied on storytelling, but RGV was doing quirky things with compositions and sound design. Even if I don’t understand the language and story of his movies, I understood what he was doing aesthetically. 

Here, I intentionally wanted the audience to be confused throughout. At the same time, I want them to have a grip of the basic story. But the rest should be muddled, like a religious book. I always wondered why these books have so many subplots to say such simple things. So I used that same structure here. If you ask me to explain the story in one go, I would struggle. 

Can you talk me through the labour of making this film? The time it took, the various layers that went into making an image, etc. 

I took a lot of time to create this, two and a half years. There are 2,160 shots. It took almost one year to produce the songs and background score. Sometimes, to complete a 30-second stretch I would take two-three weeks.

There was so much work to be done, sometimes we even thought of dropping the film, because we had a lot of stories to tell and after sitting for a long time we would create very less. It felt like an impossible task after a while. Even after making the film, I never thought anyone would appreciate it, watch it. 

What about the images? There is photography and shadow-play. What were the layers you were working with?

I wanted each shot to be minimal, but I wanted the editing and music to be over the top. Most of the screen is black — close-ups of characters who are silhouettes.

A still from Kiss Wagon.
A still from Kiss Wagon.

There were photographs and videos we used. The reporters in the film are real people I shot. The silhouettes are Greeshma’s. We used green screen and time-lapse. There is no pixel level animation. We have not digitally created anything. The only software used was Adobe Premiere Pro, After Effects, and Audition. We have not used any other animating tools. We only added filters to make it look like animation. Which is why I describe this film as a multi-media film, not an animation film. 

What about the central fixations of the film — both religion and queerness? 

I am a direct victim of religion. I always feel like I am living in the wrong body. I wanted to express my physicality in a different way to the world, but religions, schools, occupations never allowed me to do that. I had to appear a particular way. I wanted to fight against these things. I believe as a filmmaker I have the power to manipulate people’s brains, projecting our ideas onto a big screen, with big speakers. So even a small idea can look big and loud. That is the power and magic of theater. We were utilizing that to fight against something I was suffering. 

As a filmmaker my weakness is that each character has a portion of me. No character can be written from a third person perspective, even the super villain. Sometimes I want to say something to someone, but I am not brave enough, so I make a character and make them say the same thing. I don’t have to worry about the embarrassment now. I never thought this film would be watched and I would have to explain it to someone. But yes, most of it is personal.

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