Bhoothakaalam director Rahul Sadasivan: Manichithrathazhu is the greatest Malayalam horror film
The writer-director on shooting his latest psychological-horror feature, why casting Revathy and Shane was so important to him, and more
On Monday morning, filmmaker Ram Gopal Varma tweeted that he hasn't seen a more realistic horror film than Bhoothakaalam since William Friedkin's The Exorcist. It's a proud moment for its writer-director Rahul Sadasivan, who calls RGV's Raat one of his favourite horror films. It's one of the reasons why Rahul cast its leading lady Revathy as Shane Nigam's mother in his latest feature, Bhoothakaalam. Raat was -- and still is -- considered a pathbreaker of sorts for doing something fresh with a genre that was, up until that point, fairly misused in Indian cinema. RGV made another one 11 years later, with Bhoot, also notable for its novelty factor. I bring up these two titles because Bhoothakaalam is also getting celebrated for breathing new life into the genre in the same way they did. The Malayalam industry has been sorely lacking in the chill-inducing department for a long time. If asked to give the number of well-acted or technically superior horror films made in the state, it would be too small a figure. At the numero uno spot is, of course, the unmatchable Manichithrathazhu. (Rahul calls it "the greatest horror film made in Malayalam so far", a choice that also reveals his interest in psychological horror, under which Bhoothakaalam also falls.)
Bhoothakaalam was born out of Rahul's desire to crack the horror genre and present something hitherto unattempted. "I would say the knowledge that nobody has done a story like Bhoothakaalam before is what gave me the confidence to go ahead with it," he says. "Maybe two or three years back, I would've written a script about demonic possession or something. But I'm not in that mindset right now. I wanted to try a minimalistic film driven completely by performance and atmosphere. Some may find it slow-paced, but if given a chance to remake Bhoothakaalam, I would do it exactly like this. I can't imagine doing it in any other way."
He clarifies that Bhoothakaalam was never envisioned as an "OTT film" because he started working on it two years before "OTT became a thing". He first narrated the story to Revathy, who was also the first to come on board. However, it took a long while to get to Shane as the actor was, at the time, embroiled in a shoot-related issue. When Shane finally became accessible, at the beginning of 2020, the world got hit by the pandemic. After signing the dotted lines, the actor took Bhoothakaalam to producer Anwar Rasheed (Premam, Parava), who suggested that a direct-to-OTT release would be a more feasible option considering the subject matter and prevailing circumstances.
Rahul had considered other production houses before that, but since horror comes with certain preconceived notions in the industry, they were all scared (no pun intended) to touch it.
As for the film's distinct visual style, Rahul's strong background in animation came in handy during pre-production. "Bhoothakaalam demanded a coherent visual style. I used to draw from a very early age, so I came up with storyboards once the script and actors were in place. And since there are constricted spaces in which the characters move around quite a lot, that too according to a certain rhythm, I had to figure out the characters' placements in relation to their surroundings and whatnot with my director of photography (Shehnad Jalal), which avoided any on-set confusion later. We had to ensure that we didn't tire anyone with repetitive shots, and everything had to be visually pleasing. Once that's sorted, the focus is on getting the performances right."
The film's principal setting, a house with a "normal exterior but troubling interiors", is not a set. Rahul found an existing 90s-style residence and rented it for two months. "We can still find many of those in the colonies in the urban areas. The ones with mosaic floor, old windows, torn off paint, rusty windows... that sort of thing."
Considering the gravity of the core subject, was Rahul ever concerned that things would get too heavy for viewers? "Not at all," he says. "I felt that even if things got too intense, the ambiguity factor would keep them engaged. Considering the attempt to establish a perspective beyond those of the mother and son, I expected it to work out eventually. And judging by the reviews and social media discussions, I can see that it did."
Rahul had the faces of Revathy and Shane in mind while writing the script. Aside from the casting of Revathy as Asha, Rahul was adamant that Shane should play Vinu. "Writing a script first with the actors in mind is something that most people would advise you against, that it's better to cast after script completion, but it was too strong an impulse to resist," he adds. "I was looking for a fresh combination and felt Revathy and Shane would be perfect."
One of the wisest choices Rahul made was shooting 80% of the film in sync sound, regardless of the challenges, which, he says, were as taxing for the interior portions as they were for the exteriors. "Small vehicles passed through the road adjacent to the house, and the mic recorded every single sound. So we had to position people outside to make them stop while we were about to roll. For a film of this nature, sync sound couldn't be more apt. However, a few exterior scenes, like the one in the metro, for instance, were dubbed."
One astonishing piece of trivia that Rahul dropped in this conversation was the idea to shoot most of the night scenes, including the terrifying climax, during the day. "We tried night shoot for two days, but it didn't work out for the actors," explains the director. "The diminished energy during the next day meant that we had to go back to the previous shift. So we found a way to obstruct all light sources to make it look like night. It was stifling for all of us, but fun too," he laughs.