Synchronised vision: Ranjeet Kamala Sankar and Salil V on directing Chathurmukham
The directors talk about their journey, making a unique horror thriller with practical effects and CGI, and on-set improvisations
Listening to Ranjeet Kamala Sankar and Salil V talk is akin to attending a mini filmmaking course. Their words overflow with much passion and excitement — for their craft, their maiden directorial venture, Chathurmukham, and the team that worked on it. Both self-taught, the IT professionals-turned-filmmakers have been working towards their goal for over a decade. Initially experimenting with short films, all edited and shot by them, the duo eventually landed an assistant directing gig with director Ranjith Sankar on Punyalan Agarbathis.
The seed of Chathurmukham, they say, was planted right after the release of Kohinoor (for which they wrote the script). They turned their focus towards pulling off a unique horror film devoid of all the usual cliches — the barking dog, white saree-clad ghost, and unnecessary humour. "We first made a checklist of all the things we would like to see when a smartphone-based supernatural presence is wreaking havoc. We saw a lot of horror films to be clear about what we wanted to avoid. Once that was out of the way, we formed the characters, their surroundings, and whatnot," says the duo.
However, they acknowledge that their film is not 100% free of cliches. A few have been left there for a reason. "They come with the territory, naturally. The script, penned by Abhayakumar K and Anil Kurian, also IT professionals, went through many iterations. What you see on the screen is the 27th draft. You see, that's what happens when IT people set out to make a film," they laugh.
Since the film's core idea also involves a conflict between science and the supernatural, I ask about their beliefs. "We believe in science," reply both. "But Chathurmukham is a work of pure entertainment and not a showcase for a debate. Also, which is science and which is not is still a matter of debate. Besides, what doesn't have an explanation today might have one tomorrow. But we are dealing with fiction here."
Chathurmukham, which has Manju Warrier playing a social media-obsessed tech professional, explores the horrifying possibilities after the characters encounter a ghost that can manipulate the devices around them. The film employs visual effects, largely seamless, some to enhance the practical effects.
"There are more than 60 minutes of VFX work (by Promice VFX Studio) in the film," says Ranjeet. "We used practical effects whenever we could, such as the electrical wire that detaches itself from the wall and goes after the characters in the climax. We used a pulley for that and then added computer-generated sparks. But there were also moments where we had no option but to use CGI, like that CCTV camera sequence. We rehearsed with a real one, but we couldn't make it work the way we wanted when filming began. And since we were under a schedule, we felt that using CGI would be more advantageous. Fortunately, we got a lot of time to work on these sequences."
Naturally, the art department felt dejected by these rare instances of malfunction. "It's not their fault," empathises Salil V. "It happens. When there is a cut-off time, it's a reality which we have to deal with it. But it was not a bad thing, really. I would say it was a good trade-off."
Fortunately, the art department found cause for celebration when the film's most intense portion, the climax, required a real mobile tower. "The building is a set, but the tower was dropped to the ground using an industrial crane. Our art director (Nimesh M Thanoor) found the parts in a scrapyard. The only CGI used in that sequence was for the roof, which wasn't there when we shot it," explains Ranjeet.
Asked how the two directors bounce ideas off each other on set, Salil shares, "We often find ourselves on the same page. Of course, there have been occasional disagreements concerning the locations or shots used, but eventually, we reach a common ground." Ranjeet nods in agreement. "Sometimes when Salil or I instantaneously come up with an idea, we shoot it instead of discussing it because that will be more time-consuming. When we shoot whatever is possible, we can figure out the rest on the editing table. Besides, the digital format affords us certain privileges."
Topping off the film's climax is an ambiguous shot involving a table lamp and a keyboard. The 'communication' between the two devices was not in the script; it was improvised. The idea came from their associate director Asif Pav and an art associate Prasanth Amaravila. It also begs the question of a sequel. "Yes, we have an idea in mind, but it will take some time," concludes Ranjeet.