Over the last few years, the immense popularity of Malayalam-language films has benefitted the reputation of Indian cinema, due to content originality, credible performances and technical finesse. Don Palathara has carved a niche for himself by making Malayalam films that don’t pander to the established taste of viewers for whom cinema equals entertainment. The director’s style of filmmaking provides a contemplative and immersive viewing experience, as his characters deliver performances that are restrained, sensitive and unique.
Palathara’s fresh and idiosyncratic style is courageous. He builds narratives around niche themes that confirm his position as a superlative artist. Palathara’s debut film Savam (The Corpse) is an unflinchingly morbid account of a dead body’s journey to the graveyard. His sophomore production Vith (Seed) depicts the conflict between a father and a son approached in a de-dramatized manner. Palathar’s third film,1956, Central Travancore, explores various stages of human behavior with an understated style. Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (Joyful Mystery) examines the rising tension between a couple on their way to a doctor’s clinic, captured in a single-take shot. Palathara’s latest feature, Everything Is Cinema, blurs the line between fiction and non-fiction while telling the story of an exasperated filmmaker and the dissension within his personal and professional lives.
All of Palathara’s films are currently available in Mubi’s spotlight section. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the director about his cinematic style and philosophy.
Dipankar Sarkar: Tell me about your formative years of studying at the Academy of Film, Theatre and Television in Sydney, Australia. How did it shape your cinematic sensibilities?
Don Palathara: There were some great teachers at the film school. I was also lucky to have met some friends with good sensibilities. We watched a lot of films, talked about them, and we were encouraged to take equipment out and try out filming whatever we wanted to. As someone who had no prior exposure to the technical aspects of the medium, I am sure these exercises have helped me in understanding the medium more.
DS: Your first three feature films — The Corpse, The Seed and 1956, Central Travancore — are shot in black and white, along with the interior scenes in Everything Is Cinema. What is the reason behind such aesthetic choices?
DP: At first, the choice was made due to budget constraints. But, later I realized that even if I had the budget, I would have gone for a bleak look, with minimal use of colors. By the time I made 1956, Central Travancore, I was certain that I wanted to shoot it in black and white. Along with deep focus and wide-angle shots, black and white had become a part of the aesthetics I wanted for the film — to see things from a more objective perspective.
DS: From your second feature film Vith (Seed) onwards, you started editing your films. Why did you choose to do so?
DP: For Savam also, I had done a rough cut. Then Shanavas did another cut. And the final one was a mix of these two edits. Unless you work with someone who understands the film and its purpose the way you do, it is always a struggle to communicate the reason behind every decision made in the editing room. From Vith onwards, I realized that I was shooting with the edit in mind. I was aware of the shots I’d go with and points to cut them.
DS: The events in your films unfold at a slow, unhurried pace, which lends a unique mosaic of creativity, imagination and complexity to the narrative. Why are you favorably disposed to such a style of storytelling?
DP: When I pick films to watch, I am someone who enjoys films that are more contemplative in nature. I also want to give the audience room to think and come up with their own version of the films. We are living in a very fast-paced world these days. As an artist, it is my duty to make people, as well as myself, aware that we need to slow down a little bit. Also, maybe the pacing of all my films has something to do with my childhood. I grew up in a rural region and had a kind of tranquility in my life. Sometimes I had to wait for the bus to arrive at the stand for more than half an hour. People from the region used to wait for things to happen naturally. That was the kind of surroundings I was used to as a child. I think all these experiences of being patient since my childhood are reflected in the style of filmmaking.
DS: As a viewer, I have found in all your films that conflicts arise due to the lack of harmony between couples or the members of a family. The reason for argument and bitterness in most of the instances is due to internal issues and not external forces of society. What attracts you to such themes?
DP: Family as an institution has been deteriorating over time. In an agrarian society, each family member would have a certain role and purpose. In today’s society, the idea of a family doesn’t hold much meaning. Today, we are relying a lot on nostalgia towards the idea of what a family should have been like. And that create conflicts of interest. As someone who is interested in the problems of everyday life, I think it came quite naturally to me to explore that aspect of families.
DS: What were the challenges you had to face to bring authenticity to the period in 1956, Central Travancore?
DP: That film was about stories and not facts. So, I wanted to give it a general feel of that period, but periodic authenticity was not one of the major concerns. We had a bit of a struggle with avoiding electric posts; plastic waste is thrown everywhere etc. But we had an excellent team. And the producer’s support was immense.
DS: In your fourth outing, Joyful Mystery, you fix the camera throughout the length of the film. It is probably the longest single-take film made in Indian cinema. How did the idea for such an innovative and bold endeavor come across to you?
DP: Though there may not be many previous examples from India itself, there are so many films with single or long takes when you look at world cinema. With the advent of digital and smaller cameras, long takes are not really difficult in the indie scene, if you can find the right performers. And I was lucky to be able to work with two immensely talented actors. The idea was to present the characters being stuck in both space and time.
DS: In Everything Is Cinema, the protagonist of the film, Chris [voiced by Palathara], captures the daily chores of his wife, Anita (Sherin Catherine), intending to help the viewer explore their relationship. But in the process, Chris’ vulnerability and insecurities are revealed. Is that the reason why you preferred to assign him the role of an omnipresent off-screen narrator in Everything Is Cinema?
DP: That can be said to be one of the reasons. Also, I wanted to see how the audience would respond to the corrupted perspective of the first-person narrator.
DS: So, regarding the character of Chris, what were the traits you had in your mind for Everything Is Cinema?
DP: The film happens during the first wave of the pandemic, and people were new to the idea of a lockdown. The character of Chris is going through a lot of frustrations. His film did not happen the way he wanted it to be. He was planning to shoot mostly outdoors. His producer is no longer able to support the project. So, the COVID situation changes everything for him. His frustrations also affect his relationship with his wife. He is expressing his anger through her and using the camera as a tool to channel his violence.
DS: Can I say that Everything Is Cinema’s Chris would have been a different person if he would not have to face the COVID-related restrictions?
DP: No, he would not have been a different person. The lockdown brings out a lot of things within him that were otherwise buried inside him. Certain aspects of his characters are revealed when he is subjected to this new situation.
DS: Throughout Everything Is Cinema, the exterior shots of of Kolkata capture common and ordinary people carrying out their quotidian and mundane activities. But in the final act of the film, there’s an extremely long shot of the iconic Howrah Bridge. So, what was your visual planning for the film?
DP: All those decisions happened in the edit. And I had to think like Chris while editing the film. While shooting exteriors, I was intruding into the lives of these people, and I was conscious about it throughout the process. It is that thought that led to the imagined interiors and the fictional form. The camera is a tool — in this film, a tool for violence.
Moreover, I think this kind of explanation regarding the visuals is a little pointless. When we are making a particular film, if we try to explain everything that appears with the visual, it will be a gimmick. I want the viewers to have their own version of the film while watching. Otherwise, it becomes a futile endeavor if you have to explain everything that they are watching as a visual. When you are seeing visuals, it is an abstract language through which the filmmaker wants to express himself. People should get different expressions from it. So, I do not like to explain something in words when it is already shown in the visuals.
DS: What was the reason to use the ghazal Sarakti jaye hai rukh se naqab during the final shots of Everything Is Cinema?
DP: Again, I had to think like Chris. He would want people to empathize with his character. So, he decided to justify his actions through every shot selection, the words he used and the music he picks.
DS: How important is it for you to be a part of the spotlight section of Mubi?
DP: It indeed gave great exposure for my films across India. People who might not have watched the films otherwise got a chance to watch them. Since Mubi is a curated platform, the films reached the right audience through it, I suppose.
Dipankar Sarkar (@Dipankar_Tezpur) 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.