Extraterrestrial fun in Kerala

Filmmaker Arun Chandu talks about blending the alien invasion story with the mockumentary in his latest, Gaganachari
Extraterrestrial fun in Kerala

Malayalam cinema is sorely lacking in filmmakers who dabble in science fiction. But there is a glimmer of hope when a film like Gaganachari makes an unexpected entry and does a good job of it. Relatability and keeping it grounded in Malayali sensibilities - that's the key! In their latest collaboration, a dystopian mockumentary set in 2043, filmmaker Arun Chandu and his co-writer Siva Sai sprinkle Malayali pop culture references, most of which would be easily recognisable for the 80s and 90s kids who grew up on a steady diet of Malayalam movies. Take the demeanour of the flamboyant researcher played by Ganesh Kumar in the film, who immediately recalls his character in Manichithrathazhu during moments that are, to him, scary. Arun shares an anecdote about a youngster telling Ganesh Kumar, during the film's recent preview screening at the Kerala Pop Con event, that he perceived his character as the older version of a youngster from 2023.

In my review of Gaganachari, I wrote that the film is dripping with its makers' deep love for cinema and an extensive understanding of sci-fi genre tropes and the mockumentary format. There is, for instance, a meta-joke about changing aspect ratios, which is one of the film's notable qualities. "It was something we came up in post-production," says Arun, who found last-minute endorsement in the form of filmmaker Krishand (Aavasavyuham), now an executive producer on the film, who had a few suggestions with regard to humour. (Aju Varghese who had set up the meeting after realising that two similarly "crazy" filmmakers would get along like a house on fire.)

Though most of the film was shot on a 16:9 aspect ratio earlier, Arun decided to change it to 4:3 after getting inspired by the Snyder Cut of Justice League. "I also found that not only is there an artistic quality to these 4:3 compositions, but they also served to enhance the mockumentary-related aspects." Among the influences that Arun drew from is Neill Blomkamp's District 9, with regard to the mood, atmosphere, and alien spaceships. He also relied on 3D to produce video game-like imagery that briefly depicts the travels of the titular extraterrestrial (Anarkali Marikar), and AI to give a dystopian veneer to images of existing locations in Ernakulam.

Interestingly, AI was also used to enhance the dialogues, using audio samples of some of the cast members, with their permission, of course. "I initially used Midjourney 4, but weeks before release, the 5.5 version came out, and I told the team I needed at least one day more, and the results were far more impressive. In the last couple of years, AI has brought about an explosive change in visual media. It is now possible to make synthetic enhancements to slightly alter someone's voice on an app. Of course, these are for harmless purposes."

Anarkali Marikar in <em><strong>Gaganachari</strong></em>
Anarkali Marikar in Gaganachari

And the results are indeed impressive. For a film with budgetary constraints, especially for a rarely attempted genre, Gaganachari manages to be fairly convincing with its world-building. A minimalist approach works to its advantage, like dressing up existing locations and vehicles with extra lights to create a futuristic landscape, in the vein of, say, Andrew Niccol's In Time. There are homages to genre films from Hollywood, too. One surreal night-time motorcycle sequence, for instance, draws from the recent Nicolas Cage thriller, Mandy.

But what reigns supreme, above all else, is the humour, most notably from Ganesh Kumar, Aju Varghese, and Gokul Suresh. Arun attributes it to the interesting possibilities offered by the mockumentary format. "It has certain advantages," he remarks. "When you present an event and then use a character to make a comment on it, it sometimes works -- the comic timing works, depending on where you are placing a certain situation. And since Ganesh sir and Gokul Suresh are from Thiruvananthapuram, they are good at humour that's local to that region."

When asked if he has any concerns about non-Malayali audiences failing to connect with the Malayalam pop culture references, Arun cites feedback from international reviewers who connected with the film in a "different" way. "Their perspective works in terms of recognising the South Asian post-apocalyptic setting -- the floods, drought, climate change... those sort of things. Another critic brought up a good point about the film's political context -- recognising the mainstream ideology forced on people, military-style use of police force, or some silly humour with universal appeal... things like that."

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