Abhilash Vijayan On Directing The Short Film 'Chaver' & Why Regional Cinema Deserves Mainstream Recognition!

By Dipankar Sarkar. Posted on March 15, 2016

Born and brought up in Kozhikode, Kerala, Abhilash Vijayan after completing his Masters in Communication from the University of Hyderabad, had a very sour experience in the Television Industry of Kerala. He then got involved in theater and tried his hands in both acting and directing. He succeeded in both to an extent and soon developed a hobby of reading plays and watching world cinema.

He also received a small grant to make a short film and made Rope Trick. But since he was unhappy with the end product, he decided to spend more time in learning things. And he made it to the postgraduate diploma in the Film and Television Institute of India, in his third attempt.

His short film Dwand (The Dual) which he made as a second year project in FTII was widely recognized. The film was screened in 20 international film festivals and won 4 awards including the Kodak Vision Prize for the best visual performance at International Student Film Festival Písek, Czech Republic. It won 24 awards at national competitions, including the Best Short Film award at Ladakh International Film Festival, 2013. It was also screened at Munich International Festival of Film Schools, Tampere Film Festival - Finland, Cinemaiubit - Romania, Delhi International Film Festival, IFVA -Hong Kong and at IFFI, Goa.

Vijayan's diploma film Chaver had its International Premier at the 2015 edition of International Student Film Festival at Beijing Film Academy. The film was adjudged as the Best Short Film at 4 Indian festivals including The Youth Spring Film Fest, Calicut and Contact Short Film Festival in 2015. It also was an official selection at this year's Pune International Film Festival.

Chaver in Kerala refers to a tribe of suicide warriors who were extremely faithful to their king. They were trained for battles and were never expected to return alive. The film narrates the story of two young boys trained in the martial art form Kalaripayattu to become Chavers and fight for their king at the Mamankam festival. They are prepared for a suicidal mission to avenge their country by killing the rival king. In the course of the film, one of the young boys who is being trained questions the motives of their training and sacrificing lives for this mission.

We recently interviewed Vijayan about the making of the film, his stint at FTII, why regional cinema deserves mainstream recognition and more.

Republished below is the same.

1) How did you develop the idea of your diploma film ‘Chaver’ ?

I had read about the history of Malabar, the northern part of Kerala, long back. The Zamorin kings and the legendary festival of Mamankam, which occurs every 12 years, was interesting. What caught my imagination was the way the rival king sought his revenge during the festival. The king will send some of his best warriors- known as Chaver or suicide killers - to kill the Zamorin king during the festival.

Their aim is to pierce through the layers of the army and kill the king or die in that attempt. The word 'Chaver' exists in the popular imagination in the Malayalam language even now. When a suicide bomber explodes somewhere, a Malayalam newspaper would report it as a 'Chaver attack'. My film is about two boys who are destined to become Chaver. I did a lot of research about the history of Malabar of that era. I also met historians to clear my doubts and seek their perspective on the idea of Chaver warriors.

2) Could you talk about your experience of casting for the short film?

Scouting for the actors was not at all an easy proposition. My requirement was to find actors who were proficient in the martial art form of Kalaripayattu. Sanal Aman and Basil Pama are the actors who have played the two central characters in the film. Sanal graduated from the National School of Drama and Basil studied in Thrissur School of Drama and at the University of Hyderabad. Both of them had undergone basic training in Kalaripayattu.

More over we had Sudhakaran Gurukkal, a veteran Kalaripayattu teacher, on set to help us with it. He trained the actors beforehand and choreographed action scenes in the film. Abhilash Nair who portrayed the role of the dead Chaver warrior graduated in acting from FTII.  Kaladharan, who did the role of the Guru, is a renowned actor who works for both theater and film.

3) Tell us about the look of the film. The costumes, props and the experience of recreating ancient Kerala in Maharashtra.

I knew from the very beginning that the script is a big risk for a student film. We had limited budget and manpower and as students, it was difficult for us to pool in a lot of money. This being a period film made it all the more complicated. Though I took certain liberties I was very particular about creating the right kind of mis-en-scene to match the period and the narrative. We tried to stick to the life of that era in as much detail as possible.

We had restrictions to travel with the unit. So we were trying to create 'Kerala 'in Pune and its outskirts. It was a challenge to find locations that were not modernized and to erect so many sets. Even finding coconut leaves in Pune was difficult. We had to bring it from the Konkan region. The production design team created dozens of weapons with wood, bamboo and thermocol. I had a terrific team who stood by me and pulled it off. But the response from the audience in Kerala was mixed. Many who watched the film criticized that the geography didn't match with that in Kerala.


A still from the film Chaver

4) Could you talk about the making and the technical aspects of your film?

We shot on 35mm Cinemascope. I wanted that particular aspect ratio to explore the dry landscapes inhabited by the characters. The warm tone is also used in the interiors where small fire lamps are the only source of light. Colours have a practical purpose. At the same time, we tried to surpass the mere practicality of it e.g. the dream sequences in the moonlight.  The blue tone is also a visual counterpoint. We tried to achieve a certain rhythm for the film, which matches the rhythm of life in the film.

We spend a lot of time on the Sound Design and Music Score. We repeatedly worked on the Sound Design of certain scenes until we were completely satisfied with the result. We experimented with the soundscape of the film. The tonal variations of wind were one of the things we worked on and we tried to create a gradual progression for it. The percussion instrument Mizhavu is widely used for music in the film and it created a unique tone that is rarely used.

5) Does it make sense to go to a film school when everyone who has an access to the camera these days is making films?

Answering this is not easy. I would say that FTII helped me put a lot of things in perspective- literally and figuratively. The education completely changed the way I looked at films and filmmaking. I owe a lot to my alma mater. It was a liberating journey. Living there was a roller coaster ride for me. I fondly recall the wonderful people I met there, the screenings, the long discussions, the workshops, the shoots etc.

At the core of it FTII is an art school. There were moments when we looked at a painting for hours or watched a scene over and over again analyzing it. I consider myself fortunate to be able to experience that space. The inputs and guidance I received from the teachers (and peers) are what made the filmmaker in me. I need not mention it separately that you learn a lot yourself by making the several films you get to make there.

As a student of direction, you learn to deal with your teammates and actors. You learn to lead the whole unit while realizing your vision on screen. There was falling-down and getting-up for everyone. The criticism and comments you receive for your films are also very valuable. During the course, I was lucky to be able to attend an exchange program with La Femis, the French film school, and in getting my documentary selected for an international mentorship program. It opened new possibilities for me. But it indeed was quiet a challenge to live up to the expectations.


Abhilash Vijayan (left) directing his actors on the sets of Chaver

6) So you are based in Kerala instead of working in Mumbai, which is the hub of filmmaking in India?

By the end of the course, I had decided to go back and work in my language. For me, it was going back to my memories and roots. There is a lot I can do here. True, Mumbai is the richest hub of filmmaking in India. But Bollywood never tempted me. FTII is not a factory creating technicians tailor-made to cater to the needs of an industry 150 kilometers away from Pune.

It is quiet unfortunate that even in an era of mass media exploration Indian cinema is still primarily identified with Hindi cinema. Regional cinema gets a space in national media only if it wins something really big in film festivals or when it creates some kind of controversy. I was surprised to see a list of the best in short films made in 2015 on a website. All of them were Hindi films. The indifference has not changed. Take the renowned directors who graduated from FTII- from Adoor Gopalakrishnan to Gurvinder Singh, from Girish Kasaravalli to Avinash Arun. All of them made their mark in their mother tongue. It is a pity that you will get to see such films on screen only in film festivals.

I feel that the film industry in Kerala is undergoing a transformation. The number of films being made every year has skyrocketed. More than 80 directors debuted last year. More and more colleges are into short filmmaking and film festivals. Unfortunately, the quality of films has not increased. Meanwhile, there is a wide spread feeling, after digital film production took over, that film is something that can be easily made. I have a problem with that. I think it will take some time for the dust to settle down.

7) What are your future projects and your present preoccupation?

I'm working on a couple of screenplays right now. I might do a video series for the web soon. There is a transmedia project waiting for finance. I think I will end up crowdfunding it.


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