How Don Palathara made an 85-min single-take Malayalam feature
The director explains the process of making Rahasyam with actors Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthanchery
Beginning with his debut feature Shavam, filmmaker Don Palathara has never bothered himself with the conventional way of doing things. He never repeats himself either. Each film looks and behaves differently from the previous one. He says he enjoys the work of unconventional filmmakers and finds inspiration in them. "I only want to do something that impresses me as a filmmaker," says Don, who was the only director to have two films - 1956, Central Travancore and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (Joyful Mystery) - screened at this year's International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK).
His distinct style is usually a combination of black-and-white (except for Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam) and a more observational approach in terms of framing the characters and locales -- the use of long and, at times, static shots -- rather than getting too close. Only rarely do we see close-ups in his films. "As an individual, I prefer to observe things from a distance instead of delving deep - be it the conflict between man and man or man and nature," he explains. "In 1956, there are some close-ups - we got close to some characters when needed. And in Vith, too, it was a completely objective approach. Now, I can't say for sure if I'll deviate from this style in the future."
In Rahasyam, Don pulled off something that no one has attempted before in Malayalam cinema - an 85-min single-take feature centred mostly on an unmarried couple inside a moving car, portrayed by a brilliantly natural Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthanchery. The film begins with Rima's character, Maria, raising concerns about a possible pregnancy while on the way to the clinic. Their raw, unfiltered conversation later snowballs into a heated argument about their respective character flaws and the thought of dealing with a conservative society, including their parents. The camera stays in one position throughout the film, which has zero cuts. It's arguably Don's most impressive work.
Excerpts from a conversation with the filmmaker:
Don, why the stationary camera approach?
Various reasons. I wanted to control the pace, show the contrast between the interior and exterior space, and give both characters the same amount of space through composition - not taking the side of either of the characters. I also wanted to convey the confinement of space but also time. It was also a way to depict the pandemic-imposed restrictions (the characters wear masks when they get out of the car).
How many takes did you use?
Five. We got it right in the fifth. We did full-length takes in three days.
Were you able to monitor the actors and gauge the quality of their performances?
I didn't monitor them on a screen. I didn't want to interrupt unless there was a big problem. But I was listening to the audio in another car ahead of theirs. I couldn't see them, though, unless I looked back.
How did you prepare the actors?
We had an extensive workshop and rehearsal process in which the actors managed to get fully prepared. They were very confident, and they pulled it off well during the rehearsal itself. I worked on the dialogues with them. Initially, I wrote a rough draft and later added more pages after more inputs came from them.
So it was a combination of improvisation and scripted dialogues?
Yes. Sometimes we had to take out repetitive elements. I first asked them to go through the script to get a basic idea of the content and then asked them to behave similarly. We put in so much effort, and it wouldn't have been possible without the actors' creative involvement.
At one point, the characters talk about abortion and contraceptives. Were you concerned about these turning into talking points after the film came out?
We didn't have any such concerns while writing. It was all about being as honest as possible with it. If we had been concerned, it would look forced -- as though we are using these characters to teach society something. We just focused on this particular set of characters. People are free to interpret things in any way. I wanted everything to have an element of honesty so that even someone from an unrelated culture could appreciate it. In an intimate space, people don't always say things that are politically correct or acceptable to society. They may have some mutually agreeable flaws between them.
Some independent Malayalam filmmakers say platforms like NFDC's Film Bazaar help get them more exposure. You have also benefitted from it (1956 was showcased at Film Bazaar before premiering at Moscow International Film Festival and later, IFFK). Do you think more filmmakers should explore such avenues?
I see it as a hub, and it's great for making connections. The thing is, the mainstream-arthouse divide is getting narrower and narrower these days. There is an attempt to find a middle path. Where to sell has become a bigger priority than everything else. Arthouse cinema has a niche audience. Besides, the filmmakers should also make efforts from their side to improve. We have to do our work consistently. If we divert from that, we lose it. It's not easy. One becomes exhausted, mentally and financially. Not everyone can afford to think in terms of art all the time.
As far as I'm concerned, I want to do something that I like, without ever deviating from that. I'm not particular that my films have to communicate all their ideas. But at the same time, one has to think about reducing the financial burden of the producer, which means working within so many restrictions, and still making something we are passionate about.