Written and shot during the height of the pandemic, Khalid Rahman’s experimental film Love has managed to widely divide its audiences. A polarising film may not have been ideal to bring audiences back to theatres but it’s rebirth on Netflix has also birthed a new set of admirers for the film. At just 90 minutes, its director says it began as a short film he made to avoid “going crazy”. With Netflix’s rewind, pause and playback function, multiple decodings and analyses have now further kept the film alive on social media.
Zooming into his inner workings, here’s the story of how Khalid made Love. SPOILERS AHEAD.
Let me start with the responses you’ve been getting. A set of people who watched the film in the theatre complained that it didn’t make sense to them. But the response was different when it released on Netflix.
Even when I was making it, I knew it wont entertain everyone. I expected a certain section to appreciate it and Love seems to have worked for them. Even when it got a limited release in Dubai, there was a small set of people who liked it and I was happy with that. But it’s true that the general audience didn’t get the movie. Not that there are any regrets or anything.
But when you’ve made a film for a certain kind of viewer, isn’t there a way you can market it specifically to them to avoid this confusion?
You need to remember the time it came out. It was one of the first theatrical releases post lockdown and we didn’t have the time to plan a marketing strategy. There was no market study per se. In a regular scenario, if people walk out after a movie because they didn’t understand it, they might be tempted to watch it again more patiently. But not when there’s a virus going around. Some of them watched it again on Netflix and it worked for them then. The film demands a certain mood and people understand that by the time it’s out on OTT.
I heard that the film was shot during the lockdown with a limited cast and crew. But was Love a script you had with you earlier or was it born during Covid?
There would have been no Love without Covid. A couple of months into the lockdown I felt like I was going mad. Nothing was working out and I was feeling restless. So I planned to make a short film to get out of that rut. It was made in that aggression. It eventually developed into a feature but that wasn’t the initial plan. The film is set inside an apartment with actors who are all my friends. I had a story and the scene order ready but we were writing even during the shoot. So we were writing, shooting and chilling during the 25 days of Love. The whole process, from idea to first copy, took just three months.
Now I want to get into some of the points in the film which may have confused viewers. I too watched the film a second time to be sure. But before we go into it, I want to ask you what your take is on directors explaining their films once it’s out.
I did read and watch most of the reviews that came out after the release. I pay attention to them but I don’t respond to them. If you’re speaking specifically about the analyses that happens after, I have to admit that I don’t understand the process of how a film gets interpreted. We’ve made a work of art and it only becomes greater when there’s multiple ways of looking at it. Personally, I don’t like the creator talking about his/her film after its out. The film itself is what the director has to say…so I don’t see the need for us to further add more.
My intention is to get into the making process of such a ‘deceptive’ film. The pattern of writing may have been new to you. So let’s get the basics out of the way. Given that a large portion of the film happens in one man’s (Shine Tom Chacko as Anoop) head, when does this ‘hallucination’ begin? Does it start from the time Anoop takes a first sip of alcohol?
Yes. There’s an obvious slowing down of time as he takes his first sip of alcohol and we’ve stylised it with some music. If you’re talking about the actual timeline of this episode, it’s basically the time Deepti (Rajisha Vijayan) takes to reach home from the hospital after she learns that she’s pregnant. So around an hour or so in real time.
A nurse tells Deepti that she should be more careful because she’s been trying for so long. Does that mean that Anoop and Deepti are unable to have children normally and that they’ve been trying other methods?
Yeah. They are facing issues and they’ve been undergoing fertility treatments. But Haritha (Veena Nandakumar), Anoop’s lover, also gets pregnant on the same day. That’s the conundrum he’s in when he starts drinking that day.
From my understanding, almost everything happens in Anoop’s mind until Deepti gets back home towards the end. The only exception, if I’m not wrong, is that his father-in-law (Johny Anthony) drops in for a few minutes and slaps him for hurting his daughter.
That’s true. The father-in-law’s visit is the only real thing that happens until she gets back.
I want to learn more about the writing process of the clues you leave all around the screenplay in such a film. For instance, I felt that there was something wrong with the way the other two characters (played by Gokulan and Sudhi Koppa) behaved when the father-in-law reaches. They stare from the balcony at that point. And more curiously, the bottle of alcohol, which was empty until then, suddenly becomes half full again.
These hints are important in such a film. We need to be prepared for people who will watch the film again to figure them out. And these clues need to be there during the writing stage itself. For instance, the colorful shirt Sudhi Koppa wears throughout is actually hanging in Anoop’s bedroom right from the start. But this shouldn’t be obvious at first viewing. One has to notice it subconsciously. When we plant these clues, there’s an extra layer of care to make sure these things don’t distract the viewer.
But given the way this film was shot, was it easy to implement these clues as you go along?
They were all written beforehand. And when I’ve written most of it, I have an idea of how it has to reflect on screen. My effort then is to get the whole team onboard for that idea. Because if one of them sticks out, you’re pulling the audience out of the film. But when the crew is limited and in sync with the ideas, it’s easier to pull off inner layers and hints. But some work and some don’t.
Another point where I felt like something more was happening was the way you’ve used the keyholes. You can see Anoop looking through it but instead of seeing what he’s seeing, we see nothing. We only see Anoop from the outside in one instance.
This again is a result of the way we shot the film. Love is a film we wrote while in location. I stay in that apartment so its like I’m creating a screenplay based on the set I’m living in. Which means that I’ve tried to use every space of that 1100sq.ft apartment, either for drama or for staging. The keyhole is one such object that helped me stage scenes differently. The bathroom was another. If you look back at the film, there’s around 15 minutes of the film that’s set in the bathroom. It’s a really small space and its tough to fit a crew into it. But it fits the situation perfectly.
Even the surreal scene where the bathroom walls fall apart is an interesting element. It shows Anoop’s state of mind, but only in hindsight. At first viewing, it feels like his world is collapsing because of the crime he has committed.
Yes it works both ways with both situations being possible.
This holds true to that scene early on when Gokulan’s character says his wife keeps telling him that he’s got some kind of mental illness. Of course that’s something Deepti must have been telling Anoop but is that how you’ve written his character? As someone with a mental problem?
That’s based on how you want to interpret it. Telling one’s partner that they’ve got a mental problem is something that happens among all couples in most fights. It’s not really a shocking thing to be said in a fight. But if that holds true or not in Anoop’s case is up to you to interpret. The film is written in a way that these scenes need to be watched in many different ways. If I say what I meant, then I’m putting an end to all possible interpretations.
But isn’t the wall collapsing an obvious hint then?
I don’t see it that way. Once you’ve written a major part of your film as a hallucination, then you’re not really limited to logic to explains such scenes. It’s a mental state and we have the freedom to show unreal activities and this includes the walls closing or collapsing. It’s like a phobia taking effect. You know how the shooting process works right? We have a lot on our minds when its taking place. The atmosphere, team and the ambience then contributes more to what we’re trying to create. We make changes and we keep getting ideas but it’s not necessary that they make it to the film or even if it makes sense to the people who watch it later on.
How did you write the two imaginary characters played by Sudhi and Gokulan? Did you see them as alter egos or some other kind of manifestation?
Honestly, I just called them by their real names. I didn’t even name their characters. I had a mental image for both of them and the way they would behave and look but I saw them more as two contrasting emotions within Anoop.
So one would be a playboy-like personality who is more flashy and confident, while the other one is fearful, suicidal and bald?
Pretty much. There was a definite way these characters would dress and behave.
What I found inconsistent was the way these two characters behaved later on. The suicidal character is the one who wants Anoop to kill Deepti. He’s even ready to support him when she’s dead. But Sudhi’s character is more fearful and wants to have no part in it then.
But isn’t this inconsistency justified? It’s something that happens in one person’s mind so these inconsistencies between imaginary characters is totally possible. It’s like the walls collapsing again. When they’re not anchored to reality, their behaviours can flip between the two of them. They are emotions and they can go any way they want.
Let’s get to the ending now? There’s a lot of people who wants to know what it means (laughs).
There are no explanations at all. We planned this ending right from the start and it’s not something we’ve done for shock value. There has been both positive and negative responses to it but that’s fair. It’s an ending one needs to think about. Me stating my version will bring a stop to all discussions and debates. That’s not what I want.
Finally, how do you feel when you come across interpretations you didn’t even imagine when you were writing or shooting the film?
In some cases, they’ve been downright shocking. Of course when the person is making a point and arguing for it well, I’m completely delighted. That’s what we all want, right? Because the viewer’s own experience adds a further layer to what we’ve created for it to develop even more. There’s no one meaning or correct answers. That’s the beauty of it.