Written and directed by Ranjith Sankar, the Malayalam-language film Sunny released on Amazon Prime in September 2021. The 93-minute movie follows the titular character (Jayasurya), who quarantines at a plush hotel in Kerala, India. Trapped within the confinement of a room, Sunny feels hopeless and becomes increasingly more impulsive before reaching a life epiphany. I recently spoke with Sankar about the challenges of making Sunny.
Dipankar Sarkar: How did the idea of Sunny occur to you?
Ranjith Sankar: The idea occurred to me on the day our prime minister announced the first lockdown in March 2020. It was a first-of-its-kind experience for all of us. That very night, I wrote down the one-liner where a man returning from abroad was completely lost in his life and forced to undergo quarantine. First, he wants to commit suicide but then the days he spends with himself help him to rejuvenate and come back to life. Moreover, for a very long time, I was planning to make a film with a single character. But I had to drop the idea because I could not find a unique subject to develop into a full-length feature film script. Even when I began writing the screenplay of Sunny, I was not very sure about it because the film belongs to a very different kind of genre, and I did not know if the idea was going to work. So, I stopped writing, but the idea kept coming to me time and again. Finally, I thought that if I could write and shoot a film, it would be remembered for depicting the experience we all had during one of the most difficult times of our lives. Then I began writing a continuous number of drafts for the next six months, and that gave me the confidence to go ahead and shoot the film.
DS: How long did you take to shoot Sunny?
RS: We completed the shooting of the film in 17 days.
DS: You and Jayasurya, who plays the protagonist in Sunny, share long years of association. As a director-actor relationship, what sort of understanding do both of you have?
RS: Both of us share our love for cinema and the constant desire to improve ourselves along with the quality of cinema, which we are making. All these factors have helped in developing a deep friendship between us.
DS: Certain shots and visuals in Sunny are added with several layers of visual metaphors. Share your collaboration with your cameraman Madhu Neelakandan.
RS: According to me, Madhu Neelakandan is the best cinematographer we have right now. He is very selective and shoots films which he likes. After finishing the screenplay, there is only one person whom I thought could do justice to the film visually. Since [Sunny] is a single-character film, it has to be visually engaging, and Madhu was my first choice. Also, we [had] worked before in Ramante Edanthottam (Garden of Eden), so I talked to him, and he was very excited about this idea of a single character in a single location. Madhu took the film as a challenge, and the credit for the entire visual scheme of the film belongs to him. As a director, I had briefed him that I was not interested in an exterior shot of the hotel or a car passing by on the road. I only wanted shots that the character of Sunny is seeing. The entire film is from his point of view. If Sunny is looking at the driver, receptionist, waiter or the girl upstairs, we are going to show them. These were the kind of discussions I had with Madhu, and he got it. I remember that the first scene that we had shot did not work, and we sat on the script over the night. The next day, the scene was reshot and it was okay. So, shooting every scene was a challenge because it had to work and look different. Madhu had put his soul into the film with the images he had shot.
DS: Any particular reason why you wanted Sunny to be from the protagonist’s point of view?
RS: Because that is how I [wrote] the screenplay of the film, and I thought that was the genuine perspective. Every scene in the film depicts what Sunny is feeling and what he is seeing. When you are writing a script, you have a vague idea of how the film should look. Then you discuss this idea with the cinematographer and take his suggestions. So, I had this idea to which everybody in my team had agreed, and that is how the film was shot.
DS: Sunny has a slow and measured pace, and takes its own time to unfold the drama. Could you talk about the process of editing the film with Shameer Muhammed?
RS: That is how the script of the film was written and shot. So, this was the only way the film could have been edited. There was no deliberate attempt to make the film slow-paced. Shammer edits big-budget commercial films, which have a completely different pattern of structuring. So, it was evident that he [would] be editing Sunny in a different fashion. The role of an editor is limited in a film like this, not in a negative sense. The entire film is about the choreography of scenes, and so the cuts are fewer. There is a kind of visual poetry in the film, and the editor has to understand and deliver. And that is what Shameer did.
DS; The soulful background score becomes a character in Sunny that elevates the emotional experience. What was your brief to the music composer Sanker Sharma?
RS: After I had finished writing the final draft of the film, I did not have any composer in mind because I was looking for a relatively new guy who was [inexperienced]. I always thought of the character of Sunny as a talented musician who was not lucky. At the beginning of the film, there is monotony in Sunny’s life. As he walks into the corridor of the hotel, the theme music starts playing. But it is playing in his mind. That is how I looked at it. So, I wanted the music to be exceptionally good, and we took five months to compose the background score. We finished the shoot in November 2020, but the release of the film was delayed due to the time taken in composing the music. Sanker was such a person who had the time and patience to compose the 15 drafts of the musical score. The entire credit of the background score goes to him. He is a very talented music director, and I wish he does good work in the future.
DS: At the end of Sunny, viewers are informed that Dr. Eerali died of a cardiac arrest. Besides adding a dramatic moment to the film, was there any particular reason for his untimely death?
RS: I write with a flow and not with a reason. If there is an issue with the script, I reason it later. Writing for me is an organic process, and it is a natural gift, unlike directing a film, which is a craft that can be acquired. I wrote the character of Dr. Eerali very naturally and connected it with Sunny, who was thinking about death and how the death of Eerali inspired him to live. Maybe that is the reason. The voice of Dr. Eerali is from a popular Malayali actor, Innocent, who used to call me once in a while during the lockdown and tell me positive things, jokes etc. When I thought about the character of Dr. Eerali, I immediately recalled Innocent, and his voice did wonders to the character. A lot of people were able to connect with this character. So, all these things happened very organically, which I think is the power of creative thinking. Moreover, I look upon the character of Eerali as a person who is full of life and loves eating. He took up this job voluntarily so that he can help people even though he is unwell.
DS: Sunny is a rare film that experiments with the one-character genre. What were the risks involved with the project?
RS: The first risk was that even after writing for six months, I was not sure if I was going to make this film. I believe that to make a film you should have a drive, and you cannot move on unless you have made the film — especially for a film like Sunny, which cannot be made mechanically. We can do everything during the shoot, but first of all, it has to be perfected during the scripting stage. Only then you can convince yourself. At one stage, I decided that if I was not happy with the writing then I would not go ahead with the shooting and publish the screenplay. I was not interested in making a film just for the sake of it if I am not 100 percent convinced. I did not even talk to any actors or producers for the six months while I was writing the screenplay. That is the first decision I took. After I had finished writing the seventh draft of the script, I felt that the idea of a single character film with a feel-good factor was working on paper, and so I got the drive to make the film. Then Jayasurya came on board and we immediately decided to shoot the film. I narrated the script in mid-October, and we started shooting from the fifth of November 2020. So, I went ahead to shoot the film only when I was convinced, and if I waited for too long, the drive would have weakened. Right now, I would have not made the film at all. Before commencing the shoot, I told Jayasurya that we would try to make a good film. But if the result [was] not as we [had] expected, then we [would] not release the film and bear the loss of money. That was the second risk.
Again, while shooting the film, I had this feeling that the scenes were working individually. But I was not sure that if I arranged all the scenes together in the edit [that it would] work as a single piece. After completing the shoot, it was the background score where Shankar and I showed patience for almost five moments, which is something rare for a Malayalam film. There were instances when the background score was not working, and we had umpteen discussions on changing the music director and going for an established musician. But I kept my trust in Shankar. Then the next hurdle was how to bring the film to the audience — whether I should go for a theatrical release or an OTT platform. In hindsight, I do not think that if the film had released in theatres it would not have gathered attention so soon. I consider Sunny as a small experimental film that would connect with few people who like such kinds of films. But to my utter surprise, the film had connected to a lot more people than I had expected. Even though there are five-six characters in the film, the audiences are not bored. So, there were risks with the film, but it was fruitful, and I am happy with all my decisions.
DS: Do you feel sad that instead of releasing in theaters, Sunny is streaming on the OTT platform?
RS: I wanted the film to be released in theaters and also had a date. But I could not accomplish it because of the time taken to compose the background score. So, I consider that as the fate of the film. I also had discussions with the theater owner that since the film is only 93 minutes, they play the film without any interval point. I thought the viewers [would] take 10 to 15 minutes to get into the film, and [that] an interval point [would] be disastrous, as it [would] disrupt the flow of the narrative. Then, due to the second wave of Pandemic, theaters in India got shut. So, I decided to release the film on Amazon. And then there was this fear of people getting bored after watching the first five minutes of the film and [switching] their attention to some other content. But I had underestimated my audiences. At present, I am very happy with the kind of positive responses that the film has received. Overall, I think that whatever had happened with the film was due to its fate.
DS: Soon, the theaters are going to open across the country. What are your expectations from the general public?
RS: I strongly believe that people go to the theaters not only to watch films. I always tell people that if you go with your family once a week to watch a film, it is good for your family life. So, it is not only about watching a film but the bonding that develops when you spend the time together while traveling to the theater, sitting together and having dinner post-screening and talking about the film. All these activities make an individual a better person rather than watching a film at home. If you observe any busy person, they make it a point to visit the theaters once a week, and that helps them to maintain a healthy social life. It also improves the quality of their life. So, theaters are going to remain and people will return. But my biggest concern is regarding the content of our films. If you look at Hollywood in the last five years, people have been going to the theaters to watch a film like Avengers, King Kong etc. But a filmmaker like me would also love to watch a film like The Shawshank Redemption in theaters. And this kind of film also had a successful theatrical run at the theaters in the past. But now after the popularity of various OTT platforms, it will be a challenge for filmmakers like me who make films for the theaters because I cannot make a film like The Avengers. I am not capable of making such kinds of films. My forte lies in making films about human emotions. I hope that I will be able to make films for the theater, as I am not sure how the situations are going to emerge in the future.
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.