Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval: Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham is driven only by humour
The production-designer-turned filmmaker talks about his second feature, which makes its digital premiere on Disney+ Hotstar this Friday
With Android Kunjappan, production designer-turned-director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval distinguished himself as one of the most unique and sought-after voices in contemporary Malayalam cinema. A critical and commercial smash, the film fetched three Kerala State awards for Ratheesh, leading man Suraj Venjaramood, and art director Jothish Shankar. Now Ratheesh and his infectious brand of humour return with Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham (KaKaaKa), a satirical comedy based on a hilarious (in retrospect) incident that happened in the lives of Ratheesh and his better half. Starring Nivin Pauly (also producer), Grace Antony, Vinay Forrt, Vincy Aloshious, Rajesh Madhavan, Joy Mathew, Jaffer Idukki, the film hits Disney+ Hotstar -- its first direct-to-digital Malayalam release -- this Friday (November 12).
Was a big-screen release for KaKaaKa considered initially?
We did, but since we didn't get any clarity on theatres reopening at the time, we entered into discussions with Disney+ Hotstar. And when the government announced that theatres would reopen, it didn't feel right to change our minds. Besides, there is still no guarantee of all families going to theatres in the present scenario. Moreover, this film demands wider exposure which a platform like Disney+ Hotstar can provide.
Android Kunjappan was a big deal for many, especially the sci-fi fans among us. It encouraged aspiring filmmakers to think out of the box. Did its success give you the confidence to widen your imagination and try out more out-of-the-box elements in KaKaaKa?
Undoubtedly! It was Android Kunjappan's success that led me to Nivin Pauly. KaKaaKa was initially an 80-page script that would've run for 80-mins or something. And it was the time when the pandemic was at its peak, so naturally, the plan was to write something small for an OTT release. But then Nivin got excited during the discussions, and, long story short, we decided to do it as a proper two-hour feature. It was just an ordinary film, until two weeks before the shoot even though the central hotel setting was the same. But its world was completely different from what you see now. The moment the costume department entered the picture, the film's overall look changed. The colour of the hotel staff's costumes influenced the production design and framing. We came up with an art scheme that matched those costumes. I would say that even the humour took on a more exaggerated tone after we finalised the production design. A lot of things evolved during the shoot. We got to create stuff that wasn't there during the writing stage or production meetings. So, yes, Android Kunjappan gave me the confidence to try an approach usually found in international films.
Since this film has a combination of subtle and over-the-top performances, did you use separate takes for variations -- say, from calm to intense -- of the same moments?
Yes, we did, for safety reasons (laughs). For instance, there were places where every character would react in the same way, and having various takes of the same reaction will help get us clarity during the final editing process. We filmed normal reactions and their exaggerated versions so that there would be no confusion later.
I understand there is a balance between slapstick and subtle comedy in this film.
This is a script with an unpredictable quality. It can go from calm and subtle in one instant to crazy in another. You can't guess how a particular character would behave after a certain point. Normal-crazy-normal -- that's the pattern. The events in the film are not supposed to be taken seriously. It requires a degree of detachment on the audience's part. It's all about enjoying the humour and not getting into the emotions. The diffusion of tension was so important in a film like this. Such an approach cannot be taken in a film driven by emotions, though.
You mentioned incorporating the edit pattern in the scripting stage itself. Was that the case with Android Kunjappan too?
Yes. It was something I learned from Sanu John Varghese (cinematographer). In the Android Kunjappan script, I didn't mention how the characters were affected by something. The dialogues were there. But in my head, I knew what they were going through. However, in KaKaaKa, I specified everything because all the cast and crew members had to understand and enjoy these situations. You see, the frames' beauty or production design is secondary with a material like this. I've heard some say they got to see in KaKaaKa reaction shots after a long time. It's essential for audience engagement. It's something that my editor Manoj Kannoth and I discussed.
We also heard you are cooking up some more exciting projects, including a sequel to Android Kunjappan. What can you tell us about them?
My immediate next is a courtroom drama -- Nna, Thaan Case Kodu (Then, you go and file a case) -- with Kunchacko Boban, Gayathrie Shankar, and over 60 newcomers. I'm so excited because I managed to cast all the right people. It's not going to be the typical courtroom drama. Some lawyers showed up for the audition and told me they hadn't seen an authentic courtroom in a film yet, so we are trying to change that view. Despite their lack of experience in front of the camera, they all performed wonderfully, given their real-life experiences. I'm going to experiment with long takes this time and, as usual, let the actors do their own thing. Although we start principal photography by January, I plan to shoot some portions during the rehearsal camp and use that footage in the final film. So by the time Kunchacko Boban joins the set, we'll have a basic edit.
Apart from that, I'm writing a script for my associate Sudhish to direct. Suraj Venjaramoodu and Grace Antony are playing the leads. It's also a humorous subject. Then there is the Android sequel Alien Aliyan, which will require an extensive pre-production process and heavy VFX shots because of the extra-terrestrial character, naturally. We are trying to invent a design not seen before: a funny, relatable alien appealing to kids and adults alike. It's more ambitious compared to what I've done before. We are yet to finalise the lead actor.