'Mani Ratnam’s Anjali influenced Sai Pallavi’s character in Athiran'

...says director Vivek Thomas Varghese, talking about his career, his collaboration with Fahadh Faasil, choosing Sai Pallavi for the film, and more
'Mani Ratnam’s Anjali influenced Sai Pallavi’s character in Athiran'

Not many are aware that Vivek Thomas Varghese, who just made his directorial debut with Athiran, was once part of Global United Media, the company that produced Kammattipadam, and distributed films such as Baahubali and Mersal in Kerala. Though his experience at Global gave him an insight into what works and what doesn’t with audiences, his unorthodox foray into film direction — neither did he go to film school nor assist anyone — made others sceptical.

Excerpts from an interview:

Where did your filmmaking knowledge mostly come from?

I couldn’t afford a film school. My knowledge came from watching films by masters, in addition to consuming filmmaking books and videos. After doing my mass communication degree, I joined MTV, where they asked me to unlearn what I’d learned. It was about breaking convention. They wanted the edgy stuff. When I joined Walt Disney, it was the complete opposite. Everything was as per format. But I imbibed both and carried that into my film and filmmaking. One doesn’t necessarily have to belong to a filmmakers’ club to be one. It’s the passion for cinema that matters and knowing how well to mix both art and business.

Athiran being a psychological thriller, how did you approach the material?

It’s a pure formula-based film. I’m not claiming that it’s a realistic film; it’s very cinematic. I believe in entertainment — the big screen experience. Because it’s a psychological thriller, I wanted the characters to be understood even by the layman. The roles were clearly defined — the positive and negative. Even a small kid should be able to identify who is the villain and who is not. Once that is established, you can play with the audience. If I make everyone grey, then it gets a bit tricky. I am not interested in holding a mirror to society. I can’t fathom that kind of filmmaking. It’s not for me. Having said that, I’m for all kinds of cinema.

You were supposed to do Aanenkilum Allenkilum with Fahadh first but then it was dropped. How did you react to the transition from that to Athiran?

The normal reaction for a first-time filmmaker would be anger and frustration. But then that’s a choice you make. You can choose to be too emotional or look at it more realistically. The transition wouldn’t have been possible without the support of Fahadh. I had low confidence when I decided to do this project. But Fahadh understood my effort and work and saw the potential in me. He suggested that I put Aanenkilm Allenkilum aside and work on something more mature. When I opted to make Athiran, there were people who told me I was making a big mistake. But Fahadh’s confidence and his support gave me the much-needed boost.

What made you pick Fahadh?

In a psychological thriller, the actor is the tool, and although the main story is about Sai Pallavi’s character, you need someone as a medium to connect to the audience. That was Fahadh’s character. For the story to work, the medium is equally important. He is the umbilical cord for the audience. I didn’t want to deceive the audience or go overboard with any melodrama. That’s where an experienced actor guides you.

If not for Fahadh, the film would’ve fallen flat. His charisma, experience, and freedom were very helpful for a newcomer like me. And I love Fahadh for his unique and superb potential for humour which, I believe, has not been tapped by anyone yet. He gets all the mannerisms right. He lets me be, which is awesome, and he was with me throughout. I was so fortunate to have him in my film.

How did you visualise Pallavi’s autism-affected character?

She was our number one choice. I had to prepare Pallavi for this character because I’ve seen only two films of hers. I narrated the screenplay to her, and the very next day, she said yes. When I told this to Fahadh, he was amazed. Apparently, two other South Indian directors had earlier tried to bring the two together in a film, but that didn’t happen. A lot of thinking went into shaping her character. Mani Ratnam’s Anjali was one of the influences. I’ve seen some people mention The Ring (laughs). Also, Kannathil Muthamittal for the father-daughter bond. I wanted Pallavi to play it subtle. She did her homework. She knew the importance of the character and was aware that it’s an author-backed role.

For research, I had consulted a psychiatrist who exposed me to a wide range of cases — both here and abroad. In most films that deal with autism, there is usually a tendency to overdramatise and forcefully evoke sympathy, which I didn’t want to do. There are some people saying her performance is a bit theatrical, given the kalaripayattu sequences and what not. They believe that autistic people won’t perform like that. But I have seen cases like that. International cinema has been hyping autism through the intellectual side. It’s already obvious from Renji Panicker’s lines in the film that she is intelligent. What I have shown is a more subtle version. Autistic individuals are not that subtle. They are quite aggressive but they also know why. I’m not saying all of them are that way; it’s just that it’s not always about the academics. That’s one myth I wanted to break with this film.

Sound plays a big part in this film.

I wanted it to be sound-oriented with very little dialogues. Ghibran (musician) wasn’t initially sure about coming on board because he also wanted to do the songs. Plus, I’m a newcomer. But he immediately agreed once I showed him the rough cut. Ghibran and I, along with Rajakrishnan (sound designer), worked together to sketch an apt soundscape. And as there are minimal dialogues and a lot of sound effects, we felt sync sound wouldn’t work.

How did you come up with the film’s overall visual style?

I wanted the location to be a hill station but at the same time not one you had seen before. I first came up with a colour palette and then sat down with my cinematographer (Anu Moothedath) and art director (Vinod Raveendran) to discuss the overall look. In a subject like this, I have the liberty to try out anything. A lot of work went into the art direction. For example, I wanted the mansion to be neither too scary nor too relaxed. I told the visual effects team to create something that wasn’t over-the-top. I was also particular about having some curios placed here and there despite being aware that not everyone would notice it. I included a curio from Manichithrathazhu as an inside joke. Try looking for it (laughs).

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