Art director

Art Director Jothish Shankar on Creating the Massive Set for Fahadh Faasil’s Survival Thriller ‘Malayankunju’

Jothish Shankar and his team have converted a studio floor in Kochi into a land interior where Fahadh Faasil’s character is trapped after a landslide

Jothish Shankar and his team have converted a studio floor in Kochi into a land interior where Fahadh Faasil’s character is trapped after a landslide

Artistic director Jothish Shankar admits that when he came on board Malayankunju, directed by Sajimon, he had no idea what he was getting into. His team had to build a set that resembled the mud, debris and rubble where the main character, played by Fahadh Faasil, is trapped after a landslide.

“None of us knew what it would be like under the ground, following a landslide. So we had marathon discussions and brainstorming sessions that went on for months. It wasn’t easy” , says Jothish, who is also the production designer of the film written by Mahesh Narayanan.

Jothish Shankar (right) with Mahesh Narayanan on location for 'Malayankunju'

Jothish Shankar (right) with Mahesh Narayanan on location for ‘Malayankunju’ | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

He is relieved that the artwork is discussed and appreciated by critics and the public. “It probably happened because the behind-the-scenes video was released before the movie. It was a conscious decision to do so, because otherwise viewers wouldn’t have realized it was a set that we created from scratch. There have been occasions in the past where our hard work has gone unnoticed because people thought the places were ‘real,'” said Jothish, winner of the film award from the State of Kerala for Best Art Direction for Kumbalangi Nights and Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 in 2019.

In the wings

The set was built on a “160ft long and 80ft wide” studio floor in Kochi. “We had to imagine what all the elements would probably be buried under the ground. We made a miniature version with a cross section of the ground below before moving on to the actual set. We could have taken the easy way out by using rocks, water and other elements. But we wanted the audience to feel that the person is actually trapped underground,” he says.

It took a month and a half for a hundred people to complete the construction. The set had four servings. One was an elevator to shoot the sequence where the character falls during the landslide. Then they made three reservoirs, each 40 feet deep. “Inside these tanks were the collapsing well, the underground water pipes, the part where a newborn is stuck, rocks, plant roots, animal carcasses and birds, and different things on the surface that collapsed in the landslide, which included a jeep,” he explains. Filming lasted 24 days. The crew waded or stood in the mud and slush for filming.

Fahadh Faasil, Mahesh Narayanan and Jothish Shankar during the filming of 'Malayankunju'

Fahadh Faasil, Mahesh Narayanan and Jothish Shankar during the filming of ‘Malayankunju’ | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Rocks, stones and roots were made with sponge to ensure a safe working environment. There were days when we had to stop filming after two or three hours because it was exhausting for the actor and the crew. “We were coming up from the reservoir to take a break and going back. Fahadh had bruises all over from moving around inside the tank.

Preparations involved

A lot of research has gone into the process, adds Jothish. “I went through videos and photographs of areas affected by landslides and I had some 25,000 photographs with me to understand the consequences of landslides. There were days when things were not going according to our plan and I wondered why I said yes to the project because I was not sure if the idea would succeed. But I never told Saji or Mahesh about my doubts! However, after a while , I was determined to execute it. I was only able to succeed through teamwork,” he says. In the midst of it all, the safety of the crew had to come first, especially when they had to move through dirty waters “Since it was not possible to stand upright in this space, some crew members had to be seated in a harness.”

Jothish praises Mahesh, who is also the film’s cinematographer. “It was his first project as a cinematographer and it was his confidence that kept us going. He managed to find the right camera and the right lens to shoot with so many limitations,” says- he.

The team also constructed Fahadh’s cluttered workspace, the newborn’s house next door, and the area affected by the landslide, which is shown towards the climax. “The area affected by the landslides was created in Erattupetta. It used to be a rubber plantation,” he says.

An alumnus of Raja Ravi Varma College of Fine Arts, Mavelikkara, where he studied sculpture, Jothish worked as a sculptor before deciding to go into film. “There are no artists in my family. I didn’t know anyone in the film industry either. But I wanted to try my luck here,” he says.

Jothish Shankar during the filming of 'Malayankunju'

Jothish Shankar during the filming of ‘Malayankunju’ | Photo credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

He started as an assistant to Salu K George in Thanthonni (2010) and his first independent work was Adaminte Makan Abu (2011). He made over 60 films, the most notable being Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Carbon, Joseph, Lord Livingstone 7000 Kandi, Pathemari, and Aarkkariyam.

The next release is Nna Thaan Kodu Affair. He also works in Aashiq Abu’s neelavelichambased on the story of the same name by Vaikom Muhammed Basheer.

Jothish emphasizes that he only takes on a project if he is confident to execute it, regardless of the challenges. “For example, the dilapidated house of Kumbalangi Nights where the four brothers live was built from scratch. We let the moss grow on the walls to make it look real. In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, we built the police station in 13 days. The challenge was that there were real cops playing in the movie and we wanted to make it look like a real police station,” he explains.

Before signing, Jothish says: “My approach to art direction is that it should blend in with the subject. It can be a realistic frame or something I create. The quality of space plays a huge role in the success of a film.