Young filmmaker Don Palathara’s Shavam (The Corpse) is a monochromatic portrait of a funeral. The film peeks into the interiors of a lower middle-class Malayali household where the after-death rituals of a young man is underway. There are characters aplenty, walking in and out of the frame, marking their attendance through a glance, a movement, a wail or a loud sigh, or a subtly imprudent or sympathetic remark.
There is no loud dramatic moments in Don’s film. It is cold like death itself, and the pace at which the camera travels from one room to another, and from one face in the crowd to another, has an aloofness that is not normal for a film set in a grief-stricken ambiance. There is an eeriness in the way Don and cinematographer Prathap Joseph have composed the hand-held shots, as if there is someone invisible watching the proceedings from outside the frame with a sense of solemn indifference.
Emotions aren’t monochromatic in Shavam. The film prudently breaks into the private conversations in the dead man’s house, to cut open the grey underneath human sentiments. It explores the varied degrees in which the death has touched the people around the deceased. The widow of the dead man is more exasperated than mournful. The church priest who arrives in a hurry to oversee the funeral ceremony leaves after holding an impersonal conversation with the deceased’s hapless teenage son. A bunch of facilitators at the funeral are seen engaged in a verbal spat over the expenses.
Shavam is 31-year-old Don’s debut film. It is one of the few Malayalam language films acquired by Netflix.
After doing a film-making course from International Film School in Sydney, he returned to Kerala, where he made a documentary on Cinema Vandi, the travel cinema of Kazhcha Film Society. He made Shavam in 2015, on a shoe-string budget of Rs 7 Lakh. The 63-minute film is produced by Travancore films, a company founded by Shijo K George, Aneesh Chacko and Don. In 2017, he directed his second film, Vithu (The Seed), centered around a 60-year-old father in Idukki, and his city-bound son.
Lack of budget was one of the reasons why Don chose to shoot Shavam in black and white medium. “I wasn’t going to have extravagant colours, but at least, the power to choose the required colours would have been there (with proper budget),” he told Silverscreen.in. “I had actually repainted the whole house for the shoot. Later, when we did some sample shooting we liked the black and white look.”
Dialogues are minimal in the film. There is a lack of exposition that leaves many characters and situations ambiguous.
“That was purposeful,” says Don. “Subtlety is something I admire in films. Expository dialogues can ruin the film-watching experience for me. My attempt was to make a film the way I would love to watch it. We were trying to bring a third-person perspective to the film — the way he looks at incidents and people. That means, every character might not get a lot of screen-time,” says Don.
There are over 40 actors in the film; most of them unfamiliar faces to the regular film audience. “Not all of them were unseasoned actors,” says Don. “I was not looking for a familiar face. When it comes to directing actors, communication is the key. They are talented actors, so all I had to do was explain the situations to them convincingly,” he says.
The shooting process went smooth, says Don, who adds that he would gladly cast fresh faces and lesser-known actors in his films again. “They are intelligent people. If you give them enough space and respect, they would perform the way you want them to, or even better than your expectations.”