Krishand: Class difference has taken over film appreciation too
The filmmaker on making waves again with his Aavasavyuham follow-up, Purusha Pretham, breaking conventional cinematography rules, and introducing audiences to cinema with richer, sharper aesthetics
The last time I interviewed Krishand, following the release of Aavasavyuham, I described him as a "walking encyclopaedia" with an endearing level of self-awareness. This endearment has only increased two-fold after a long, illuminating conversation with him about his new film Purusha Pretham (streaming on SonyLIV). It would probably take an entire book to contain the immense wealth of details and references that went into the film that, at one glance, seems like just another piece of entertainment.
Although Purusha Pretham and Aavasavyuham are diverse in terms of content, the 'Krishand signature' is apparent in every frame despite the noticeable differences between the two films. These were achieved through deliberate visual choices that would make his work distinct from what he did before. "There was not much negative space, contrast, closeups or monotones in Aavasavyuham, which was shot predominantly with a 28mm lens (Zuiko), whereas Purusha Pretham was shot with CP3 Cine lenses. The lensing in Purusha Pretham is the kind normally seen in Malayalam cinema, whereas, for Aavasavyuham, I followed a more cinema verite approach. Despite the conventional lensing in Purusha Pretham, the composition is different, like showing half of the actors' faces, for example. The eyes are tools for the actor, but we obscure part of them. The same goes for the face -- only the profile is visible. It was all about communicating whatever we wanted to convey irrespective of that approach."
Since Krishand's off-kilter cinematography (this time, he handled the camera himself) has piqued the curiosity of some film buffs, one couldn't help but prod him more on his visual choices in Purusha Pretham. He has a reasonable explanation for it. "Since Purusha Pretham deals with death and the uncertainties associated with one's demise, a very symmetric and beautiful style was out of the question. There had to be a sense of incompleteness," he explains, citing filmmakers such as Wes Anderson and Roy Anderson as influences. "If someone mentions Mr Robot, and I would say, yes, it does, but Mr Robot with Malayali lensing," he laughs. As with his previous film, Krishand looked to various references, including graphic novels, non-fiction and fiction -- all of which are listed in the Bibliography card at the end credits.
Krishand sees Purusha Pretham as a "thematic" successor to his first film, Vrithakrithiyilulla Chathuram (available on YouTube), the only continuing factor being the visual language. "Since hierarchy is part of the narrative, one example would be to show them queueing up. Such choices can sometimes go wrong, but it's high time we do something -- you know, try out new things?" he asks.
Is putting on the cinematographer's hat on Purusha Pretham an attempt to make the Krishand signature more pronounced this time around? But Krishand wasn't Krishand's initial choice. Relatively unknown cinematographers from outside India who could align with his vision were considered, but couldn't be brought here due to various factors. Krishand's goal was to break some pre-established rules, such as the 180-degree rule and the eye level shot, so it was inevitable that he take on the responsibility himself.
"It would work only when direction and cinematography go hand in hand. When another person is wielding the camera, it might get complicated. So rather than wasting my energy explaining it to someone else, I thought of doing it myself," says the filmmaker, who incorporated elements from his graphic design background into his filmmaking. (Krishand is currently an adjunct associate professor at IIT, Mumbai.) "Some choices, like placing characters on both sides of the frame, were made to induce cognitive involvement from the viewer. We worked with an aesthetic sheet for every shot. It's only in the places where Sebastien (Prashanth Alexander) breaks into a fake story that Purusha Pretham resembles a typical Malayalam movie."
Krishand's filmmaking philosophy is driven by the need to cater to a cinema-literate audience, which did not just begin with his breakout Aavasavyuham. He is well aware that his brand of cinema takes a while to get used to. "We can't blame people for not immediately connecting to cinema with sharper aesthetics; it's not their fault. It only becomes a problem when people who get that kind of cinema start acting snobbish. For example, a Mindhunter (series) fan treats a Money Heist fan with condescension. Class difference has taken over film appreciation too."
So how does one introduce, to an audience that grew up watching a particular kind of cinema, sensibilities that are foreign to them? "Through something they are already familiar with and then introduce our perspective into it," he says. "Once it gradually gains acceptance, we'll know how it works." Krishand believes he'll have a bigger audience when he readies his next feature because most people would've already seen his last three films. "I can see the views increasing for Vrithakrithiyilulla Chathuram and Aavasavyuham. That's the kind of audience-building I'm looking at."
The success of Aavasavyuham has made Krishand accessible to actors who previously weren’t. But how open are they to his out-of-the-box ideas? How much quirkiness and strangeness are they comfortable with? He isn’t quite sure of the latter. “Pitching an idea is tough in an industry plagued by budgetary limitations. Only someone familiar with my filmography will get what I’m trying to do,” he says. Citing the example of pitching Purusha Pretham, Krishand recalls trying to avoid the impression that it was another Drishyam-style thriller where “you get the kick from the discovery of a body” or something along the lines of Memories of Murder “given the presence of similar procedural elements.”
As with Aavasavyuham, a homage to the Hollywood creature features, among other things, Krishand sought inspiration from fiction and non-fiction for Purusha Pretham, through which he once again demonstrates his penchant for genre-blending. He tells me he even managed to sneak in a John Wick reference, something I missed. “Remember, in the third John Wick movie, one of the antagonists tells him he is a fan? We did something similar in Purusha Pretham, too. Someone who is aware of the ‘Super Sebastien’ urban legend tells him he is a big fan. I like doing things like that.”
Purusha Pretham marks the first time that Krishand is working with mainstream actors such as Prashanth Alexander, Darshana Rajendran and Jagadish. When they are placed next to the supporting actors, a combination of two different sensibilities can be witnessed. In terms of performances, Krishand was particular that Darshana, Prashanth and Jagadish go with the realistic approach while everyone else indulged in a more exaggerated, absurdist style. “Since I have already established a rapport with the other actors like Rahul Rajagopal, Sreejith Babu or Zhinz Shan, they get my sensibilities. I can confidently entrust them with the absurd part. It’s very convenient, and I chose convenience over everything else.”
Explaining to actors a particular form is hectic and exhausting for any filmmaker. Krishand finds the process relatively easier with his frequent collaborators who get the tonality he intends. “With my usual group, I don’t think I’m making them uncomfortable. That’s not the case with the others. But that odd feeling vanished after working five days with Prashanth ettan, Darshana and Jagadish ettan. They allowed me the liberty to push them. If I made the main characters exaggerated, it wouldn’t look good considering the realistic phase that Malayalam cinema is currently going through. I didn’t want it to look like a TV serial or comedy skit, you see.”
One of the film’s standout characters is played by Jagadish, who is currently on a roll following his stellar, atypical roles in films such as Rorschach and Kaapa. His character, Dileep, is a Dalit man who, despite dealing with daily struggles arising from caste-related issues and lack of agency, leads his life trying to find joy in little things. The actor portrays the character with impressive subtlety and nuance.
Krishand sees Dileep as someone who “has been conditioned in such a way that all these problems appear normal to him. He knows his place in the hierarchy and is okay with it. He doesn’t question it, whereas the younger generation, represented by his son-in-law, isn’t like that. But although the latter is on a higher plane in terms of his politics, he has this ‘useless’ image in his father-in-law’s home. Be it the minority or any other vulnerable group, we show their good and bad sides without patronising them. There’s a scene where Dileep takes a ring from a corpse, which is politically incorrect, but in this film, we wanted to show that such things happen not because of their caste or class but because of this messed up life caught between these hierarchical structures. The Dalit issue, pressures of hierarchy, handling protocols... each one adds to the other.”
Krishand’s unusual choice of music in Purusha Pretham has been a talking point too. His initial plan was to have his composer Ajmal Hasbulla do a noir jazz, but he dropped the idea when he realised it affected the film’s pace. Jazz-hop was also considered but dropped. “Since Ajmal was connected to the hip-hop scene, I got in touch with Couper and Fejo and got all of them to interact with each other. Ajmal surprised me again. We tried a bit of orchestra hip-hop, angry rap... I micro-managed the music a little bit when it comes to the tonality of a certain situation. The idea was to make the kind of music that makes people think instead of groove—or maybe do both.”