Lockdown made me realise that working without boundaries isn't my cup of tea, writes Sanu John Varghese
'Before the lockdown, the hectic nature of my job as a cinematographer kept on taking me further away from writing. In hindsight, I was actually finding excuses for my incompetence.'
2020 has been a watershed year in history, and that has also trickled down to the realm of entertainment. In this series, 2020 Unwind, stakeholders from the Indian entertainment scene weigh in on how they view entertainment now, how their skills had to evolve and adapt to changing patterns and whether the year has altered them as artists.
COVID-19 did interesting things for me. First of all, it forced me to slow down from an extremely hectic life. That hectic pace of life was my comfort zone. Initially, the slowing down made me restless. Then there was only that much I could do since everything had stalled. I started enjoying the family time which I never managed to get much of. Soon the restlessness started resting itself.
Then came the COVID paranoia. It forced me into a long road trip with my family to southern Kerala, to be with my ageing parents who needed help to cope with the new normal. A 14-day quarantine forced me to relook at life. A three month stay with my wife and child at my parents’ home shattered all my previously held illusions of human relations, familial structures, and human existence as such. And when you look at it a few months later, you realise it was all for the good.
For the last five years, I have been under pressure from a high school classmate, Malayalam movie-producer-friend to direct a feature film. I have been adamant about writing it myself. A firm conviction that ‘unless you write it, you don’t know it ‘ was guiding my adamancy. I kept on rejecting the scripts that he sent me. I would set deadlines for writing and start off, and would get distracted soon enough. In five years, three storylines were worked upon and abandoned. The movies I went into as a cinematographer in this period had extremely interesting scripts. I wanted to collaborate on those scripts hoping it would help me write better. But the hectic nature of those productions kept on taking me further away from writing. In hindsight, I was actually finding excuses for my incompetence.
Around our quarantine period in Kerala, a filmmaker friend sent me links to a long documentary on Hayao Miyazaki, whom I have always been a huge fan of. The documentary dealt with his creative process. What struck me the most was how Miyazaki managed to convert his personal experiences into stories that were universally engaging. I was amazed how he found his characters within his vicinity, embellished them, and made them emotionally appealing to people across cultures. Miyazaki sir helped me transcend the block!
I started writing the story of a couple who goes on a journey home from Mumbai in the early days of the pandemic. Into it, I fitted a storyline which I had developed many years ago. Again, a story of how the idea of ‘home’ could get shattered when you get close to it. Collaborating with another writer and getting daily perspectives from my wife and friends, we managed to convert the story into a screenplay in three months. The strict parameters of how you can run a production in the middle of social distancing in fact helped me write better.
The realisation dawned upon me that writing without boundaries is not my cup of tea. It definitely requires more talent.
Initially the plan was to undertake the script writing as a project in itself, and throw it away if it was not worth being made into a movie. With that plan, we sent it to a couple of filmmaker friends. We wrote more with their feedbacks. With a lot self doubt, we went into narrating the script to actors whom we thought fitted the roles the best. It appealed to them.
Again, COVID-19 helped. With most of the movie productions already stalled, they could find time for us. We threw away the plan of throwing the script away and went into production soon, finished shooting in 30 days under strict COVID-19 protocol. Friends and fellow technicians helped selflessly. The film is currently in post production. It is being shaped by a bunch of talented technicians. Good or bad, my taste is guiding the process.
It has been a tremendous learning experience collaborating with a whole lot of talented people. Humbling too.
Collaborating with another cinematographer showed me a mirror. When I look into it I get a better understanding of how I function as one. It needs corrections. I know it now.
The best thing is that when I go back to watching the movies that I have watched previously I see and hear a lot more. I have become a bit more sensitive to the creative usage of visuals, sound, music, lyrics, and performance in movies. Actually, it is not just about the movies. The new sensitivity helps me enjoy the everyday mundane and embrace the ordinary a bit better.
Guess that is a COVID gain.
Sanu John Varghese is a filmmaker, and a cinematographer who has worked across Malayalam, Hindi, Tamil and Telugu films.
For more stories in the 2020 Unwind series, click here.
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