Watching Mammukka Perform Was A Revelation: Cinematographer Shehnad Jalal On Bramayugam

The cinematographer talks about his work in Rahul Sadasivan's Malayalam film and the motivation behind the choices that lent a distinct visual quality to the horror piece
Cinematographer Shehnad Jalal on Bramayugam
Cinematographer Shehnad Jalal on Bramayugam

It’s been an eventful couple of weeks for cinematographer Shehnad Jalal, who is reveling in the appreciation coming his way for his work in Mammootty's Bramayugam. “I have been receiving calls continuously. Since Bhoothakalam was a straight-to-streaming release, it feels nice hearing people share their theatre experience of Bramayugam and how it captivated them,” he says, adding that he wants to explore every genre out there, even if two of his most acclaimed works fall under horror.

The film, which can be read as a take on how power corrupts morality, is anchored by the formidable presence of Mammootty, who plays Kodumon Potti, the lord of a manor that seems to be hiding many dark secrets. While the cinematographer is careful not to divulge too much and spoil the experience for those who haven’t seen the film yet, he does offer a peek into the film’s crafting process and some of the choices that make it one of the most visually striking films to come out in recent times.

Mammootty in Bramayugam
Mammootty in Bramayugam

Excerpts from the interview:

Both Bhoothakaalam and Bramayagum are predominantly set in a single location. A regular house in the former and a dilapidated mansion in the latter. Does this location constraint compel you to make your frames more dynamic and exciting to avoid redundancy?

Not really. Bhoothakaalam was shot in a very small house and you still don’t feel any sort of monotony.

A still from Bhoothakalam
A still from Bhoothakalam

For Bramayugam, we had a much bigger space with many layers inside the house... the corridors, hallways, kitchen, wine cellar, store rooms, and pathways the characters keep passing through. In that sense, there is a natural variation in the space, lending a dynamic quality to the image and narrative.

All the shots were meticulously planned, as we spent around 4-5 months on pre-production. Rahul [Sadasivan, the director] would prepare the storyboard himself. Everything was set before going to the shoot. On the set, we just had to execute it the way we wanted to. The film was shot on Alexa Mini LF and we finished shooting in 52 days.

You must have worked very closely with the art department to bring Potti's mansion to life.

Absolutely. Our art director (Jothish Shankar) gave us a design and as we made miniatures, I would give suggestions about the tonality and more importantly, textures because it’s a vital quality for a black-and-white image. While the colours of the sets and props were kept natural and weren’t necessarily customised for grayscale, I only controlled the brightness of the walls because I wanted darker walls. But keeping the tonal range of the black-and-white in mind, I would ask the team to maintain different shades for props.

We used different locations to bring Potti’s mansion to life. The house was one major portion and then there were a couple of different sets. For instance, the attic onto which a tree falls was one set and then there’s a separate portion for the kitchen, which was a real structure but major work had gone into it. The wine cellar was a different set, and so was the room in which grains were stocked. While it all looks uniform on screen now, the lighting was a challenge because every day, we were lighting a new space and there were so many sets to be lit. It was a new experience.

A still from the film
A still from the film

Did the black-and-white format make your job simpler or add to the challenges?

There were difficulties, especially while shooting night sequences in daylight. When shooting in colour, we tend to give a blue-ish tint to communicate that it’s night but we didn’t seek the help of that technique here and we had to achieve it only through lighting. Also, while shooting in low light, unlike colour, we needed to be very mindful of the levels of contrast because we do run the risk of making the low-lit image look muddy and in turn not being able to capture the right shade of black. There are such challenges. Eventually, we managed to crack a realistic look for the night scenes by using a huge amount of light on the artists, thereby killing the daylight and underexposing the background. While filming it, I didn’t feel this but looking back now, I think the ending was a challenging part to shoot. It demanded a lot of work, especially with an element like fire coming into the play in this sequence.

The image of a character walking alongside dunes of grains was quite reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979). It felt like a great homage too.

Yes, I understand that scene from Stalker comes to mind but to be honest, we didn’t intend it as a homage. Moreover, in Stalker, it’s a bigger and brighter area but this is totally dark.

What’s a scene that you enjoyed shooting the most?

I think the dice game sequence looks really good. It’s got great compositions and of course, Mammukka is also there doing his magic. 

A still from the film
A still from the film

Do you have a preferred aspect ratio as a cinematographer?

It depends totally on the film. For Bramayugam, we went with 2.1, as opposed to the conventional 2.35:1 because it was set in a single house and we felt it was a better aspect ratio to frame the actors. We get to explore space, get more headspace and the shots also feel more balanced. 

The film has some striking close-ups of Mammootty, with his evil smile.

I had worked with him as an associate around 15 years ago but this is the first time I got to work with him as an independent cinematographer. With Mammukka, we can never say what’s going to happen in a take. Most of the time, it’s a single take and he delivers an out-of-the-world experience during those moments. And it’s a surprise even for us as we capture it. Watching him perform was a revelation, the way he brings out the power in his body language is hard to describe.

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