What instructions did you give to the cinematographer Sarath Sasi? Why did you choose black and white with so much contrast? What experience were you looking to convey to the viewer?
The film was always envisioned in black and white. We gave thought to trying it in color, but it never worked. Personally, the nineties feel very black and white to me because of the black and white TV that existed then. And I had never tried a monochromatic film before, even though I had used black and white film while learning photography. So we went with it. I never had any doubt.
Sarath came up with the final look and the contrast. I trusted him to interpret it better than me. And I believe he did a good job, as always.
For the viewers, I wanted them to feel that they were in a particular world. To get the attention towards the right direction.
What was it like directing so many children? Would you repeat the experience?
It was a challenge and needed some preparation. It was a learning experience. And I would repeat if necessary. What I learned in the process has helped me a lot.
Is there something autobiographical in your film? How are you similar and how are you different from the character of Sanu?
Yes, there are autobiographical elements in the film. I never tried to model Sanu on me, but I think his inner life is the same as mine.
How was the casting and the selection of the actress Krishnaveni, what were you looking for in her?
I had the idea for the film for a long time. And Krishnaveni was my classmate, my cameraperson, and a dear friend. It came to me someday that Krishnaveni was the best choice. Her physical features were an obvious reason, as I thought she could evoke fear. And mostly, I knew she could act. She is a filmmaker herself, so it was a job done. I haven’t had to direct her much.
What does Sanu dream about when he sleeps in her collective school dormitory?
There was a dream sequence written which we didn’t shoot. I was not convinced then. I am sure it would be absurd. But how a dream would have manifested for him, I don’t know.
What are school children afraid of? What does the spider in the school notebook symbolize?
For me, the spider and film share the same idea. Why does it matter? To look back into certain moments or certain things. What does it evoke beyond the obvious reasons?
In the acclaimed biography of Samuel Johnson written by James Boswell, the writer reflects that an education based on physical punishment has certain advantages since it generates a common hatred towards the rod and towards the teacher, creating a strong feeling of communion, friendship, and camaraderie among students, and criticizes other forms of education that encourage unhealthy competition among students. How did you create a character as complicated as Professor Krishnaveni?
I lived in that generation. Punishment was our language of education. I don’t know what good or bad it does. But I believe that’s what molded me.
In your film, there are only three physical contacts between characters: one that you film in a closed shot in which the children are drawing lots to odd or even the order of a game, a slap from Krishnaveni to a student, and Krishnaveni’s caress to Sanu at the end of the movie. How was the filming of this final sequence so intense and so minimalist?
It’s true. Physical contact feels so less and it is something there in all my films, I believe. So I keep those interactions intense. Because such moments are very intense to me personally. The last sequence was tricky. As both of the actors were not professionals, I tried to put them in that situation and see how they reacted. I didn’t try many versions. I kept the first shot itself if I am not wrong.
That scene was written after a suggestion from my teacher. I owe him for that.
Your film is set in Kerala in the 1990s. Why the selection of this time? What has changed in India in all this time?
It was when I was growing up. And it was a tumultuous era for India too. India has definitely changed a lot. But I am more anxious about where it is going. And I am very skeptical. Even though it feels like an aspiration towards modernity, what I see and is surfacing is age-old terrible fanaticism.
There is a character in your film that cannot be seen but is constantly present in your film and it is perhaps the main character that is love. Who loves in your movie? Who enjoys? Who feels pleasure?
You are right. The lack of love is there. I was not thinking about it much. But I was looking at how things manifest under such circumstances.
In your depiction of the human soul in such a stark way and in your way of filming violence you are reminiscent of the Austrian director Michael Haneke. Do you have a director as a reference in your cinema?
I consider him one of the best filmmakers I have known. Yes, he is an inspiration. But nothing as such was forced into the film. We just did it in our own way.
What gives you the most satisfaction when directing a film?
I don’t know. I have never felt satisfied. I hope it happens someday.
You are a student at the K R Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts in Kerala, what is your opinion of film education in India?
It was a long-standing dream of the Malayali filmmaking community to have a film school in Kerala. It’s a relatively new film school, so it has to pass the test of time.
Indian film education is in a dilemma just like the country. I don’t know where it is going. Yet, these institutes are the only haven for people who take up cinema seriously. So, in that sense, I am hopeful.
Do you know any Spanish director or any Spanish film that you particularly like?
Pedro Almodovar! As a teenager, I once got a chance to attend his retrospective. Pedro is love!
What is your next project? Can you tell us something?
I am making a documentary currently. Also working on my first feature film and on a lot of films in my head. Otherwise, it’s a struggle. Let’s see!