Opening the Pandora’s box of Kerala’s pop culture

Arun Chandu's Gaganachari is a science-fiction mockumentary revolving around an alien, set in a dystopian Kerala.
Poster of the movie Gaganachari
Poster of the movie Gaganachari

KOCHI: Do anything in the next five years in Malayalam. I think this is the time to explore everything without doubting ourselves,” said actor Fahadh Faasil in a recent interview while discussing how the audience in Kerala is now much more receptive to fresh ideas, especially in 2024.

Even Bramayugam, an experimental period film shot entirely in black and white, tasted success. There seems to be no better time than now for director Arun Chandu to present an ambitious attempt like Gaganachari, a science-fiction mockumentary revolving around an alien, set in a dystopian Kerala. The film was released across theatres in Kerala on June 21, opening to a generally warm reception from both critics and casual filmgoers, despite its niche genre.

Coming from a family with a background in photography, Arun’s initial stint at anything remotely related to films was through content designing for various esteemed Hollywood studios’ DVD packaging in South Asia. His breakthrough came when director Vineeth Sreenivasan approached him to design the posters for Thattathin Marayathu (2012) after being impressed by his work in a short film. Reflecting on his decision to self-learn the process of filmmaking, Arun explains, “Despite always aspiring to be a filmmaker, I initially lacked a clear path to pursue this ambition. Realising I couldn’t fully grasp filmmaking solely through my job as a poster designer, I took on the role of a photographer on the sets of Vineeth ettan’s Thira (2013) and later, in some other films. I may still have the flaws of a filmmaker who never opted to be an assistant director under anyone.”

Following Saajan Bakery Since 1962 (2021) and Sayanna Varthakal (2022), it was Arun’s fancy for mockumentaries like The Office (2005-2013) and Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do In The Shadows (2014) that sparked him to think of a dystopian science fiction as his third film. Speaking more about the inception of Gaganachari, he adds, “During the post-production of Saajan Bakery..., my co-writer Siva Sai and I narrated a story involving an alien invasion to Aju Varghese.

This story was thoroughly dark in tone, reminiscent of A Quiet Place (2018) with the sensibilities of Mandy (2018). Although Aju was impressed, he felt it was too ahead of its time for our common audiences. Later, he was the one who casually suggested imagining an alien in place of Revathy in Kilukkam (1991), and that is how Gaganachari took shape.”

The film, rooted in Malayali sensibilities, is loaded with pop culture references from Malayalam cinema. Elaborating on what prompted him to envision it as a homage to what any average Malayali grew up watching, Arun says, “We wanted to open the Pandora’s box of the vast range of pop culture in Kerala that we widely use in our daily lives. Given that one of the leads in the film, played by Gokul (Suresh), is a cinephile, it felt more organic to include these references.”

Gaganachari was showcased at various international film festivals and despite concerns that non-Malayali audiences might not connect with the film’s cultural references, the film, as per the director, still resonated with viewers through its visual humour, commentary on global extremism and Indian politics. As in his previous work Sayanna Varthakal, Arun has once again infused an anti-establishment sentiment into Gaganachari, attributing it to his progressive upbringing rather than a deliberate political stance. Beyond relying solely on fancy stories driven by visual effects, Arun sees immense potential for science fiction in India, particularly in Malayalam, to delve into fiercely political themes and draw inspiration from India’s rich ancient history.

For its theatrical release, the makers have incorporated some changes from its festival version. According to the director, they tightened the editing and enhanced the background score for the theatrical version.

“In the festival version, we included more animated sequences and used traditional instruments in the score to present it as a bonafide Indian science fiction. Later, when Krishand ettan stepped in as the executive producer, we streamlined it into something more accessible and entertaining with his suggestions and inputs.”

The major casting choices for Gaganachari were indeed influenced by Arun’s previous collaborations. “I imagined Ganesh sir’s character as a millennial like myself in his middle age. Also, it was Ganesh sir who helped us secure a producer for the film. As for Anarkali Marikar, we wanted someone with tomboyish attributes, and she fitted the bill perfectly.” The film also features the distinctive voice of veteran actor Mallika Sukumaran.

“I am a huge fan of Mathilukal (1990) and wrote those parts with KPAC Lalitha chechi in mind, along with Nedumudi Venu chettan as the voice of an AI assistant. Although we abandoned the plan of getting Venu chettan to dub, we still aimed to use Lalitha chechi’s voice. Unfortunately, by the time we began filming, she had passed away, leading us to opt for Mallika chechi.”

When asked if it’s the right time to reveal what’s next for him, Arun says, “I have included an Easter egg about my upcoming film in Gaganachari. We have also got the dates of a prominent star for it, and hopefully, we will be announcing it soon.”

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The New Indian Express