A short film by three Kerala priests offers a child’s-eye view of the pandemic
In September 2020, amid the first shock of the pandemic, three priests from Kerala decided to use cinema to uplift parishioners with an inspiring story.
Frs James Thottiyil, 35, Jose Puthussery, 35, and Jacob Koroth, 44, of the Ernakulam-Angamaly Archdiocese got together and made a 14-minute short film inspired by how underprivileged children in Kerala were coping when their parents had to self-quarantine.
David and Goliath (2021) is about two siblings named Thavi and Thanu, aged nine and five, being raised by a single mother who has to isolate after she comes in contact with a Covid-positive person. The story follows how the two look after each other and care for their speech-impaired mother by coming up with clever ways to maintain a distance from her in their little house by the sea.
“The pandemic reminded me of when I was volunteering at a slum almost a decade ago. A 10-year-old boy whose parents were rarely around did all the chores, balanced school and work. He sold lottery tickets for a living and looked after his little sister, who tagged along with him everywhere,” says Fr Puthussery.
When the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, a non-profit that works to promote cinema, announced isolation and survival as the theme of a scriptwriting contest, Fr Puthussery drew on that story, and all that he was seeing around him in the pandemic, and wrote and submitted his script. It was one of 10 selected, in August 2020, for initial funding of ₹50,000.
At this point, Fr Puthussery reached out to Frs Thottiyil and Koroth, who work with the Angamaly Archdiocese’s media and communications division, Pilgrims Communications. Fr Thottiyil is a childhood friend; Fr Koroth has a post-graduate degree in filmmaking.
They would be happy to direct the film, the men said, but first they had to raise enough money to make it. This turned out to be easier than they’d thought. “We pooled in our money, borrowed a bit from other priests who were as excited as we were, and accepted donations from parishioners,” says Fr Thottiyil.
Filming began in September, as donations mounted (the priests eventually collected ₹2.5 lakh in all). The movie was shot in the scenic village of Ezhikkara in Ernakulam, a place of lagoons and lush fields. Its remoteness meant it was safer during the pandemic, but it also made logistics challenging. Getting equipment to the site, for instance, meant walking it down slippery, narrow gullies between fields.
The crew was restricted to 40, also for Covid-era safety. The leads, nine-year-old Gogul Krishna and five-year-old Andriya Ambrose, were selected after a quick audition at a local school. The rest of the cast of 16 were recruited from in and around the village.
“I have never seen such a big camera. I enjoyed the shooting days,” says Krishna. “Now my friends in school have seen the film, they joke about how I am a film actor.”
By December 2020, the film was ready. It was uploaded to the Chalachitra academy’s YouTube page in July 2021 and screened at the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala in December 2021, in the section for the script contest winners.
Built into the title is an allegory for the battle between a small state like Kerala and the looming threat of this new disease. In the Biblical tale of David and Goliath, a shepherd boy stands up to the giant Goliath, to protect his people, with faith that God will in turn protect him. He casts a single stone that strikes the giant in the forehead and fells him.
“When the film’s title appears on screen, we ensured that David, pronounced Daveed in Malayalam, is in Malayalam script while Goliath is in English. This is to drive home the concept that Kerala will triumph over Covid-19,” says Fr James.
The three priests are now collaborating on a fresh project, a possible feature film. They won’t say what it’s about, but “we have got a lot of love and support from our parishioners and from people who were pleasantly surprised that priests could make non-devotional movies too,” says Fr Koroth, “and we want to keep this faith in us going.”