Fahadh Faasil in a scene from Irul.
Fahadh Faasil in a scene from Irul.

A film about darkness, lit up just right: Cinematographer Jomon T John on Irul

What did it take to create the luminous quality of the night scenes in this Malayalam thriller? The right space, candles and a lot of Chinese lanterns, John says.
By Natasha Rego
UPDATED ON MAY 07, 2021 07:48 PM IST

If there’s one thing that gleams about the Malayalam film Irul, it’s the cinematography. Curtains are backlit as if by moonlight, candles are used to great effect in a grand old house as the power blinks on and off in a storm.

Released on Netflix, Irul (which means Darkness) features Fahadh Faasil, Soubin Shahir and Darshana Rajendran. Though the plot falls away in the latter half, it’s an interesting premise: A novelist named Alex (Shahir) and a lawyer named Archana (Rajendran) decide to get away for the weekend, leaving their cellphones behind. When their car stalls amid the Ghats, they make their way to a lone bungalow atop a hill. A rather odd man (Faasil) lets them in, but there’s a body in the basement, the house has a strange connection to Alex, and it is clear that one of the men is a killer. Archana just can’t tell which one.

Jomon T John, cinematographer and co-producer of Irul, says the film was a break from the blockbusters that take up most of his time. John has shot numerous Malayalam, Tamil and Hindi hits, including Golmaal Again (2017), Simmba (2018) and the upcoming Sooryavanshi, starring Akshay Kumar.

In between the crazy schedules that come with the big-budget projects, he likes to shoot and produce smaller films such as Irul where, as he puts it, “you get to do a lot more with little”. What did it take to craft a film about darkness, lit up just right? Excerpts from an interview:

Most of the film is set in one room. Was it hard to find the perfect space?

We wanted to shoot in an eerie old bungalow that had a large living room, because that’s where the characters were going to spend most of their time. The surroundings of the house had to be uninhabited, so that even though very little of the film is shot from the outside, it still lent that feeling of mysteriousness. We found this bungalow on a hill in Idukki. It was the first of the few that we checked out, and the one we finally chose.

John (extreme left) at work on the film.
John (extreme left) at work on the film.

What were the most challenging scenes?

I like these types of films, where there is a lot of mystery and craziness. There is one sequence where the three characters are having a long conversation introducing themselves. That’s the part we decided to do in a single shot, to keep it interesting. It’s a six- or seven-minute-long scene of just dialogue, so this (seamless scene) was a way to break that monotony. We had talented actors who were able to pull it off.

Did it take a lot of tech to pull off the many, luminous night scenes?

I don’t get very technical with my shoots. I follow the soul and emotion of the script. Except for the few outdoor night scenes in the beginning, the entire film was shot in the daytime, though the story plays out at night. We were able to achieve that night-time gloom and mystery using candles, and you don’t see this in the film but we used a lot of Chinese lanterns, which brought that hazy texture to the film.

The whole film was shot in a month. How different is it shooting a quick film like this, from the big-budget films that you also do?

The difference is in the industries. They are at two extreme ends and I really enjoy the contrasts. For a big film, we’re usually shooting for 100 days with a huge crew. It’s like working at a multinational corporation. Everything has protocol and schedules. When I get the time, I like to come to Kerala and shoot smaller films, with a smaller crew. I think small films do more magic, where you can do a lot more with little.

What’s next?

I am currently working on the Rohit Shetty film Cirkus (due for release in December). It will be my fourth collaboration with Rohit Shetty, with Ranveer Singh in a double role.

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