Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval: Nna Thaan Case Kodu crystallised during rehearsal
The writer-director-production designer on the broader brush strokes he attempted with his third feature
When I meet Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval in his apartment, he is in the middle of attending a wave of calls conveying notes of appreciation for his new film, Nna Thaan Case Kodu (NTCK). The production designer-writer-director is elated because the response to his last outing, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham (KaKaaKa), was decidedly mixed. "But even some of the detractors of KaKaaKa are now mentioning it in their NTCK reviews," he laughs. "They think it's okay to mention KaKaaKa now that NTCK is doing well."
But the first day of NTCK's release wasn't smooth for Ratheesh. An unwarranted 'poster controversy' that offended certain corners flustered him. On television channels, his response was simple: "Those who are prone to get offended shouldn't see my movie." He finds the whole thing absurd. "When you are finally waiting to gauge everyone's reaction to something you worked hard on for two years, getting inundated with calls and messages about a certain 'controversy' is not the first thing you normally expect. I had no clue about what was happening outside or on social media. I was agitated throughout the show, and after it, I didn't know whether the movie worked for audiences or not. How else was I supposed to react?"
Did NTCK originate with a pothole or a thief?
It was born out of an urge to do a courtroom drama. Initially, it was a humungous script, which I wrote after Android Kunjappan; but since I wanted many supporting actors for that, it wasn't feasible to do it during the pandemic. So I did KaKaaKa instead. The first form of NTCK consisted of 180-190 pages; it felt like a 3-hr movie. I couldn't figure out how to shorten it. Even those I had asked to read the script couldn't think of a solution. So I thought of shooting the whole thing as a rehearsal and shrinking it based on the results. We issued a casting call and filmed it with the people who got selected.
Was Kunchacko Boban present then?
No, he wasn't. Rajesh Madhavan (actor, casting director) stood in for him. We turned a library into a courtroom, shot with everyone in costume, and proceeded to edit it, during which we found a way to keep the whole thing under three hours. Nobody saw it except the direction team, the actors, the cinematographer, and the composer. Then I wrote the final script based on that length. While writing, it became clear that we wouldn't need many sizeable reductions after that. It also gave us the advantage of reduced shoot days, and we knew which scenes would work and which wouldn't. I would say the rehearsal helped a lot because we recognised many shortcomings that naturally came with the initial approach, which was more of an observational style -- a lot of long shots, with the rare close shot. But the problem with that approach is that the form didn't match the story. Besides, not many would understand that approach; the humour wouldn't come out the way we wanted. I even planned to do it in 4:3 first, with cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan, but he got busy later.
How did Rakesh Haridas (cinematographer) coming on board help the film?
His approach was much, much closer to what you see now. He shot it -- in 1:85.1 ratio -- with the same vision he had when he read the script. Funnily enough, he was the last person to read the fine-turned version. Since he hadn't seen the earlier version, everything was fresh to him. His various emotional responses to the script were all spot on, and I told him we should shoot the film in a way that all those elements in the narrative registered to him. He wanted to journey with Rajeevan (Kunchacko Boban), and that's how it evolved to this form. However, we utilised a few things from the first approach to a small extent in the present one because I was confident that those things would work considering their effectiveness during the rehearsal. The 'Aayiram Kannumayi' sequence was one example. Rakesh had doubts about it, though. But I knew for sure it would work. After the release, I noticed it getting applauded in every screening I attended.
Among the funniest scenes is the one in the police station where two women file a complaint.
That scene was among the most challenging ones we had to deal with. By challenge, I mean it worked during the reading but not during the performance. The strange thing is I did that scene twice with two different actors. The actor who plays the policeman now is not the same actor present during the rehearsal. But even after recasting that part, it wasn't easy. The solution? Minor script reworking coupled with Manoj Kannoth's editing. There were a lot of scenes that challenged us like that. On some days, they worked; on others, they didn't. But I had complete confidence in the script. I had thought all the shortcomings through, including places where the music works or doesn't. Some of the subtle humour originated during on-set improvisation and some during dubbing.
Were all the newcomers cast from the same locality?
Yes, we got everyone from the same place. Almost everyone has a background in theatre -- not professional, though. They are all active in the local plays, particularly PP Kunjhikrishnan, who played the magistrate, for whom stage fright is not an issue. He is quite an interactive chap. The magistrate character was apt for him because him being an activist, he had to, on numerous occasions, put on the garb of a mediator and resolve conflicts. Some of these actors brought their own real-life details into their characters. Shukoor vakeel is a real-life litigator (same name in the film), and so is Gangadharan vakeel. Krishnan vakeel, played by AV Balakrishnan, is not one, though. He has appeared in small plays, that's all.
Kunchacko Boban was absolutely brilliant as Rajeevan. Tell us about designing his look.
We all know Chackochan (Kunchacko Boban) is someone who stands out considerably in a crowd in his offscreen look. So we had to come up with the prosthetic teeth, darkened complexion, unkempt clothes, and the slang, of course. I felt the character wouldn't have worked without those details. He had to look convincing as a thief. Besides, our film didn't have much space for heroism or exaggerated drama. If we needed to pump some high emotions, the idea was to rely more on the music to achieve that. And since everyone else in the cast is new, we had to make Rajeevan look like one of them.
Is the production design different from what you initially had in mind?
It's almost the same retro-influenced design I had at the beginning, except for a few changes. Initially, I thought of setting the whole thing in a fictional location, where even the police wore specifically designed uniforms. This approach was relatively more stylised; not realistic. What you see now is a more diluted version of the previous design. We consulted actual lawyers regarding the possibility of such a case happening for real, courtroom proceedings, and other details. We explored all possible scenarios.