Excerpts from an interview between Mahesh Narayanan and Vishal Menon
When I speak to other directors and actors, generally what they have done during the pandemic is to take a step back, focus more on their craft, go into writing more that might or may not have the pandemic in the screenplay. But, in your case, you chose very early to make a movie at this point instead of waiting it out, which is a great thing. Can you tell me a little bit about the process where you thought, “Let’s not wait and let’s make a film,” and the idea to go ahead and make a film like C U Soon. How much did an actor like Fahadh Faasil help in that process?
I’d like to say a few things here. One thing is that we are all artistes and we all sometimes go into a zone where nothing is happening, but, creatively we will have to be active. I can either write a story or a screenplay and get it published, but being a filmmaker I have to express my idea through a film only. The main thing is that a lot of films in Malayalam made under a limited budget that could be monetised just by an OTT release, they were not getting a window. So once this pandemic happened, all of a sudden, none of the Malayalam films were acquired by OTT platforms. Producers who had made films with an expiry date pitched it to OTTs, but they were not given any viable figure.
We all thought that this industry is going to die, but there are a lot of people solely dependent on this industry. There is a certain classification of people who can only survive on the revenue generated from the work they do in cinema, like assistant directors, assistant editors and assistant cinematographers. I’ve been working in this industry for the past 15 years and some of my assistants are independent editors. A few of them have now gone into other fields like the aquatic business. Another one is cooking from home, and delivering food. This looks scary. These guys have all done good work but are finding it hard to make ends meet. So, we thought about how to work with all these people, create content and say that we can make content with a limited crew.
So once the Government brought about the rule that a 50-member crew is allowed to shoot a film in a controlled environment, we started doing it. It is wrong to wait for two years for 200 people to come together for a particular film. After I started with a 50-member crew, my fellow filmmakers such as Aashiq Abu and Lijo Jose Pellissery did it and a lot of other filmmakers did that too. So 50 x 4 is 200, which is also the same thing and we are finishing the shoot in a lesser number of days. So, basically, people can work more as well. I am talking just in terms of the Covid-19 pandemic period. So the idea came from Fahadh, who is closely associated with regular folk. He has friends who are makeup assistants, costume assistants… Seeing their situation, he asked me how these people are going to survive.
A lot of small film producers came in saying that they’ve made a film but that OTTs weren’t talking about money. So, we understood that somebody has to crack it; else, it would be like being stuck in a stagnant pool. We had to keep the free flow going and for that reason alone, we made this happen. A long time ago, I had shared a small video clip that inspired me with Fahadh; it was a video sent by a girl in the Middle East to her parents in India. It was very morbid and shocking, but also haunting. So, Fahadh mailed asking if I still remember that and if we can make something related to that. So, we sat and wrote the story, and later Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran came on board.
So, what is the process like when you write such a film? It is a very high concept experimental kind of film. So every scene when you sit down, do you have to start with as to what camera will it be captured on? Because there are only some three or four cameras that can come into it, right? How does that work in terms of writing?
Writing a computer screen film is very tricky. Because, the device is not with you and it is with the characters. Something has to be expressed only when a camera or an audio device is turned on. There should be a logic to why it is turned on. Just like how we are talking, me from my house and you’re talking from your house or office. We are interacting and it is more like a two-camera setup and more like a computer screen thing. So, there is a reason. I’ve come for this interview, but before that you and I spoke. I should know you and you should know me and that is the backstory. These backstories have to be filled up by the audience. So, within that space, we have to go through an emotional story also and follow that story. So that’s the toughest part.
When actors were performing, what we did was that we assembled all of them in a common building so that we could all move up and down within quarantine limitations. And when a particular character is acting, the other character is already there enacting the other lines in the same emotion so that the other character will understand that. So, it’s more like seeing the other person and acting. The other thing is that it doesn’t have a conventional big shot close-up or wide shot. It is a different narrative and the work is mainly post shooting. There is editing and post that, there is this new set of cinematography called virtual cinematography where we align the shots. We play with the movements and the cinematic exercise and all after all this, it shapes up as a good film.
Tell me a couple of things that you have taken for granted in regular feature filmmaking that you don’t have access to in this kind of a format. For instance, I don’t see a reaction shot or a zoom-in or close-up shot being very easy.
All this is actually there in the film, but in a way where it is digitally manipulated. It is all digitally done and not in the conventional way. When we come into the emotion, we forget the form. Primarily, it is setting up, just like how we set up characters and that was tricky. Films in the West have been trying this for a long time. And their communication, text and all that is in English. For us, it is different because we are typing it in Manglish, and that has to go for subtitling in English. That’s the type of experiment we are trying with the audience.
When you’re writing these scenes, how difficult is it for you to fill up what forms outside the film? Like in regular films, we have in-between scenes where we see a man walking away. Is it an exhausting process in this format?
The storyline is what is very important. Because, if the characters are placed in a different time zone, one person can’t reach the other immediately, and that is primarily set. I usually write for my edit, that is my advantage and my disadvantage. So, whenever I visualise a concept, the framework is already set in my mind, like how am I going to communicate it through the cut points. So the classical form of cinema has got a time-lapse or a cut away or a cut-in.
In this film I had to try some new formats and a new way of time lapses or jump cuts and emotional continuity. But I did not want this to be gimmicky and wanted it to go with the story. I’ve tested it with people who don’t understand genre or computer scale and I’ve been looking at whether they have been following the emotions and finally I understood that they are. I’ve chosen a classical story to go with it and the story has got more meat and I feel its content is superior to the format.