Now streaming on Netflix, Irul is a 2021 Indian film in the Malayalam language. The storyline follows murder mystery author Alex Parayil (Soubin Shahir), who decides to spend the weekend with his lawyer girlfriend, Archana Pillai (Darshana Rajendran). They distance themselves from the bustle of the city, and without cellphones and internet service. When the couple’s vehicle breaks down in the middle of the road on a dark, rainy night, they are compelled to seek help from the nearest house, where they encounter a mysterious individual named Unni (Fahadh Faasil). I recently interviewed director Naseef Yusuf Izuddin about making his debut feature.
Dipankar Sarkar: Share your journey as a feature film director.
Naseef Yusuf Izuddin: Movies have always held a fascination for me for as long as I can remember. I think the earliest moment I can remember expressing my desire to be a director, despite not knowing what a director does, is when I was in 4th or 5th grade. As time passed, such thoughts were left behind. It wasn’t until I was in 11th grade that I rediscovered my passion for films when I participated in a school drama. Upon rediscovering this dream, I held onto it and worked towards it.
After high school, I went to Vancouver Film School. My family was very supportive in allowing me to pursue my passion. After graduating, I started working in Bombay. After a couple of gigs as an assistant director and storyboard artist, I started working in Film Tent, a production house that did behind the scenes [work] for major Bollywood films. Since I was always fascinated by the process of filmmaking more than the actual films, this was a perfect place for me to get started. Over the course of the next four years, I worked on behind the scenes [productions] of around 15 major Bollywood films as a creative director — shooting, editing, overseeing entire films from pre-production to release, conducting interviews and submitting proposals to the marketing teams in terms of content we can put out, etc. These were some of my responsibilities. I got to work with some of the best talents in the industry with some of the best production houses in the country.
Yearning for a change, I quit my job and started freelancing. Most of the work that came my way during this phase was behind the scenes for advertisements. I also got to do BTS for two films, Newton (2017) and Tumbbad (2018), during this time.
But unhappiness was settling in me. Work no longer held the same passion as when I started out. My hopes of being a director were slowly looking like an impossible dream. It was at this point that my friend Vishal suggested that I shift to Kerala and try the Malayalam film industry. He reasoned that they are more accepting of newcomers and new ideas. As a bonus, he offered a script to me, written by his friend Sunil Yadav. With the script in hand, I moved out of Bombay and back to Cochin with my parents. The Malayalam industry was foreign to me. I had no connections to the industry nor a godfather to give me a chance. After a year of not getting anywhere, the pandemic struck. And that’s when I got my opportunity to direct, with a script that was perfect to make during the lockdown.
While the journey has been long, with its fair share of ups and downs, all the experiences I had and the knowledge I gained, be it as an editor or a camera operator, led to who I am today as a feature film director.
DS: How did the screenplay for the film take shape?
NYI: The script was originally in Hindi, written by Sunil Yadav. It had been shopped around Bombay for many years before it came to me. When the project got greenlit in Kerala is when we started the adaptation of it into Malayalam. For this, I was joined by actor and writer Abhiram Radhakrishnan — who also worked as my associate, my chief associate on the film — and longtime friends Anaz Bin Ibrahim and Obeth Thomas, who also served as my assistant director on the film. In a month and a half that we had, we translated the Hindi script to Malayalam.
The original script was very intricate and tight, due to the nature of the story taking place over a couple of hours in one night, in one space. So when we were adapting it, there were certain requirements to make it accessible for Kerala audiences. So we had to make certain changes to a few plot elements which had a domino effect on the rest of the film. That proved quite difficult and showed how tight and well written the original script was. After much brainstorming, we were able to make the changes while preserving the intrigue of the original script. Some of the major changes were a different ending (not seen in the final film) and the prologue. Despite all these changes, most of the film resembles the original script. We have tried to be respectful of Sunil’s writing, which is what had enthralled us to make this movie in the first place.
More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Pagglait’ Filmmaker Umesh Bist
DS: The film was shot during the period when the fear of getting infected with the COVID-19 virus was still in the air. Share your shooting experience in this new normal?
NYI: Despite the small scale of the Irul, making a feature film is still a huge task involving hundreds of people. At the time, in Kerala, things were slowly opening up. We were one of the first few films to go into production during the lockdown. But there were a few difficulties encountered when trying to get things done. Permissions were required and were often stopped at checkpoints. Meeting people was also difficult. Everyone had to get tested before having a meeting. Sourcing items, material and equipment for the costume, art and camera departments were also proving difficult due to the pandemic. Things took longer than normal, but it all eventually fell into place thanks to the amazing people in the production. And due to the nature of the script, once the entire crew reached the location for the principal photography, things were a bit easier. The only travel the crew had was from the hotel to the set and vice versa, thus reducing any chances of an infection. Anybody who was not part of the crew traveling to our set was required to have a negative test report. While on set, the crew had to be masked and in PPE kits. And we managed to finish our shoot without any interruptions, breaks or a single crew member getting infected. We were quite blessed in that way.
DS: What sort of planning did you have regarding the production design of your film?
NYI: The script dictated a specific layout where the entire action plays out. It took a long time for us to get a location. And we found one in a place called Kuttikaanam, near Wagamon, in Kerala. In the middle of a tea estate called Pattumala, was an isolated colonial-era building, which offered the space required for the film. A single-location movie has its advantages and disadvantages. One major disadvantage being audience fatigue, from observing the same space for the next two hours. And a single-location film can also feel like a low-budget film if not executed well. I wanted to avoid all those pitfalls. My aim was whenever the camera switched a new angle, the audience was seeing something new and different from the previous frame. I was lucky to have Ajayan Chalissery join the project as the production designer. With his help, we designed the space in a way where it provided plenty of opportunities for the characters to move around and also catered to the needs of the script. Each side of the large hall had something unique going on and was visually distinct. We also took the liberty with how space looked, in terms of the textures and colors, to give the audience something not usually seen in Malayalam cinema. The space had an old, inherited, colonial richness to it. You know you have something good in your hands when even the production designer and his team is excited about executing it.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for me was the basement. Not making it, but selling the idea of a basement in an Indian home. I think we have managed to get away with that. The entire basement set, including the corridors leading to it, was built from the ground up in an empty warehouse within the tea estate. It used to once house a tea leaf processing facility. We tried to maintain a similar design as the house for the basement. Ajayan Chalissery is a very talented artist and production designer. Half the reason the movie looks as good as it does is because of his creativity. I was able to draw out the concepts in my head on a piece of paper and he would then take that drawing and take it to the next level, accentuating it and often times adding his own little details.
More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘1232 KMS’ Director Vinod Kapri
DS: Can you talk about the characterization of the three principal actors?
NYI: The characters [changed] once the actors were cast. Some not so much, others quite a bit. The first person cast in the film was Fahadh Faasil. He had the choice of both Alex and Unni, and he immediately gravitated towards the latter. I still remember, after the narration was over, he jumped up excitedly talking about Unni and all the things he saw in that character and the things he wanted to explore. He brought a sense of swagger and attitude to Unni that contrasted well with the character change that later happens in the film. Unni is an opportunistic person, never revealing his whole hand, and is constantly thinking of how to gain the upper hand, even if it means putting himself in danger. But there is a lot more to him than what is seen in the film. I will refrain from speaking more about this character in case I get to explore more of his story.
For Alex Parayil, Soubin Shahir came on board. From the beginning, I knew this would be a challenge since Malayalam audiences are not used to seeing Soubin portray such characters. But I knew that Soubin would tackle it head-on. In fact, Soubin’s casting informed Alex’s character a lot more. We pushed the character even further, giving him more agency and range; from a passive bystander to an active driving force. Alex, who is born into a wealthy family, has no real purpose in life — never in need or want of anything. So a bored rich man is so fascinated by the serial killings that he decides to write a book on it. Whether the contents of the book qualify to be considered good literature is altogether a different discussion; nonetheless, he managed to catch the public’s attention, along with the attention of the said serial killer. His plans, made with the best intentions, are interrupted by Unni. He could have avoided the events that transpired had he been forthcoming and open with Archana. But that just goes on to show how immature and reckless Alex is.
When I first read the script, what jumped out for me was that Archana is the protagonist. Because both Alex and Unni are appealing to her to prove their innocence, she has to be the judge and the jury, and eventually the executioner. She is also the audience stand-in. This meant that whoever portrayed her had a lot of weight to carry. And she also had to go toe to toe with the heavyweights that are Fahadh and Soubin. Finding someone who could pull it all off was a concern for me from day one. But when Darshana came on board, she wiped off all my fears. She managed to catch all the nuances of Archana, be it her spunkiness, tenderness, vulnerabilities or strength — to go from wanting to get away to save herself to wanting to find the truth. Archana is a young career woman, whose interest in Alex is motivated by curiosity. It is this same drive that pushes her out of her fear and to find the truth of the matter.
In a story like Irul, where there are only three characters on screen, it was important that the actors who portrayed them were exceptional and [could] hold the audience’s attention. And I believe that Fahadh, Soubin and Darshana have done a fabulous job.
DS: A feeling of claustrophobia is conveyed beautifully through the camera movements. Share the collaboration with your cinematographer Jomon T. John.
NYI: I knew of Jomon Sir’s work before I knew him by name. My favorite work of his is Ennu Ninte Moideen. Jomon Sir was the first person to whom I had narrated the film. And when the project got greenlit, he informed me that he would do the cinematography. Having your cinematographer also be one of your producers is a boon. We were able to do a shot-by-shot breakdown, along with the editor (and one of the producers and longtime partner of Jomon), Shameer Mohammed. Together, we were able to design the look, feel and pacing of the film. For a newcomer like me, it was quite a learning experience. I would tell them how I see a certain shot and they would give their input and accentuate it into something more meaningful. And for Jomon, the film offered some challenges, one of them being that it’s a single space and the other being the titular darkness of the film. A lot of the scenes were shot using only the candle or the torch you see on screen. Avoiding monotony in the visuals was important. So we made sure that each space was filmed with a certain intention and also made sure that each space of those spaces felt new. The idea was that with each new shot you are looking at something new in the frame. And to maintain that for an hour and a half was a task. The camera has smooth flowing visuals in the beginning and handheld shaky movements in the second half. The color palette of the set and costumes were picked by Jomon and he would often show me how the final result after DI would shape [it] up. It is indeed a great experience to work with someone who sees things beyond your imagination and can take your vision and make it a reality. His philosophy when it comes to cinematography is even reflected in the equipment he chose. The film was shot on a Red Helium 8K camera with Hawk V-Lite anamorphic lenses. Even the candles and torches were selected for a specific look and feel.
Working with Jomon was quite exciting and a blessing. For a debut director to have a movie that looks this good, what more can I ask?
More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Koozhangal’ Filmmaker P.S. Vinothraj
DS: During the scene when the three principal characters discuss the fictitious serial killer in a novel written by Alex, the camera pans in a swaying movement. Can you discuss the scene?
NYI: So during the pre-production, when I had designed this sequence, it was 27 setups. A day before, we were scheduled to shoot this, Jomon Sir had an idea. Why don’t we do this in a single take? This suggestion excited me. But there were some challenges to overcome. Then the art department had to make a large table overnight with a hole in the center. To sell the illusion, the fake table was slightly larger than the original table. But that was the easy part. The actors had to learn 10 pages of lines by heart. And the camera had to move with a purpose. It couldn’t just pan between all characters randomly. So even Jomon Sir was reading the script to know who has what lines. And I needed certain interactions to take place at specific moments. We started that day at 8 AM, with Abhiram hiding under the table to cue Jomon Sir on whom to pan to, and the focus puller Shankar Dada running around the space making sure that he does not show up in the frame while still managing to hit the focus, and the rest of the crew hiding wherever they could find a spot. After many rounds of rehearsals with the actors, where we were figuring out the blocking and framing, we started rolling. Take after take, we kept at it. Sometimes an actor would forget a line, or the camera would miss a mark. But every time we would get further than before. Each take was getting better than the previous one. The actors were committed to getting the shot and getting it right. Jomon Sir did not even pause for a moment. Not only does he have to pan to each actor, but also makes sure that it’s framed correctly. Even the pace of the pan was methodical. It was a game of musical chairs happening in front of the camera and behind the camera. Without a break, we kept shooting ’til noon. We didn’t even break for lunch. That day is an example of how great a crew I had working on my film. No one complained or protested — they were all working together to get the shot right. At 2 PM in the afternoon, we finally got one single good take. The whole scene, in one take, without any mistake. The moment I called “cut,” we all broke into applause. The actors were tired, but they were elated. Jomon Sir’s hands were in pain but there was a smile on his face. Having pulled off something so elaborate and tricky really raised the entire crew’s spirits. It was one of the highlights of the shoot for me. And I am filled with pride every time I see that scene on screen.
DS: How would you like to explain the genre of the film? Is it a slasher or chamber thriller or horror?
NYI: When a story — be it a film, TV show or a book — deals with serial killers, there is a certain expectation of how it will unfold. What I found fascinating in the script was that it was not so much concerned with who is the killer but the game of whodunnit. It was like watching a tennis match as the ball bounces from one side of the court to the other. In this case, the players being Alex and Unni, and Archana being the one to follow the trajectory of the ball, and both the men [keep] throwing accusations at each other. It is more of a cerebral thriller than a slasher thriller or even a horror film. The fact that Archana is a lawyer and ends up conducting a mock trial to gauge who the killer is an indication of that.
More by Dipankar Sarkar: Interview with ‘Criminal Justice: Behind Closed Doors’ Screenwriter Apurva Asrani
DS: Share your experience of working with the most popular actors of the Malayalam film industry — Fahadh, Darshana and Soubin — in your first feature film as a director.
NYI: It was quite surreal actually. I couldn’t believe that I was getting such an opportunity with such big stars on my debut. It’s what dreams are made of. People would do anything to get such an opportunity, and I was simply handed that. It was an eye-opening experience for me. As a first-time director, I got to learn a lot. And since they have all worked together with each other before, they had a certain rapport that resulted in some wonderful improvisation moments. They all understood their characters and made them their own. They brought about wonderful nuances and would often bring in suggestions on how they see certain dialogues or actions taking place.
DS: Nowadays, most films from India are released on the OTT platform. Do you perceive it as a current trend or a compulsion due to the ongoing pandemic?
NYI: I think it’s a compulsion due to the pandemic. Theatre culture is very strong in Kerala. Stars still draw huge crowds here. Single screens are still thriving alongside multiplexes. While OTT platforms give filmmakers an opportunity to make bold and different cinemas, the experience offered by a theatre cannot be replaced. Several people have expressed to me that they wish that Irul was a theatrical release instead of OTT. But the reality of doing business in cinema dictates that work needs to keep happening. People need to be employed. And producers need to get their investments back. And having a film sitting on a shelf waiting for release is a loss. But OTTs will never pay the way a theatre can, especially given the small budgets of Malayalam cinema. So this trend is just a reflection of the times, and in due time we shall be back to munching popcorn in tightly-packed dark halls.
Dipankar Sarkar is a graduate in film editing from the Film and Television Institute of India and currently based in Mumbai. As a freelancer, he frequently contributes to various Indian publications on cinema-related topics.