Don Palathara on Family, his biggest film yet

The filmmaker talks about his experiences growing up, faith and the church's influence, his signature filmmaking style, shooting Family, and more...
Don Palathara on Family, his biggest film yet

The church wields a powerful grip on the principal characters in Family, Don Palathara's extraordinary new film. So it's only natural that a filmmaker who grew up in an environment that put a strong onus on matters like faith  — an environment populated with frequent church-goers, where church and prayers frequently figure in discussions — wanted to convey the institution's government-like involvement in believers' daily affairs like birth, death, and education.

"The church created a sense of obeisance in individuals," says Don. "Let's say someone has an extra produce at home; they were supposed to contribute it to the church. They were not necessarily being forced -- well, that happened on one side, too -- but people felt guilty and worried when they didn't oblige. I remember this ritual of holding auctions on Sunday mornings, in which some people contributed coconuts or livestock, which the church would, in turn, auction to someone else and collect the earnings from it. Everything, including the economy, was closely tied to the church. One doesn't find shops next to a church. Even the locality name, Karunapuram, was chosen by the priest."

So powerful was the church's influence that Don likens it to an invisible power -- or a family member who surveyed your every move behind a screen. "The church defined what is right and wrong at a young age; it influenced our adolescent phase and sexual awakening... our lessons came from the books borrowed from their libraries. But then, after a point, we began questioning these things. I observed that everyone at that age was thinking of the same things, despite their capacities; we all asked questions, but most of them fell back on their beliefs when they were in their early 20s. They returned to their comfort zones as breaking away from past conditioning was hard. It was possible for me to break away because after my dad passed away in my early teens, I managed to gain that autonomy. I left home after 15, and I believe it was because I had that luxury that I could think differently."  

In Family, Vinay Forrt brings us yet another standout performance -- one of his two, in fact, the other in Aattam -- as a tuition teacher with a seemingly respectable standing in the community but uses his philanthropy to mask his transgressions. Don modelled the character's persona on real characters, with a fair amount of tweaking to mould him in a way that suitably fits him within the story's backdrop.

"Of course, I didn't present these real-life inspirations as they were; it was about bringing them into the film's structure in an ethical manner. Some characters I merged into one, others split into two. These writing choices came from my childhood observations. I would say it's a tribute to the kids who grew up with me -- a combination of stories and experiences of people I know," he elaborates.

In terms of scale, Family is the biggest of Don Palathara's filmography, aside from being his finest. He tells me he managed to say much in Family that he had hoped to do in his earlier films. "I worked a lot on the script and took some time to figure out how to communicate certain things visually," he says while acknowledging his wife Sherin Catherine's creative contributions. "After every draft, we used to sit down for a reading and take down notes, and by the time I sit on the next draft, I incorporate whatever suggestions we had discussed."

One of the film's interesting visual motifs that runs parallel to the main narrative is a predator-prey analogy influenced by an old news article that Don chanced upon in a news article in their hometown's WhatsApp group about a leopard being on the prowl and creating panic in the neighbourhood. "I remember after we wrapped filming 1956, Central Travancore and got back to Ernakulam, we heard about this leopard roaming around in places we shot. Such occurrences, which happen all the time, mark the characteristic of that place," recalls Don, who feels that doing proper pre-production worked in his case. 

"We drew every frame and brought a storyboard artist to create the sequences. Of course, cinema is a visual language, but first and foremost, a script is undoubtedly essential. We can't afford to be creative after going on the set; we can only build on what we already have with us, a strong foundation in the form of a script. Having a plan is better than not having one at all."

A filmmaker known for wonderful single takes -- most notably in 1956 Central Travancore and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam; the latter employed a continuous single take from the first frame to the last -- Don has demonstrated the same in varying degrees in his earlier films. He figures the duration of a shot -- to create a kind of rhythm, in essence -- on the editing table. "There is a rhythm we have while shooting, but in the editing stage, I've made it tighter -- to bring a sense of urgency; it's something very intuitive instead of planning a shot to have a certain duration. There are instances where we have this superstitious belief that maybe if we are more patient, some magic might happen."

By way of an anecdote, he cites a funeral procession scene, the shoot of which occurred during favourable weather. "Everyone got in, and we managed fairly good shots. We did a fairly lengthy shot but shortened it in editing. There was a moment when everyone had passed us by, and the cinematographer was waiting for my cue to cut it; I told him to hold it for a while because I thought it would be nice to have the wind appear at that precise instance to complete the rhythm. And guess what, a wind passed exactly at that time. We got several such moments during filming and managed to use them. These things are possible because of the team's unity and collaborative abilities to create the best output possible. We were able to create an atmosphere that fosters that."

Don finds crowd scenes particularly anxiety-inducing, and while Family is not exactly The Dark Knight, it has more people in it than any of Don's earlier films. "It took a lot of co-ordinating, which was tough," he recalls. "I haven't done anything like this before, but thankfully, it went smoothly since the locals were very cooperative, and our crew managed it well. My four associates (Kenshin, Vipin, Ramith, and Ron) requested the autorickshaw drivers and party workers to help bring the necessary people. Since we couldn't give them any money, we gave them food and an opportunity to show their faces on camera."

Being a practitioner of a signature minimalist style, Don has an aversion to bright colours: his visual palette is often characterised by blacks, greys and whites, or, in the case of Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam and Family, a largely desaturated texture. "My films are neither big-scale nor light-hearted ones that invariably end on an optimistic note, so this preferred colour tone makes more sense," he says.

One of the other impressive qualities of Family is its sensitive and adept approach to handling violence -- the adage of suggestive violence being more impactful than depicting it. Considering the involvement of a heinous crime involving characters of a certain age with zero agency, Don pondered several ways to handle it without being gratuitous. "Personally, such incidents cause me a lot of discomfort, and I wanted to depict them in a way that eliminates the possibility of voyeuristic engagement. We have no control over the kind of people that watch a certain film."

Family has the backing of Newton Cinema, which impressed lately with another acclaimed film, Paradise, the Prasanna Vithanaghe directorial featuring Roshan Mathew and Darshana Rajendran, shot in Sri Lanka. Don believes that Family wouldn't have happened without Newton's generous involvement. The team expressed interest after seeing Don's work in Everything Is Cinema, a semi-fictional narrative released digitally during the pandemic.

"Newton was quite efficient when it came to facilitating the process for delivering the vision we aimed for," says Don, adding that written contracts were readied even for collaborators whose services were required only for a day. "Everyone's duties -- from pre to post-production -- were clearly specified. There were no delays in payment -- it arrived a day ahead of the scheduled date. We also managed to keep the expenditure in check. And despite the natural hindrances normally expected in the middle of a shoot, we finished it ahead of schedule."

The filmmaker also credits all his actors, especially Vinay Forrt, Divyaprabha and Mathew Thomas, for ensuring a smooth experience. "Our cast came together at the right time. Vinay was enthusiastic about his role from the get-go. Divyaprabha's role was supposed to be played by Kani Kusruti first, but three days before filming, she informed us that she wouldn't make it due to personal reasons, which got us suddenly panicked. When Divyaprabha said yes, it was a huge relief. She landed in Idukki a day after I briefed her on the role. Even Mathew was very cooperative, unbothered by our modest set-up."

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