An Innovative Film Ripe With Bold Choices…
It is fair to say that today, the Malayalam film industry has slowly and surely grown to be the industry innovators when it comes to progressive storytelling and film making prowess. Add to that the stellar acting pedigree upon display, technical finesse, and worldwide appealability, has made Malayalam cinema as a whole to stand shoulder to shoulder with world new wave cinema, today dominated by the French, Iranian and Korean film offerings. In this context, this year’s Fahadh Faasil starrer ‘Trance’ is one such brilliant example of bold choices. A keen commentary upon humanity and religion, the film ‘Trance’, written by Vincent Vadakkan, served as a much needed social mirror in today’s trying times.
It was imperative for us to then reach out to Vincent Vadakkan and talk to him about the inspirations that led to the making of Trance, his experience with the maverick Anwar Rasheed and his future plans. The excerpts of the interview follow….
When I was watching the movie, Trance, I immediately thought because it is a very risky project, obviously somewhere it had to be very personal to you, given the fact that it’s about the commodification of religion and salvation and so on. So, where does the idea of Trance come from specifically to see religious propagators as talent & time management, or say business entities?
I had an ultra-religious phase in my life and it began in my childhood. When you grow up in a Christian home, you start to get exposed to religion early on. Your parents teach you how to pray and follow religious duties, by reading the bible and going to Sunday school. Suffice to say that I come from a deeply religious household. But then over the years, as you grow older, you start to see that there is a show put-up even in the whole reverence. The religious practitioners are as fallible as we are. A sort of misplaced humility is always on offer. And so, I started to see that there is a difference between faith and the men of faith. There is also a difference between being religious and having faith. Faith is what you personally believe which is independent of what the masses believe. You can be religious and be part of religion without having personal faith.
Thus, my experience comes from observing all these people, I’ve seen on Television, so to say the Tele-Evangelists. I have sometimes believed blindly in them and have seen how they twist scriptures to their own benefit. These people come up with practices where they offer the public what they want to hear not what they need to hear. Messages are sugar-coated as per convenience. Thus, they show that God is a means to an end, be it to get a car, bungalow, a job, an ailment, or a life partner. The Evangelists sell them promises and promote this wishful thinking based on confirmation bias. I believe however that God is beyond all these materialistic things. Add to this, my own experiences with faith, reading of books on the same topic, helped me with the script. I had also watched this documentary by name, ‘Marjoe’, (which is an Oscar-winning documentary released in 1972, about a preacher who outs the religious fakery on display) and another one called, ‘A Question Of Miracles’ (released in 1999, which deals in questioning the act of faith healing). Apart from these my research included web-articles and Evangelistic events which I attend as well.
On the other hand, I’ve seen and understood the Hindu faith closely as well. My mother comes from a Tamil Hindu family, who grew up in Bombay. I’ve seen my maternal grandmother attend to these Godmen gatherings, and I’ve heard her talk about faith healing and prosperity, etc. So, I’ve been exposed to these prevalent practices in either of the faiths.
The next thing I wanted to ask is about the film specifically. While researching for the interview, I found out that there was a long development period for it. Multiple drafts and different people attached to the film over the course. Can you thus talk about the development of the project as such?
Yes, I did work across a couple of drafts, because the thing is, this subject is so enormous, and we were talking about 10 years of Viju Prasad’s life. So, initially, when I had written, I was trying to evolve the lead character, his education, his belonging, etc. From the start, I wanted him to be a Malayali, who was born and brought up outside Kerala. Initially, he was supposed to be from Delhi, then it was Mangalore, and then when Anwar sir visited Kanyakumari, we thought of placing him from there. There is always something melancholic about placing a character next to the sea. Even while we were writing, there were a lot more characters, than what you see in the film now. The reason being, when you are telling the story of a pastor and the lives he effects by his teachings and miracles, you need to build a whole range of characters, which we couldn’t add because of lack of time. In fact, we brought one of these characters, Paul, into the final version in a small way. Basically, Paul works in the TV channel, makes the tablets and goes missing, etc. But then, when I had written the initial draft for Trance, and narrated it to Fahadh Faasil, It was different in terms of his occupation. I initially pegged him as a struggling actor, and then when I attended a motivational workshop with a friend, I changed him to a motivational speaker.
The reason I wrote another draft was that I needed the audience to have empathy towards the character. So, I wanted the character to be broken and flawed, and yet have this power over people, wherein he could transcend them to another realm of belief. To me, that was more challenging and fit well with the thematic of Trance. So, there was a difference in the growth of the characters. Thus, with an empathetic approach, the audience would appreciate his success and resonate with his journey. And load him with childhood trauma, that of losing his mother, which he carries to his adulthood; thus, making him an atheist. These all factors make the audience feel empathetic towards him, making it a character-driven story by the end of it all.
So, the next thing I wanted to go over is the tone of the film. I noticed that the tone shifts from say a sort of realistic tragedy to something which is very stylish, and even abstract at certain points. Was this shift an integral part of the script or was it developed over the course of filming with other people getting on board?
As a writer, you are focused on the Script, the character’s journey, his goals, his internal and external conflicts. The treatment and visual style are the director’s call. Ideally, the script always requires to be elevated and that is where the role of Director and other technicians comes into play. Writing is always the base, but how to represent it is a Director’s forte. The visual cues and styling are taken care of by him. For example, when the audience observes two boats at the start of the movie, after his mother passes away, floating near the horizon. The boats were never written in the script, but the Director’s take on the scene. Thus, these visual cues hold your attention and push the narrative in a deeper and subliminal manner.
When I had written the script, the main lead has this tragedy after which he becomes really famous which is depicted by his Gucci shoes and Versace watch, etc. So these kinds of personal objects which mean something to him, are written in the script. Therefrom, it is the Director’s call to elevate that scene with more insertions if needed. The second half of the film is about his turmoil, his memory gets distorted and such things. So you can write the effect that you want to show at that point, or define the mood of the scene, but thereafter it is the technical crew that needs to visualize and bring it out the best. So it was the responsibility and collective call of Anwar Rasheed and the team.
Continuing the above thought, I wanted to ask you about your work experience with Anwar Rashid.
It was amazing. It was like a film school experience for me. I’ve been associated with Anwar sir from 2012. I was supposed to work on another story for him as part of an anthology film (which included five stories) ‘5 Sundarikal’ or ‘Five Beautiful Women’. However, that didn’t materialize due to some casting issues. Anwar, what he does for you is that he pushes you to bring out the best. That’s the way he works. He told me to just go wild on the script without holding myself back. Then we used to tweak the scenes together.
There were a couple of brilliant scenes which we had to omit. One of them was because of the technical challenge it posed. Another scene was a bit too expensive to shoot. So, there were multiple scenes which we omitted, and hopefully, I’ll get to use them in some other film or story. Therefore, the whole process of filming became a learning experience. He used to ask me to tell him if I felt that there was something off or something wrong while shooting in terms of the scenes and how they played out, in the context of faith-related authenticity and sorts. Then we had to ensure that the crowds gathered and the junior artists for the scene had to perform and emote accordingly. So we had to personally explain to them what to do and how to behave for some crucial scenes. Anwar gave that freedom in maintaining authenticity.
Another thing that I wanted to ask about is the themes in the film. In this context, could you talk about the music for this film? There’s a constant correlation between music and prayer. Even the movie’s name is Trance which is depicting the musical whim. So how do you see the relevance of audible cues and why do you think people get sucked into chants and prayers etc?
So, there are a few psychological reasons for that. One of the techniques most of the faith healers or even politicians use in influencing people, is called ‘THE POWER OF SUGGESTION’ which is a kind of hypnosis technique, a placebo effect. What we expect, influences our behavior for better or for worse. Basically the faith healer or the teacher knows that you have a need, a dire need, and you’ve come to the religious center in distress. The faith healer would then say that you are here because of divine intervention and not just a coincidence. Such kind of words enhances the mood in that setting. The idea that -- God himself wants you to be here.
At this point, a lot of people give themselves into the belief. And parallelly what is happening is that you are being primed by the music and sound apparent in the place. The songs, hymns, or bhajans will essentially take you into a Trance. Then once you are into that Trance, when the healer says something vaguely relevant to your situation, you kind of connect to it. Basically, you need some miracle to happen, and the setting helps you crave for that as well. That’s where the statements pertaining to God’s interference, the touch of God, etc. connect to you immediately. That is basically ‘The Power Of Suggestion’. Because of the group psychology there, you actually do feel healed and your maladies getting resolved, etc. But it’s a temporary relief and when you go back home, your ailments are back again.
This idea of momentary hypnosis, we’ve tried to explore in the movie itself, where a character exclaims that God is testing loyalties and faith. The Pastor has actually gone bonkers. And so the story goes. So yeah, Hypnosis is a tool here for faith propagation. A literary example would be how Hitler used to bring the people of Germany into a trance sort of Experience leading into German nationalism, and buy into the idea of a ‘Greater Germany’ and ethnic cleansing, springs from the same technique.
Moving on, what are your thoughts on the present OTT culture? Would you like to work on any such projects if you aren’t already?
I’m very open to writing for the OTT platforms. In fact, I did get a call from an OTT platform. So, my thing is, Trance itself has a huge potential to be made into a web series. There is a lot left to be explored; multiple characters that we had to leave out. But yeah, I’d love to work on a web series, purely because it allows you the time and space to experiment and tell a huge story. There are literally incredibly low restrictions, and you don’t need to have a superstar to sell the content there. The story is the hero there. Recently, ‘Paatal Lok‘ was something I enjoyed.
One last question was coming to the casting. Obviously, the casting was a big part of bringing the story alive. How much of a say did you have in it and were you with the final output as well?
I was very happy with Fahadh Faasil coming onto the project. He was always in my mind, even while I was developing the first draft. I couldn’t picture anyone else. Incidentally, Fahadh also loved the theme of the story came aboard. As for the other characters, Gautam Menon’s (Solomon) really came in as a surprise. We were looking for someone who was stylish for the character; when Anwar Sir suggested that we should go with Gautam sir. I was excited as he embodied Solomon’s character so well.
Basically, the casting for this movie was very important. Once we had Fahadh on the board, it became a bit easier for us to finalize the others as well. Obviously, we had Chemban Vinod Jose for the role of Isaac, as we wanted someone who looked muscular and strong yet with a distinct screen presence.
Apart from the film, I have three trivia questions:
What are you working on next?
So, one of the projects is already announced. It’s a thriller film which my friend Vinil Varghese is directing. The name is not yet decided. It’s a bilingual film. I’m writing the dialogues for it. I’m also collaborating with Anwar Sir again for another project for which I’ve already started writing.
What were your biggest influences for this film, either books or movies?
Even in the general sense of my writing and the way I think, I think the biggest inspiration I draw is from Aaron Sorkin’s work. Another major influence is Wong Kar-Wai’s films like ‘In the Mood for Love’ or ‘Chungking Express’. He was one of the main reasons as to why I wanted to get into films because of the way he could show longingness beautifully. That’s one of the influences on ‘Trance’ as well when we see the lead character longing for the loss in his life. Another inspiration would be a book called ‘The Lust for Life’ (Irving Stone) where I saw the relationship between Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo. This helped me in establishing the relationship between the lead character and his brother.
Apart from that, the works of the prominent Malayalam filmmaker, P.Padmarajan sir, specifically his movie by name, ‘Novemberinte Nashtam’ which deals with the brother-sister relationship in a wonderful manner, helped me in my script as well. The series ‘Young Pope’ was also a good reference point for me.
Your recommendations for shows and movies for audience to watch in this quarantine period?
The Young Pope
Shtisel (Israeli series)
True Detective (Season 1)
In The Mood For Love
Memories Of Murder (Korean)
On Body And Soul (Hungarian)
Lost In Translation
So that was Vincent Vadakkan talking to us about everything ‘Trance’. The fact of the day remains that he is one of the most exciting talents to look out for in the vibrant new wave tapestry of Indian cinema in the coming years and we wish him the same. Until next time -- Stay Healthy & Stay Safe.