Making Antakshari was a constant battle against myself: Director Vipin Das
The filmmaker on making a drastic genre shift with his second feature, working with a subject that scares him, and the tactics he employed to get the best out of his actors
It's not every day that you see a filmmaker who just made arguably Malayalam cinema's most disturbing serial killer film yet tell you that he is too sensitive. It takes even a minor scene to get tears streaming down Vipin Das' face. He needs a lot of time to finish dark thrillers or anything that's drama or emotion-heavy. For example, it took him three weeks to complete Imtiaz Ali's Tamasha. What else gets him emotional? "Well, the childbirth scene in Pulimurugan would be another example. Also, if I see a little bit of blood, that's it. Once, when I started bawling, my wife told me to keep it down because neighbours were around. My completion of films or series involves cyclic episodes of crying and puking. I can't finish something like Mindhunter, Pataal Lok or Delhi Crime in one sitting. I'm okay with feel-good films, though."
His first disturbing movie experience? "I think it must be Manichithrathazhu, Memories of Murder, or I Saw the Devil. I'm not sure. Manichithrathazhu, maybe."
So how did someone who is wary of serial killer stories pull off something as haunting as Antakshari (currently streaming on SonyLIV)? "Here's the thing: I made it when I was at the lowest point in my life. All the other scripts that I wanted to do failed to take off. And even something like Antakshari got kickstarted after much hesitation and scepticism from several corners. So I was determined to make a film that I would have difficulty watching. It was simply a matter of me challenging myself. You won't believe it when I tell you that I went through my crying-puking phases while shooting some sequences. I needed one-hour breaks to calm down. The violent flashback, for instance, was unsettling for one of the actors. They, too, needed comforting. It was a constant battle against myself. "
The idea of crafting a thriller around the concept of Antakshari was thought too ridiculous by many. "All the crew members thought I was crazy," recalls Vipin. "I heard people talking behind my back that I was wasting my producers' money doing a film like this. Naturally, I got into arguments. Some of the actors I had pitched it to before Saiju chettan assumed I was trying to make a fool out of them. I got questions: What kind of story is this? Who would do a movie like this? How would it work out?"
One infuriating moment had Vipin pondering hitting an actor who suggested that the former completely take out the concept of Antakshari. "This man had the nerve to bring his own writers to suggest changes. I told them I wouldn't change a single word. I walked out there telling him that I would never consider doing a film with him again."
At one point before production began, Vipin felt so depressed that he even considered taking the "extreme step" because he thought he wouldn't be able to make this film. "I told my wife about applying for a different job. I had just sold my car to pay off debts; a week later, the lockdown happened. My producers were still supportive, though. They said we would do it somehow, with our one-and-a-half crore budget. They were on board with me doing it both as a series and film. You should know that in that budget, we got Ratsasan's fight master, balloon lights, shot for 31 days, with these many actors, and a 15 day-quarantine. Moreover, we not only shot it as a series and did post-production on it but also subjected the film version to the same process. We also bought the copyrights of the songs for 22 lakhs. Yes, these things are possible."
The possibility of Antakshari being the last film of Vipin's career was the key motivating factor. "Since I had resigned myself to the thought that it's the last film I would do, I gave it my all, which includes putting scenes in it that would terrify the viewer in me," he says. But then, something nice happened along the way. Vipin and the crew members gradually became convinced that the film was working. After watching the first cut, Vipin knew that his career wouldn't end with Antakshari. "I had a sense that it would work out. By then, I mustered enough confidence to start writing another script."
The original cut had a runtime of 3 hr 25 min. The extra length came from the detailing that went into the supporting characters' lives. There was even a part where the characters of Saiju Kurup and Sudhi Koppa had an ego issue. Vipin also excised some scenes of a sexual and violent nature. But he firmly believes that whatever is in the film now is "just right."
Vipin is up for releasing the extended version if someone is willing to pick it up. It all seems incredible to someone who, at one point, considered a YouTube release for Antakshari in case everyone rejected it. The film remained in the can for a long time because no OTT platform showed interest except SonyLIV. Perhaps it has to do with having one of his staunch supporters, Drishyam-director Jeethu Joseph, 'present' the film. "I can't thank him enough for doing that," says Vipin. "His encouragement meant a lot to me. I don't know if anyone would've shown interest if his name wasn't attached."
As for the confusion that resulted from keeping some character details incomplete, Vipin clarifies that it was deliberate. "Look, even if I put back the deleted scenes and bring out the 3-hr version, it would still feel incomplete. There is a purpose behind including certain characters. I wanted to present different levels of paedophilia and child abuse. I wanted to take this story through children and the varying degrees of trauma they experience. The teenage boy, the silent girl, the antagonist, and Das' daughter... everyone has a scarring experience. Das' home is devoid of trauma, they're happy, but the trauma comes from an external factor, just as it did with Ishita Singh's character, Nayana. Paedophilia is a core theme in the film."
Elaborating further on the arc of the silent girl, Nayana, Vipin says, "People have asked me why she had to remain mute. The reasoning is simple: 50 per cent of the victims of paedophilia are that way, which most people did not get. However, I decided against having a psychiatrist character or the grandfather give an explanation because I wasn't interested in spoonfeeding. The same goes for avoiding details that give away the timelines of the events."
One of Vipin's most amusing anecdotes on the making involves withholding certain surprising plot revelations to get the best results out of actors. Among these was the scene where Kottayam Ramesh laid down two blank sheets of paper in front of Ishita Singh and the stunning development that followed. "Nobody knew about it. When I told them what was coming next, they asked me, 'Isn't she supposed to be like that?' and I said, 'Where did I say she was? Check the script, man.' The whole conundrum took an entire hour to sort out. I had to explain the after-effects of child abuse with references and all that. But everything worked out because Ishita gave the exact delivery we wanted. One crew member suspected that I had more surprises in store. I told him this was the last one. (laughs). Another example would be the scary moment before the foot chase. Saiju chettan was not told what would happen there. The shock on his face was real, and I kept the first take. Another tricky scene was Priyanka's stammering when she panics, which required a subtle touch from her part."
Vipin is already busy with the pre-production of his next film, Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, a satirical comedy starring Basil Joseph and Darshana Rajendran, with the backing of Jaan-e-Man producer Lakshmi Warrier and Ganesh Menon. There's also a project scripted by PF Mathews (Ee. Ma. Yau) and produced by Lijo Jose Pellissery in development.