Don Palathara’s Family, which is playing in the International Competition section at the 28th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), is one of the finest films of the year. The sombre, minimalist film revolves around a tightly knit community of Christians where the smallest of whispers travel far. In an exclusive chat with Hindustan Times, the director sat down to talk about the process of conceptualizing the film, and how he wanted to treat the subject matter of the film with a lot of subtlety. Excerpts. (Also read: Family review: A richly minimalistic, unsettling gem from Don Palathara that demands your attention)
I want to start by asking whether Family was a long time in the making? Tell me a little about how the film was informed by your own life.
A lot of it was informed by my life, but the work was getting it into the particular story structure. That was something I had to work on. That is the difficult part, I think. But usually that happens in a day or two, when I am least prepared. There are characters who are very familiar to me as a person and people from my childhood, and even now, my family members… So there were conflicts, there is a central aspect of the film which I didn’t address for a very long time. But I had to address it and that happened when it was quite unexpected. It had to happen at this particular point and that made me very angry, and that anger is what transferred into this film. That is the only way to make this film according to me. You can’t just be precautionary and make a film on this aspect.
What was the germ for this particular idea? Did you always know that you had this particular film in some point in your career?
No, I didn’t. I never knew, I never saw it coming. I never prepare for a film. I never think that I will make a film on this particular subject, or this particular issue or anything. The central theme itself is something that I probably didn’t want to touch, because it’s not so subtle. Usually I like more subtlety in my films. That theme itself is not subtle, but I wanted to give it a treatment which is subtle and I didn’t want to show anything explicit.
The film deals with important questions around religion and the concept of acceptance. You are also telling the story in a lower register, in a specific formal design. Was it important for you from the very beginning of the film?
I don’t consider my previous films or any film that I make, as a continuation of this brand so to speak. I give it the treatment it needs. Maybe there are a lot of limitations as an individual, and maybe they could reflect in the style. But, other than that one is not conscious about that style.
Say, the static shots were chosen for a particular reason. While these static shots are framed in a particular way, it is also kept a bit higher than usual. I try to assign a certain role for the camera itself. The angle and the way it interacts with the subject, one understands the nature of that shot. Likewise, in other films as well. Other than that, I don’t look at the bigger picture and I also feel that’s not the right way to approach the medium as well.
I also want to point out how Family integrates elements of horror in it. Was it always there in the script from a thematic perspective?
I can’t think of genres specifically because I am not a genre filmmaker. I didn’t really approach through the genre of horror per se. I always looked at this particular story as a horror story. From a child’s point of view, what is most horrible that can happen to a child in a community. So the horror that exists right in the middle, which slowly getting a form, that was there in my mind while making it but I can’t pinpoint it to the final form. It evolves constantly. I am also learning as I am making the film. If someone reads the first draft of the film, they can never imagine how the final film turned out to be.
Do you rehearse a lot before shooting a film? What is the process like?
We do prepare and plan a lot. Even during this planning, its a gradual process. I trust in that process. Eventually it transpires into something and you reach a point where as a viewer you feel like you see some spark there. That’s when I stop the process. Its the editing as well, not the technical process of sitting on a table and doing it- but from writing the first draft to the final one, and then the shooting, and also the process of improvisation. All these contributes to the final film. We did few workshops, because I wanted to bring these actors into certain way of acting and performance, which doesn’t look too forced. It should look like a slice of life. That was the approach.
Your films have received a lot of acclaim at different international film festivals. Talk to me about the importance of film festivals for you as a filmmaker. Has the landscape of film festivals seen a change in these years?
Firstly, I don’t see film festivals as the final destination for films. There should be a starting point, but unfortunately we don’t have proper distribution these days, and so film festivals end up becoming the final place they are getting screened. Its a sad truth. I like the intimate spaces that a film festival provides. Where a small group of people can watch a film without a lot of noise, but at the same time also receive different perspectives on it. Unfortunately, these days festivals are also getting very proud of numbers of audience, celebrities etc. These numbers are making it another commercial venture. So that is not how it should be. It is a space which should be separate from the mainstream, it should stand against the mainstream.
I remember one interaction I had with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, where he said when something that is offbeat becomes too popular, it will also become a part of the mainstream. And later, something else will turn into offbeat, which is a separate entity. The example he pointed out was Broadway in the West, where it became too popular and some people had to separate it and make it into off Broadway. But these avenues all merge into mainstream because it wants to assimilate and buy out things that are good and standing out.