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Sanal Kumar Sasidharan: My scripts are just 15 pages, leaving more space for artistes to contribute

The Kayattam filmmaker, who was recently honoured with Disruptor in Cinema award at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne (IFFM) talks to us about his style of filmmaking and more in this exclusive interview

Sanjith Sidhardhan
Aug 26, 2021
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Sanal Kumar Sasidharan

That filmmaker Sanal Kumar Sasidharan has won another prestigious award for his latest venture Ahr Kayattam doesn’t come as a surprise for those following his stellar career. His films Ozhivudivasathe Kali won the Kerala State Film Award, Sexy Durga earned him the prestigious Hivos Tiger Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and Chola was screened at the Venice Film Festival’s Orizonti competition. The Malayali filmmaker, who has been lauded for being a unique voice of cinema, was recently conferred with the first ever Disruptor in Cinema award by the Government of Victoria at the Indian Film Festival of Melbourne.

In an exclusive interview with OTTplay, the filmmaker talks to us about his style of filmmaking and his projects Ahr Kayattam that has Manju Warrier and Vazhakku, which has Tovino Thomas and Kani Kusruti.

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Sanal Kumar Sasidharan during the shoot of Kayattam

Actors like Joju George and Manju Warrier who have worked with you say that your style leans more towards improvisational style of filmmaking.

I haven’t studied cinema academically. My filmmaking style is something that is constantly developing. It’s like when someone who doesn’t know how to swim falls into the water and tries to flap his arms and legs to stay afloat; he wouldn’t have his own style. So, this style of filmmaking came into being because I haven’t had any guiding principles to follow. Usually, people view films through their components of artistes and scripts, but for me, the location is the canvas. It’s like going there with the paint and brush, and then getting to work.

Is this also why your movies such as Ozhivudivasathe Kali or Sexy Durga are ‘contained’ in the sense of their settings?

It is. A location gives a lot of inputs. My scripts are usually just 10-15 pages. Ahr Kayattam’s script itself isn’t more than 25 pages. So, there is a lot of space for the location and artistes to contribute. It’s basically because I am someone who likes to view cinema in a spiritual plane. That’s something that I have understood from experience. I have always felt that cinema gives you more energy than you put in. My style is to observe and record that.

Your movies such as Chola and Sexy Durga have this underlying layer of bubbling intensity. So, do you decide on the mood of the film too based on the location or is that aspect preconceived?

It’s like you will have a thread to string together a necklace. So, the thread for every story is prepared beforehand, but the stones that you string together are shaped based on the place and time we are shooting. As I was talking about stones, during the shoot of Ahr Kayattam, the music director found a heart-shaped stone. It was apt for a particular scene in the film. Similarly, more than writing the dialogues and getting artistes to say them, most of the time, the lines seem more sincere when you place actors in the space and let them come up with their own lines.

Joju had earlier told us that you were the one director he feels he has let down despite him putting his best. Similarly, a lot of actors, who are also stars, are now part of your films such as Ahr Kayattam and Vazhakku. How do you extract raw performances out of them?

Many artistes have this prejudice, if what they are doing is right and if it is in line with my style of filmmaking. In the initial few days, there is that mismatch. But I believe that there is a performer in every person. Even while directing, in a way you are emoting, acting. When people sing, the song becomes better when they completely meld into what they are doing; that’s why they close their eyes and become one with the song during its most memorable moments. Similarly, there are moments when you leave the aspects of being a director, artiste or cinematographer behind and get into the soul of the film. Technical acting doesn’t allow you to do that. My style is about bringing together all of that to create magic; that’s what I believe in. While reaching that point, there’s no room for doubts of whether we are right or wrong, we progress fully believing everything is right.

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Sanal Kumar Sasidharan during the shoot of Kayattam

For Ahr Kayattam, you have also devised a new language called Ahr Samsar. How vital was it for the film’s story?

While the title of the movie is Kayattam, we felt that it also had something to do with a thing that didn't exist here and that’s how we added Ahr to the name. We had decided earlier that it would have a group of people who spoke a language that we weren’t familiar with.

Most of the films that you have done have come with its set of challenges, but during the shoot of this movie, the team was stranded during the floods in Himachal Pradesh in 2019.

At that time, we didn’t think of all that. It was exactly two years ago during August that we had gone to shoot and got stranded. We weren’t expecting rain or snowfall during that time. We were shooting at the peak of Shiyagoru and reaching there itself was tough. There were more than 20 of us and many of us weren’t familiar with trekking in this terrain. It was also the first time for Manju. It was also raining then and we actually enthusiastically shot during the time. But it’s actually dangerous to trek to a peak in Himachal while it’s raining because there could be a landslide or heavy rain and snowfall. However, we didn’t think of all that then. We just went with the flow of doing the movie.

During the pandemic, you had shot for Vazhakku, which has Tovino Thomas, Kani Kusruti and Sudev Nair. The pandemic restrictions wouldn’t have affected your style of filmmaking as you have always worked with a limited crew. But how was it working with an actor like Tovino?

We all consider ourselves as artistes who are creating something together. Tovino was one among us. However, a caravan was a must for him, but that’s because the crowd that turned up at the shooting location would be 50 times that of the crew, which comprised only 25 members, when he was around. But apart from these, all of us enjoyed working in the movie, which is about domestic violence.

As someone who does at least one film a year, what are you busy with next?

In normal circumstances, we would have already begun shooting. I am right now busy with scripting another film.

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