Jimshi Khalid: We were never over ambitious while making Thallumaala
Cinematographer Jimshi Khalid breaks down the process of making Thallumaala, one of the best Indian films of the year
Jimshi Khalid has been a constant in the journey of the hilarious Malayalam action-comedy, Thallumaala, from page to the marquee. The cinematographer has known Muhsin Parari, the film’s writer for years now, and has seen the project go through tectonic shifts. Muhsin, in fact, was supposed to helm it originally, and the writer eventually decided not to direct it. In a turn of events, Khalid Rahman, the director, and Ashiq Usman, the producer, entered the picture and the film finally became a reality. Jimshi has been a part of this ride right from the start, offering feedback to the writer even before the film kickstarted. Originally announced in 2019, the film premiered earlier this month, opening to highly positive reviews. “I am a happy man as I sit down to talk to you,” Jimshi says over Zoom.
In this interview with Cinema Express, the cinematographer talks about the many challenges and creative choices that went into the making of the film.
Excerpts from the interview:
When you had read the script or listened to the narration, you must have envisioned Thallumaala in a certain way, how close did you come to that vision?
To be honest, we were not over ambitious with what we had set out to achieve. We wanted it to be larger than life though. Moreover, I am not a reader, I prefer listening. In fact, I haven’t read the script of the film to date. You see, it is a non-linear script and there were tweakings on the editing table as well. For instance, the film had only five chapters in the script but they became seven during the edit. I don’t think one can get a fine idea of a Muhsin Parari script from reading. If I had to put a number on how close we came, I would say we achieved 80 to 85 per cent of what we had imagined.
Was there anything you wanted to but couldn’t realise due to practical restrictions?
No. Not exactly. Take, for instance, the fight sequence in the theatre. Everyone is praising it…
It is one hell of an action sequence.
Yes. What we pulled off is fine, but we had a perfect reference for the sequence. I will tell you which one it is. It features a horde of people causing pandemonium in a huge hall, hitting each other mindlessly. The choreography is bloody brilliant. It is the church sequence from Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015). We tried to replicate a lot of shots from the sequence. Somehow, people liked it, they are clapping for it in the theatre and I was happy with the response when I watched it. However, it isn’t as good as the reference. I wanted it to be better than the original! We filmed more shots that could be stitched into the sequence but it didn’t work out. Many things did not work out. Inexperience, I guess.
I wouldn’t call it inexperience though. It is a new attempt for everyone.
If you look at my previous works like Kappela, Love, Oruthee, or any other film, they were all small, light-hearted films on a limited budget with a tiny crew. I never played with anything beyond 6 to 8 crores. With Thallumaala, though, we were pumping money into it and I was partially responsible for that. Every time we were doing something over-the-top, I would remind Rahman that we were responsible for it! For instance, we built a set costing fifty lakh rupees for 'Tupathu' song, and I was amazed looking at it, but I knew I was responsible for it. Moreover, managing people is a huge task. Controlling five hundred people on the set, choreographing them in the frame and layering them… is a new experience. I have learned many new things from the film.
Speaking of the action sequences, the movement of the camera must have been meticulously choreographed…
Every moment is planned. Neither the director nor am I a fan of static shots and I prefer holding the camera in my hand. Also, some humanly impossible focus pulling had to be done in the theatre sequence, but my focus puller, Shankar, is the best in the business and pulled it off. I guess all of us were high while making the film. Not really, I mean. Shooting this film gave us a kick every day!
Also, one of the reasons why the action sequences look immaculate is that Muhsin had it all written! Even the fight sequence in the van, for instance, was scripted in detail, like who punches whom and how they punch. We knew filming the sequence in a real car would be impossible. So we built our own car that could be dismantled in parts, allowing us to shoot at different angles. Likewise, for the marriage hall fight sequence, Shine [Tom Chacko] had learned all his moves, but Muhsin told us that this character wouldn’t fight this way. We were all prepared in advance. From building the rigs to choreographing action, it was all properly planned.
I assume you didn’t have many visual references for Thallumaala from Malayalam cinema.
From Malayalam cinema, no. We had references from many music videos though.
The editing transitions from one scene to the other are also brilliant.
Nishadh Yusuf is a damn cool editor and they were also pre-planned. Right before we began filming, we were planning on many styles and finally chose Edgar Wright's style, especially his Scott Pilgrim vs The World. We even copy-pasted some cuts (laughs). And we knew that the transitions we wanted to achieve had to be planned because we can’t expect the segues to form themselves on the editing table. A couple of days into the filming, Rahman got a little over-ambitious about the transitions and that’s when I got panicked. I then suggested to him that we seek the editor’s advice before shooting these transitions. And Nishadh was on the sets almost every day, monitoring these transitions. And of course, he did magic on the editing table too.
If the film worked, that’s because of the entire team; if you feel the looks great, a major part of it can be attributed to the work of the production designer Gokul Das. It was all a perfect blend. Yes, there were cracks and potholes; yes, we fought, but it was all healthy.