Pada is a straightforward and engaging Malayalam film, but it’s far from simplistic. Written and directed by Kamal K.M., the 130-minute thriller recreates a political event that took place in Kerala during the late 90s. I recently spoke with the filmmaker and tried to decipher his ideology and motivations while making Pada.
Dipankar Sarkar: Tell me about your background and how you got involved in filmmaking.
KKM: My background in filmmaking goes back to the very first memory of watching a film. It actually starts from there — how we identify with that medium, how that medium made an impact on us and how we grew up in that medium by watching different genres of films. My house where I grew up was very near to a cinema hall, and I had watched many films there. So, my interest in cinema starts from there. Later, I started to watch different kinds of films from all around the world screened at Sumangala Film Society in our small town. I was also introduced to Indian masters such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Kumar Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Guru Dutt and many others through such screenings. Through [these] screenings, I also came to know about the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), which has a legacy in creating all kinds of filmmakers in India from the 60s onwards. Stalwarts of Indian cinema like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, K.G. George, John Abraham, K. R. Mohanan, Shaji N. Karun and many, many other filmmakers have studied at FTII from Kerala alone.
DS: How did studying at the Film and Television Institute of India shape your cinematic sensibilities?
KKM: After my post graduation in journalism, while I was working as a journalist, I decided to study at FTII. There were two mediums about which I was passionate. One was journalism, the other was filmmaking. The experience of being a film student there has helped me a lot. We were not only exposed to numerous world cinema [productions] in 35 mm print but also got an opportunity to experiment with the medium in celluloid through our academic projects. It was also a great experience being there because it helped us understand what the contemporary filmmakers were thinking about the language of cinema. During my student days, not only international and national filmmakers but also theater artists and musicians visited the campus. The creative interaction with such people from different spheres of art and culture was immensely helpful and shaped my understanding of the medium. So, it has helped me to become a filmmaker with an awareness.
DS: You made your debut as a feature filmmaker with I.D. in 2012. It took you almost a decade to direct Pada. What took you so long?
KKM: After making I.D. in 2012, while I was preparing for my second feature film in Malayalam, I had returned to Kerala from Mumbai. Unfortunately, I had to postpone that project. In the meantime, I got an offer from a film school (K. R. Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts) which was newly constituted by the Kerala government. So, I joined the film school as the head of the department for screenwriting and direction for four years from 2014 to 2018. I thought it was a good decision to be a part of an academic institution that was newly set up for a certain period of time. In 2018, I left the institute and started working on my next feature film. So, when I was working on the idea of the film, I found a producer. Later, we developed this script for Pada. But due to the COVID situation, the release of the film got delayed by two years.
DS: In I.D., you address the issue of displacement and its many consequences through the journey of the protagonist Charu (Geetanjali Thapa) to unravel the identity of a stranger. Similarly, in Pada, four members of Ayyankali Pada hold the Palakkad collector hostage to assert the identity of tribal and other marginalized communities within our society. So, what attracts you to develop the stories of your films around such issue-based subjects?
KKM: For me, every film has got an issue as a premise, as a central theme and the world it tries to create. And every theme has its conflicts to describe and resolve as the issue. So, I don’t think there is such a thing as an “issue-based” film. Similarly, both my films have issues as a central theme that represents my worldview. The commonality between these two different films is the question of displacement. I had not given a thought to such commonality so far. What has attracted me to such themes is the interiority of that world in which the theme revolves around. So, it is a part of the search for every author or filmmaker, as I would like to say.
DS: You have written both your films. Can you discuss your process of writing and the extensive research that brings a raw immediacy to your screenplay?
KKM: Yes, I wrote the screenplays for both my films, and the writing process is always different from one another. There is also an immense process of research in this process. For I.D., the idea occurred to me when a friend of mine, Archana Menon, discussed an incident that had occurred to her. After hearing her story, I realized that I had to do so much research on the premise of the story. When an individual migrates to a metropolitan [city] like Mumbai, there are big reasons behind their decision. So, the film was trying to evoke all those kinds of layers. Similarly in Pada, the premise of the film is based on a real event. Here, I had started my writing process during the research. I could not not write the script depending on my imagination. The research helped me to create the drama during the process of writing. So, the writing and research process were happening simultaneously. I met the real life individuals who were the principal characters of my film, and I took details from each of their personal experiences and added to the overall structure of the script. So, everybody’s perspective and memories were contributing to the script in that sense. If I.D. was a complete fiction, which is depicted as a live reality, than Pada is also an actual event depicted as a live reality to the audience. Both these scripts are my effort to create a cinematic experience for the viewers with a kind of curiosity and revelation.
DS: Pada begins with a direct-to-camera piece by Rakesh (Kunchacko Boban), and then we move to an aerial shot of the forest followed by siblings playing in the wide expanse of the woods. Could you talk about the treatment of your film?
KKM: The mise-en-scène of the film arises from my personal experience on this event that had happened in 1996 in Kerala. At that time, I was a student of journalism and curiosity left an impression on my mind. The film begins and ends with a television interview along with the documentation of the event that has happened in the history of journalism in Kerala. So, it is a kind of journalistic tribute to the incident, covering all kinds of perspectives on the theme of displacement of Adivasis in Kerala. When I was writing the screenplay, I could see that the root of this story was going from the television’s point of view to one character and then to another and another. Through this progression, the story of the film was also moving forward. That is how I had designed the treatment of the film, which is also the crux of the mise-en-scène.
DS: There is also a shot of a woodpecker excavating in tree trunks in the beginning. What is its symbolic significance?
KKM: The woodpecker in the opening of the film does not have any symbolic significance. The bird is there because a forest defines the habitat. It is a part of the cinematic idiom. Moreover, I do not think there should always be a symbolic significance to an element we use in an image. It is a part of the larger scheme of the mise-en-scène. So, one such element will not have a particular symbolic significance.
DS: In I.D., the actors were mostly newcomers. But in Pada, you had actors who had years of working in the Indian film industry.
KKM: In I.D., all the actors that took part in the film were from Mumbai, and the story of the film was about the people from the city belonging to different rungs of the society. Since the film was low budget, we were able to get the best performance from the actors with the help of my friends from the Institute and other sources. We also had a casting director for the film. But for Pada, the story of the film needed a different kind of budget, and so me and my producer decided that we should cast actors who are familiar within the Kerala film industry. This decision was taken primarily to justify the budget of the film we were putting together. When we approached the actors — Vinayakan , Dileesh Pothan, Joju George, Kunchacko Boban and Prakash Raj — everybody was happy to be a part of this project without any doubt. They could feel the value of the project in [the] idea itself. So, I would like to say that there was a strong identification with the script amongst the actors.
DS: In Pada, the shots are composed in such a way that it depicts the grim and tense mood of the film and admirably captures the mellowed moments with ease. So, what sort of visual design did you and your cinematographer, Sameer Thahir, plan before shooting?
KKM: I had conceived the visual design of the film along with my cinematographer Sameer Thahir and my direction team. We had envisioned the entire story to enact out [and] manifest as a thriller. There should be a certain kind of curiosity amongst the viewers about what is going to happen next in the film. I wanted to underline that live experience. I wanted to communicate a certain experience in the film without the dialogues from the actors. So, me and my team tried to create it as a live experience as if we were participating in the event, which was also the crux of the visual design of the film. For me, the film is about sensitivity, and it is due to the sensitivity that the protagonist questions the system. So, the sensitivity becomes part of the spirit of the visual design. Hence I thought of creating a certain kind of solidarity and bonding with the event that is being narrated on the screen.
DS: The editing of the film does not slacken the pace and brings a subdued sense of drama within the scenes. Share the process.
KKM: Shan Mohammad, the editor of the film, was here in Kerala from the first day of the shooting to give his feedback on the scenes. As a director, I always had this anxiety of missing out some detailing within the scenes. Shan would reassure me that whatever footage he had received looked good. He was happy with the design and the inherent rhythm of the shots, and that is how he started the edit of the film. We had a linear structure from the beginning of the film. At the same time, since the film follows from one character to the other and then from one space of events to the other, we also had multiple options to edit the film, and we had discussed all kinds of possibilities. We wanted to end the film in a very stark way as well, like a documentary. That was a challenge because this kind of resolution is not in vogue with the mainstream format. So, Shan — with his dexterity — put together the end sequence of the film, where the music had also helped in bringing out the dramatic momentum of the film. Moreover, there is not a single scene from the shooting that was deleted during the process of editing, which makes both me and Shan proud about our creative decisions.
DS: Ajayan Adat was one of the youngest members of the crew. How did his contribution as a sound designer enhance the narrative?
KKM: Ajayan Adat did the sound design of the film and was very aware of different layers within the script, and so it was easy for me to work with him in terms of creating the aural world of the film. Ajayan emphasized the human voice, like the crowd talking amongst themselves; the slogan heard in the background or the ticking of the clock. He got all these elements to create the drama, to create a world within the drama. So, it was great to work with Ajayan. I would also like to mention the name of Esha Kushwaha, who was the production sound mixer in this film and did a brilliant job in capturing the location sound. Later, Pramod Thomas — who did the mixing and design of these sounds — brought out the idea and the theme of the film in a great way.
DS: The climax of Pada incorporates real life footage of the incident as well as the atrocities meted out to the people of the marginalized community. So, under the prevalent atmosphere of intolerance within our nation, how important do you think that a film like Pada can make us politically aware?
KKM: At present, we can feel the air of intolerance in our society, as well as [in our] nation, when we talk about the political atmosphere and its impact on cinema. Since 2014, when the new central rule has started in India, there [has been] no help [given] to filmmakers from government organizations like NFDC or Films Division. Such organizations are nowadays merged into a new agency. We have a cinema culture and heritage of our country. So, today I am making a film under such a level of intolerance, and I am aware of it. So, through my film, I push this level of intolerance to a point and create a kind of discussion around the film to help our society move forward in the process. When we understand how films add to the awareness of the society, then we do not have to be afraid as a filmmaker to experiment with any content or form. There are lots of viewers out there waiting for every new expression — and if they like it, they will be in solidarity with us. History has given us many such examples.
DS: Lastly, Pada was released in theaters and then released on the OTT platform. So, do you think that this mode of distribution will provide visibility to filmmakers who intend to make movies that do not fall under the popular tropes of filmmaking?
KKM: When we intended to make this film, we wanted to release it in the theaters. So, the production requirements — in terms of its technical areas — we prepared accordingly. Pada was shot with advanced cameras with anamorphic lenses as a tribute to the filmmaking styles that had evolved in Kerala during the 90s. During this period, Malayalam cinema shifted to the anamorphic format for a theatrical experience. Our distribution plan was to release the film in theaters first and then approach the OTT platform and sell the satellite rights. I have a firm belief that the film will have its runs on every platform. Post COVID, the OTT platform has emerged in a great way, and it has helped filmmakers to find more audiences from all spheres of the world. All these platforms are a great avenue for us to reach a wider audience.
Pada is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.
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.