Thankam was an illuminating experience: Gautham Sankar
The cinematographer shares how observing the work of writer Syam Pushkaran and director Saheed Arafath in Thankam was the equivalent of attending a film school
Working on a film scripted by Syam Pushkaran, in any capacity, is considered a big deal by many in the industry. And when you are a cinematographer who was just starting out, you don't think twice about signing a Syam Pushkaran film, even if it takes a long time to materialise. Gautham Sankar, who broke out with the Tovino Thomas movie Theevandi, made the wise choice when he decided to be the director of photography on Thankam, a film developed over a five-year span. "The project was put in motion by the beginning of 2018, with meetings and location scouting happening subsequently. The initial plan was to start filming by 2020 Feb-March, and the original cast was Fahadh, Joju, and Dileesh Pothan. Vineethettan was attached to it before that, but at the time, he got tied up with the birth of his second child. Then came Fahadh, and then we had to deal with the pandemic. By the time we were finally ready to go in 2022, Vineethettan was free again after Hridayam. Everyone felt that he was apt for the role. We completed everything over a 90-day schedule."
Gautham had previously worked with director Saheed Arafath on his debut film, Theeram. The latter and Syam Pushkaran go way back, so a feature film collaboration was inevitable. Gautham feels that taking more time to put the film together worked in its favour. "It was the result of a strong collaborative effort," he recalls. "Everyone, including Syamettan, was accessible. No one with ego issues. There was always a healthy back and forth. We all got together to establish a specific tone in the beginning. One of our basic visual references was Delhi Crime. We opted for deeper colours for the costumes and avoided shooting in sunlight. We wanted to maintain a moody feel for 80 per cent of the film, with mostly soft light. The sort of collaborative process we had on this film... was a first for me. It was illuminating."
Speaking of the challenge of shooting in multiple locations, Gautham shares that they got finalised after a recce process of 8-9 months. For some, the art department, headed by Gokul Das, pitched in when a couple of locations needed redressing with some "extraordinary detailing." Gautham and team used extra lights to make some places look more colourful but opted for fewer colours after a point. "We were particular about using a desaturated look after a point -- the central incident, to be specific. We relied on some post-production enhancement too."
Gautham adds that the team was uncompromising with regard to the predominantly dark tone. "If we had gone for a relatively flatter approach, especially with the comical portions, it would've interfered with the tone we had in mind. An overall sinister atmosphere was our goal. And Syamettan used to make us listen to a certain kind of music to convey the feeling of different situations. That helped too."
READ OUR THANKAM REVIEW: Fairly grim and engaging investigative procedural
The cinematographer, who recently worked on the Arvind Swami-Kunchacko Boban movie Ottu, observes that making a scene look gloomy is more challenging than simulating natural light. "It's not an issue if we place the bulbs in the right places, but that in and of itself is taxing. Will it look convincing to have light without a source -- or will the proper areas get adequate lighting? These were some of the things that concerned us. And since it's a road movie, we mostly employed a wider lens to have the background details of the exterior locations in focus, unlike the opposite situation where the background will be all blurred. Also, shooting with a wide lens means the art direction has to be perfect."
It goes without saying that whenever any Bhavana Studios movie comes out, film buffs are curious to know how the team works with actors. "Syamettan and Arafathkka first stage the scene with assistant directors, and when we proceed with the lighting, they would go to the actors and discuss how to go about the performances. Save for some minor improvisations and suggestions, which we had space for, we shot everything as how we had initially planned it. And since we used a wide lens and lit accordingly, even if the actors moved a bit here and there, it was not a problem. But we had decided early on that we wouldn't limit the actors' movements that much."
Following the release of Thankam, the one name that sticks out in most conversations swirling around the film is the show-stealing performance from acclaimed actor Girish Kulkarni, who plays the Maharashtra cop investigating the central case. "Girish sir was the team's first choice, and he had been in constant touch with them ever since he was attached to the project. Working with him was a tremendous experience. He would put in some micro-expressions in scenes that would've had a green screen component while we shot but it's amazing when we see the final output. For instance, in the promo song we released the other day of that girl doing the Instagram reel, he gives a smile in that. When I saw his expression along with the reel, it was unreal."