Grrr director Jay K: We auditioned for the right lion

The director on shooting with a real lion and the technicalities involved in executing a man vs wild tale
Grrr poster, Jay K
Grrr poster, Jay K

It was in 2017 when director Jay R Krishnan, who prefers being called Jay K, made an impressive debut with Ezra. Though Malayalam cinema has often been hailed for its diverse and superior content, the industry always found itself on the back foot when it came to horror films. In the pretext of inducing horror, the makers often resorted to outdated humour and jump scares. Despite its shortcomings, Ezra came as fresh air with its focus intact on the genre tropes and is deservingly rated as one of the most technically sound horror attempts in Malayalam.

Seven years after his debut, Jay K, a former assistant of Rajkumar Santoshi and Ram Gopal Varma, is back with another intriguing attempt—a man vs beast comedy. From horror to comedy, the genre shift wasn't deliberate, clarifies the director. "There was no conscious attempt, it just happened when I was looking for interesting stories. When I came across this idea of a guy trespassing into a wild cat enclosure, I thought it had solid potential for situational humour."

Grrr has Kunchacko Boban playing the man who jumps into the lion's enclosure in a zoo. While the idea of a man getting trapped with a wild animal sounds dark and scary, Jay K was keen on approaching it from a different angle. "Of course, it's a serious subject, but if you look deeper, there's also a bizarre angle to it. Most people who get into such misadventures are intoxicated, but there are other reasons as well. I found their psyche to be fascinating and wanted to explore it in a light-hearted mood."

Though the film's trailer suggests that it discusses pertinent issues like caste-based discrimination and honour killing, the director prefers to remain tight-lipped about the themes. When prodded further, he hesitantly says, "Though man vs animal is the crux of it, certain layers like interpersonal relationships, social stratification and our political scenario are also touched upon. However, the intention is not to share any social messages; we just thought these layers would make interesting plot points to take the narrative forward. The only intention is to entertain people before they get back to their monotonous lives."

The legendary Stanley Kubrick once famously said, "If it can be written, or thought, it can be filmed." Jay K and his co-writer Praveen S seem to have religiously followed it as they went ahead with the scripting without bothering about the technical complications involved in the execution. "Such thoughts would have been restrictive," says the director. The film has three leads—Kunchacko Boban, Suraj Venjaramoodu and Mojo, the lion. While the former two were automatic choices, finalising Mojo was "quite a challenge", says Jay K. Actors Kunchacko and Suraj might be veterans in their industry, but Mojo is no newbie either. Yes, it is the same ferocious lion from Elba's Beast (2022) and Akshay Kumar's Samrat Prithviraj (2022). "In India, we can't shoot with real lions, so we were looking for other options when we learnt about such facilities in Mauritius, South Africa, and England. When we contacted them, they wanted to know our requirements first. So, we sent them a storyboard detailing our needs, based on which they would train the lion and send its videos. It was basically like auditioning for the right lion. From the videos, we found Mojo from Cape Town to be the most majestic."

When Jay K initially pitched the story to Kunchacko Boban and Suraj, he was also unsure about the execution, but he credits the actors for trusting him blindly. "They didn't get into the technicalities, they were just intrigued by the story and their characters. They believed in me, maybe because my previous works were technically strong." But was it hard to convince them later on about the shoot with the real lion? "Chackochan agreed immediately, but Suraj wanted to know a couple of things. After I explained the risks involved, he discussed it with his family and then came on board."

Despite all the safety precautions, the director admits that there are risks involved in shooting with a wild animal. Elaborating the process he adds, "No matter how much we train it, it's still a wild beast and their basic animalistic instincts will always be there. The technique is to shoot the lion's portions when it's hungry. If fully fed, he won't come out. Since it is not fed the day before shoot, it'll start performing the next day. After every shot, the lion will be fed in small portions and once it's full, it will stop performing. The same process is then repeated the day after. This continued for around 10 days, with the shoot happening every alternate day."

Since there are limitations in shooting with a real lion, Jay K reveals that they also employed techniques like VFX, animatronics, and a bit of motion capture technology. "Since this was the first such attempt in Malayalam, we were still learning things as we were shooting. Most shots involved both VFX and animatronics. We had a theatre actor called Chandran in chroma costumes as a dummy for the lion. Every shot involving the lion had to be filmed three times—one featuring him, one without him, and one for the VFX plates. It was taxing to replicate the exact same performance each time, but being the seasoned actors that they are, both Chackochan and Suraj managed to pull it off. There were some glitches and reshoots, but they still did a wonderful job."

It took almost four years for Jay K and his team to pull off their vision, and he credits the producer Shaji Nadesan for being supportive throughout. "We started work during the pandemic, which was a blessing in disguise because it helped us do extensive pre-production. Otherwise, I'm not sure if we could have done so much technical study. The post-production alone lasted for a year, but thankfully, the producer also believed in quality and had a commitment for good cinema."

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