In Twenty One Gms, Leona Lishoy, who plays Gouri, the better half of Anoop Menon’s investigator DySP Nandakishore, is working on a jigsaw puzzle made out of her family photograph. It is a therapeutic exercise for someone struggling to cope with their little daughter’s untimely passing.
At one point, she hits a snag. Nandan suggests keeping the confusing piece aside until she fills up the remaining areas and figures out how everything fits together. Meanwhile, Nandan adopts the same approach for a new case that has fallen into his lap. He reluctantly takes it up because the challenge is too enticing to pass up.
Director Bibin Krishna uses the obvious parallel to make the audience participate in the investigation. The self-taught filmmaker, who made his debut through Twenty One Gms, also indulges in a bit of mischief when, at one point, he makes one of the suspects —no spoilers here—listen to an audio clip of the main villain. The voice would be instantly recognisable to most Malayali movie buffs. Bibin tells me he wasn’t worried about audiences figuring out who it is.
“I expected many to make that guess,” he laughs. “But what I did there was have the villain indirectly tell the audience that they don’t need much guesswork there. My goal was to let the viewer know that they need to anticipate another surprise element by having him say that another problem is bothering him, which happens to be the real twist.” Bibin adds that his goal was to work around weak links and cliches of which everyone, including himself, was already aware. “The important thing was to make them play out subtly without overdoing it. There are elements we have already seen in Malayalam films before.”
Elaborating further, Bibin recalls the script not having significant family elements in the first draft. “Anoop Menon’s character was just another investigator at first. But the feedback I got was that making him just another investigator may not really work here and that the protagonist’s emotions are important. But whatever angle I looked at, whenever a protagonist has a personal connection to a case, there will be a cliche. So my idea was to utilise the cliches and do something different with them. That’s how I ended up taking the story to what you saw in the film. Another thing I’ve noticed is that the public begins to underestimate the film when they see cliches. I used that to my advantage too—to discreetly incorporate some new ideas.”
Bibin believes that a solid emotional core is essential when writing suspense thrillers today. “Take the James Bond or Batman films made today. They rely on emotions. When Christopher Nolan entered the picture, everything changed. With Twenty One Gms, I was careful about not venturing into melodrama. I avoided the dialogues we usually see in investigation thrillers that are family-centric. I saw some people calling the film slow. I believed that pace was necessary. I wanted Anoop Menon to play Nandan as a grounded, controlled character accessible to the audience and keeps you at a certain distance at the same time. He becomes a character who is not just an officer but someone we can casually hang out with.”
One of the film’s notable highlights is Jithu Damodar’s low-key and naturalistic lighting. It’s a far cry from the cinematographer’s earlier work. Jithu, in collaboration with art director Santhosh Raman, came up with a colour palette similar to Todd Philips’ Joker —dominated by greens and yellows—the influence of which found its way to the production design, costumes, and the grading process.
Another highlight of Twenty One Gms is the electronic-heavy score of Deepak Dev, refreshing and original when compared to the repetitive or familiar scores found in the recent thrillers churned out by Malayalam cinema. “Since this is a first-time attempt from an unfamiliar filmmaker, there was much scope for experimentation. This derring-do may not be possible in big-budget conventional mass entertainers, whereas with a project of this scale, we can try out anything,” says Bibin.
Does he have any favourite suspense thrillers? “Off the top of my head: Shutter Island, A Beautiful Mind, Memories of Murder... I also love the early Padmarajan films like Kariyilakkaattu Pole and others. Among the international filmmakers, I’m a big fan of David Fincher. In contemporary Malayalam cinema, I think Jeethu Joseph is unparalleled. He has a strong understanding of the psychology of the public. I mean, I was awed by Drishyam and the impact he created amongst the public with that film. I love it when filmmakers subvert expectations.”
It’s not often that we see a small film playing for a full crowd at the same theatre where a recently released multi-crore pan-Indian blockbuster opened. Twenty One Gms, which opened to a lukewarm reception in its opening week, has benefitted from good word-of-mouth, which has led to theatres making more space for it with additional shows. Bibin is happy, and so are we.