How do you live with yourself when you have the same face as someone who’s committed an unspeakable cruelty towards your family? That’s the question at the end of Iratta, writer-director Rohit MG Krishnan’s debut Malayalam feature, in which a policeman (Joju George) investigating the death of his twin (also Joju George) discovers that the deceased was also his daughter’s rapist. While twins in a murder mystery are usually a shorthand signifier for swapped places or mistaken identities, the visual in Iratta culminates in a more pervasive dread, not unlike the feeling evoked by the end of Oldboy (2003) or Incendies (2010). What began as a murder mystery is now an existential drama. Having never met his daughter, he now never can, knowing what the sight of his face will do to her.
Krishnan attributes childhood trauma to many of the ideas in Iratta, which deals with cycles of inherited violence and pain that are impossible to escape from. Happier times in his childhood involved watching as many films as he could. “Watching movies was my film school,” he said. The self-taught director made several short films while in college, between 2008 and 2012. After he graduated, Krishnan got a job as a system admin at the postal department and used his income to keep making shorts while he worked on a feature-length script. Now, following the release of Iratta on Netflix, he’s in talks with Red Chillies Entertainment to write their next script.
When you see twins in a murder mystery, the obvious conclusion is that it’s a case of swapped or mistaken identity, but how Iratta uses this idea for tragedy instead of tension is novel. How did you arrive at that idea?
I initially planned this as a small-budget, indie film with just one location — a police station. I watched a lot of one-location movies like 12 Angry Men (1957) and Exam (2009) and tried to see how they hooked people in, how they built curiosity. I also knew the ending had to be strong. I’d read this incident of a policeman who was shot inside a police station in Kerala and wrote a narrative around it. I started the first draft in 2017 and completed it within a year. It travelled through several producers and actors, during which I kept rewriting, adding new characters and layers.
Initially, the script didn’t have the twins. It was supposed to be about two unrelated people — Vinod and Pramod. When I narrated the story to Joju George, he said it might be more interesting to turn them into twins. And then the pandemic gave us two years to rework the script.
When you look at the ending, Vinod and Pramod have the same face. And Pramod’s daughter hasn’t seen her father yet. When she realises that her father’s alive and he’s Pramod, it will shock her because her father and her rapist have the same face. It’s not a horror movie, but a lot of people have said they got horror vibes from the end, especially the scene in which Pramod looks at himself in the mirror and sees Vinod.
There are so many international films that have a haunting climax like this one — Oldboy and Incendies — but it’s rare to find this in Indian and Malayalam movies. I didn’t use Oldboy or Incendies as a reference but the climax of Iratta is haunting in its own way.
It’s also interesting how the film looks at cycles of violence and how trauma passed down from parent to child. Where did this come from?
Our childhood has a huge role in shaping our character and personalities. Our experiences from before we turn 7 or 8 affect our future. In my case, I’m very scared to speak in front of huge crowds, and I can trace this back to experiences I had in my childhood. Any sort of childhood trauma affects your future. There’s a scene in the film in which Pramod says that some people can escape their trauma, while others can’t. That’s the case with Vinod. He grows up with an abusive father, and then grows up to be an abusive husband. He abuses his wife, who leaves him and goes to Mumbai. Vinod’s father is a pedophile and that’s who he becomes too. He sees his father die in front of him and that just adds to the trauma. He’s the more violent twin. Pramod finds a way of overcoming his trauma.
Doesn’t Vinod also escape his trauma to an extent when he meets a woman and falls in love?
He gets love from a person. I didn’t see her as a ‘woman’, it’s just a person who’s showing him love. There’s a line of dialogue where he says that many women have left him. This is a person who treats him as someone special and he starts to change.
Iratta is a great counterpoint to copaganda and the idea of the heroic cop, like Nayattu, directed by Martin Prakkat, who co-produced your film. Vinod and Pramod are very flawed cops.
In Malayalam cinema also, there was this idea of the good, talented hero, who could attract women. 2010 is when things changed. There was a New Wave of Malayalam cinema with flawed heroes and grey characters. I did a lot of research on the police, went to several police stations, observed their experiences and had heard so many stories about these departments. I wanted to learn policing procedures and how the police stations work in Kerala. I wanted to get the details right — who listens to and files complaints, who has a gun.
I also learnt that every person is complicated. Their public face and their private face are different, just like you and I would show a different side of our character to our parents and then our friends. I was just pointing out that everyone is a grey character, it just depends which perspective you’re seeing them from.
The movie credits include a forensic consultant. What did you learn from him?
I contacted forensic consultant Mebin Wilson Thomas at the writing stage itself. This is a crime movie and so I didn’t want any loopholes. I asked him a lot of questions about ballistics because I didn’t want people to say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t work.’ There’s something called GSR — gunshot residue — that’s left on the hands of the person who’s fired the weapon. I’ve never seen this mentioned in a single crime movie to come out of India, even though this is a great way to find out who the killer is. So in this movie, we show that samples have been taken and sent to the lab and that the cops are waiting for the GSR report to come back so they can determine which of their suspects are guilty. Some people have asked us why the gun didn’t have Vinod’s fingerprints and why it wasn’t obvious that this was a suicide. So we had to have the gun fall into the blood such that no prints were viable. We also had a police consultant, a retired inspector, who answered our questions about uniforms, salute patterns, how cops respond to higher-ups, etc.
When Vinod comes out of the room and you see there’s an underage girl sitting on the bed earlier in the film, there's already an implication that he's done something horrible to her, you fill in the gaps in your mind. Why did you want to make this more obvious at the end when you see a flashback of him forcing himself onto her? And how did you decide how much you want to show?
I wanted to make this movie for all kinds of people. When Vinod exits the room, everyone understands that he’s raped that girl. But later on, when he’s watching TV, our initial plan was to only show that girl on the TV and, through his expression, have the audience understand that this is the girl he’d raped and that she’s his niece. But we realized that some people might not understand that. So we added that flashback as spoonfeeding. But some of my close friends, who I’d shown the film to, did not understand that even then. That’s when we added a scene of Pramod asking another officer to confirm that this was the girl who’d been raped at the lodge. That’s when my friends got it.
This is a question my colleague had — did you come up with a backstory for why Pramod’s wife had never shown their daughter a photo of him?
She didn’t have any. You saw that when she left him, she took only two bags. No photo albums. She left him in 2003, when there weren’t really any mobile phones or social media. And she also didn’t have any attachment to Pramod because he’d abuse her even when she was pregnant. So why would she tell their daughter who he is? Wouldn’t any of do the same?