Even with limited resources, we can create art says Aishwarya Thankachan

Aishwarya Thankachan, whose short film 'Chimera' won numerous international awards, including at Cannes, speaks to TNIE about her film, inspirations and the future.
 ‘Chimera’ short film
‘Chimera’ short film

KOCHI: An architect by profession, Aishwarya Thankachan’s passion for cinema led her to create ‘Chimera’, a short film that has garnered recognition and numerous awards at prestigious film festivals around the world, including Cannes and the NITIIN International Film Festival in Malaysia.

The film got the Best Indian Film award at the Cannes World Film Festival and was also selected for the annual Remember the Future category. Aishwarya’s unique storytelling approach and her ability to bring out the depth of human emotions have set a new benchmark in independent cinema. The film got positive reviews from audiences globally. In a free-wheeling conversation with TNIE, the promising talent of Malayalam cinema speaks about her journey, inspirations, and future film aspirations.

Can you share your inspiration behind entering the film industry as a technician? What inspired you to choose this path?

From a young age, I always accompanied my grandfather to theatres and theatre camps. This interest in theatre and cinema increased as I grew older.

However, my parents wanted me to excel in academics. Despite studying architecture, during every semester break, I tried to create portfolios, stock motion graphics, drawings, and cartoons. Then, I sent them to various directors. Unfortunately, I didn’t get many responses. I even approached some directors in person, but due to my lack of experience and age, they didn’t consider me for assistant director roles.

That’s when I decided to reach out to production designers. I sent my profile to Gokul Das, a production designer. His advice was to be patient and focus on completing my course. A year later, he called me with an incredible opportunity — a 100-day shoot in Rajasthan for a film called ‘Malaikottai Vaaliban,’ directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery. He told me if you are interested, take the train the day after that. I accepted the chance. That moment marked a turning point in my life, and I started on this exciting journey.

And did working on a large-scale project boost your confidence to enter independent filmmaking?

I always dreamt of working in the cinema industry. But I had no connections or idea of how to navigate the world of filmmaking, like building a crew, securing funding, etc. While working on ‘Malaikottai Vaaliban,’ I met several assistant directors of my age. One day, I shared my short film idea with cinematographer and assistant director Bharat R Sekhar. Despite the project’s substantial budget requirements, we were determined to bring it to life.

Our search for producers led us to director Lijo, who advised us that the original concept was beyond our limited resources. Instead, he suggested creating a film rooted in our village’s culture and earthy themes. Also, another short film opportunity came my way through Bharat R Sekhar. During our work, we met an intriguing elderly woman emerging from the water, reminiscent of Mohan Lal in the movie ‘Narasimham.’ Inspired by her, we decided to make a story about this character. We only had just one week to complete because of other commitments. However, I wrote the script in a single day, and our project took shape.

Can you share any interesting experiences you had during shooting?

Convincing Rathnamma turned out to be surprisingly easy (laughs). In the initial meeting, she approached us asking for Rs 100 to buy beedi. However, when we told her that we would pay her Rs 1,000 per day for her role, her face lit up with joy. Despite her lack of professional experience, she eagerly accepted the offer without fully understanding what it was. During our first shot, with a crew behind the camera and curious onlookers nearby, as I called ‘action,’ Rathnamma who stood alone in front of the camera fainted. It’s an unforgettable memory.

Another interesting moment occurred during an important scene. There is a moment in the movie when the audience realises that her son has passed away. When we were shooting unexpectedly her pet dog entered the frame, and a powerful gust of wind swept through. It was as if her son’s soul had materialised, perfectly portrayed by nature itself. In that way, nature helped us in many situations.

How is the title ‘Chimera’ connected to the content or the message of the film?

Searching for the perfect name was a task. Our story revolves around an elderly woman who is in a lucid dream. In the story, her son has passed away, but she constructs an alternate reality where he is still alive. Despite knowing the truth, she refuses to accept her son’s death and creates a protective shell within herself. To capture the essence of this dreamlike state, we have chosen the Latin word ‘Chimera’ which means illusion or delusion.

When did you decide to submit your work to international film festivals?

We did this project with limited resources and a tight budget. Our group of friends came together to create the movie. Sound production is the only thing that turned out to be expensive. Initially, we considered it a small-scale project and did not think about submitting it to film festivals due to the associated costs. However, fate intervened when we showed the raw footage to Lijo sir. He was impressed and he encouraged us to submit the film to festivals. We followed his advice and sent the movie, and Lijo sir offered to cover the expenses. He even recommended specific festivals for us to consider. Now, releasing the movie on other platforms like Mubi is in the discussion.

Did you expect such recognition from the international film festival circles?

It far exceeded our expectations, and I’m so happy. It also gives me the confidence to work on more projects, independent or otherwise. Previously, I believed that making a film required a substantial budget, advanced equipment, a professional camera, and a large crew. Now, I have realised that even with limited resources and a simple concept, we can create art that connects deeply with people. Looking ahead, I wish to explore myself, delving deeper into writing and direction. To further this goal, I have enrolled in a postgraduate programme in filmmaking at Whistling Woods, Mumbai.

You said that the movie content is simple and deeply rooted in our culture. Do you think it is important to make such films that have a connection with our culture?

Kerala, though a small state, has a rich culture and a lot of folklore, which carries stories for thousands of cinemas. The depths of the movies that are rooted in our culture hit differently. Films like G Aravindan’s ‘Kummatty’ and ‘Esthappan’ exemplify this depth which connects the audience emotionally. While many contemporary filmmakers look to global cinema for inspiration, earlier directors often turned their gaze to local life and surroundings. Anyway, the cinematic landscape has expanded, offering us the chance to break free from conventions. As a result, we can expect a promising future for cinema.

Do you think young directors like yourself can impact the representation of women in Malayalam cinema?

Working in mainstream cinema, I noticed that there are less women technicians in the industry. In the ‘Malaikottai Vaaliban’ set, apart from actors, there were only two or three women in technical roles. The demanding nature of our work — early mornings to late nights — leaves little time for personal connections or family. Perhaps this lack of flexibility is the reason for the underrepresentation of women in the industry. Survival can be challenging. I hope the situation will be better in future.

What suggestions do you have for young people who aspire to enter the film industry?

The landscape of cinema has evolved significantly. It’s no longer a need to be an assistant director to make a film. What truly matters is our creativity, the ideas we conceive, and the stories we wish to tell. To shoot a short film, all we need is a small team of two to three like-minded people. If the content is compelling, it will naturally draw people in.

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