Home Movies ‘Ullozhukku’ director Christo Tomy interview: ‘I did not want black and white characters in the movie’ FilmyMeet

‘Ullozhukku’ director Christo Tomy interview: ‘I did not want black and white characters in the movie’ FilmyMeet

by Arun Kumar
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As the Malayalam movie Ullozhukku creates waves at the box office, its debutant director Christo Tomy is basking in the success of the film. Two women bound and separated by secrets is the theme of Ullozhukku, a story of resistance, remorse and reconciliation.

Christo Tomy with Urvashi on the set of Ullozhukku.

Christo Tomy with Urvashi on the set of Ullozhukku.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Brilliantly anchored by the cast led by Urvashi (Leelamma) and Parvathy Thiruvothu (Anju), the intense theme does not falter as the characters navigate troubled waters during a physically and emotionally trying period in their life.

Christo’s script for his film began from a place of grief when he lost his grandfather. As a result of the flood at Muttar in the Kuttanad region of Kerala, where Christo’s ancestral home is located, the family had to wait for nine days for the waters to subside before planning the burial.

In the movie, when Thomas dies, his mother, Leelamma, and his wife, Anju, are torn apart by suspicion. Meanwhile, the burial is postponed due to the flood. The generation gap becomes clear when the two women view the same circumstances from different perspectives. The subtle nuances that Christo brings to his narrative give depth and heft to his characters.

“I was determined that there should be no black and white characters. Like in real life, there had to be grey shades in all of them,” says Christo, who began writing the script in 2016.

Ullozhukku was part of the National Film Development (NFDC) Co-Production Market – Film Bazaar (2018) and the NFDC Screenwriter’s Lab (2017).

“The script bagged the first prize at Cinestaan India’s Storyteller’s Contest, the biggest feature film script contest in India,” he says. In 2019, he attended the Global Media Maker’s program in Los Angeles. The chance to meet and interact with many creative minds helped him as he tried to weave in feedback.  

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Developing roles

Although the characters — especially Anju and Leelamma — remained the same, the roles evolved organically. “For instance, Prashant’s (Prashant Murali) character (Thomas) did not have much space initially. But as I reworked the script, his character gained significance and the dynamics between the two women too evolved.”

Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in a still from Ullozhukku, directed by Christo Tomy.

Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in a still from Ullozhukku, directed by Christo Tomy.
| Photo Credit:
Special arrangement

Christo explains that writing Anju’s and Leelamma’s characters was difficult. “I borrowed from my surroundings, background and milieu to add layers to their personality. Traits of people I have seen or heard have been added to flesh out the characters; these were not people I created out of the blue.”

Graduating from the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, Christo made a mark as a director with two National Award-winning short films, Kanyaka and Kamuki. His Netflix true-crime documentary Curry and Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case won him rave reviews.

A still of Ullozhukku, directed by Christo Tomy.

A still of Ullozhukku, directed by Christo Tomy.
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

Instead of glorifying suffering and stoicism, Christo’s characters in Ullozhukku depict the changes in outlook in different generations. While Leelamma puts her family first, Anju, a woman of today, is not willing to sacrifice herself for the family.

“I have seen how my mother and aunts tackle a problem and their perspectives. For them, the family comes first and they would put up with a lot to uphold values considered important to hold the family together. I have seen how they react and the sacrifices they feel are necessary to protect the family.”

However, as Christo elaborates, a woman of the present day may not perceive the same situation in the same way. “My lived experiences helped me mould the characters.”

Varied approaches

Once the script was ready, the only person he could think of as Anju was Parvathy. His director of photography Shehnad Jalal suggested Urvashi. Christo went to Chennai to meet Urvashi. “During our conversation, Urvashi chechi shared with me her experiences and her opinion of the characters,” he says.

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He adds that the generation gap was evident in the attitude of the actors towards the characters as well because Urvashi and Parvathy belong to different generations of actors. “Urvashi chechi’s point of view was quite in line with Leelamma’s. Parvathy’s outlook was quite different. If the older generation did not mind putting the family ahead of their own happiness, the present-day generation does not think like that… That created some interesting situations in the movie.”

Since they were shooting in rural Kuttanad, the actors were accommodated in houseboats. During the initial stage of the shooting, Parvathy was full of questions as the character and the ambience were alien to her. “Urvashi chechi is more of a spontaneous actor but there were times when she spoke aloud her lines to get the right tone and inflection. Both never went beyond a take or two for their scenes. They were that good!”

Christo was aware that since he was handling a subject that walked a tightrope regarding conventional morals and values, it would be difficult to find producers. Some producers warned him that audiences might not accept the characters and the movie.

As the release of the movie got closer, he was anxious about how the film would fare at the box office. But the positive reviews that started flowing in have been a morale booster.  

Location matters

Talking about why he chose his ancestral house as the main location, he says: “It was my grandfather’s passing that sketched the backdrop, and the premise of the film. Whenever I visualised the story, it was my house that came to my mind. I could have transposed the story to another building. But when Shehnad and I were getting ready for the shoot, we were unable to find a house better than my own for the story.”

Parvathy and Urvashi in a still from Christo Tomy’s  Ullozhukku .

Parvathy and Urvashi in a still from Christo Tomy’s  Ullozhukku .
| Photo Credit:
Special Arrangement

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Apart from that, the story had to be located where water could be filled to shoot the flood and also have a vast backyard with vegetation. “Considering all that, we felt my house was the best option. My ammachi (grandmother) stays in the house. For nearly a year and a half, they moved to a rented place while we completed the shooting.”

Christo recalls that as children, they used to have fun wading in the water during the annual flood. In those days, the annual flood was viewed as an advantage as the sediments left behind after the flood made the soil fertile and ideal for cultivation.

“Now, due to climate change, the situation has changed. The number of times the flood occurs has increased, and so has the volume of water. Many families are moving away from the area. Even in the case of our house, after the shooting was over, a bund was built around it to prevent the water from entering .”

Women-centric stories

All his works so far have centred on women characters, so we ask whether he finds it more interesting to work with women characters at the heart of his stories.

“While writing Kamuki and Ullozhukku, I asked myself if the journey of the characters would be more difficult for a man or a woman. The answer was clearly women. So, there was no debate in my mind that the movie would revolve around a woman.”

He emphasises that he wants to direct movies that cover different genres. “Now, I am aware of the business of cinema and what is needed to enhance a film’s chances at the box office. Discussions are on for a series. It is still premature to talk about it.”

Then adds with a laugh that he is looking forward to direct scripts written by other writers. “Writing is a lonely and difficult process. I will be happy if I get good scripts to direct.”

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