I believe in ghosts like how I believe in God: Arivazhagan

Director speaks about his return to the horror genre after 15 years, his reunion with Aadhi and Thaman, and the delays plaguing his Arun Vijay-starrer 'Borrder'
A still from 'Sabdham' movie location
A still from 'Sabdham' movie location

CHENNAI: It takes courage to make a horror film that does not rely on generic ghosts or jump scares. Director Arivazhagan did not believe in such genre conventions when he made his debut back in 2009, with the horror film 'Eeram'. And with his upcoming film 'Sabdham', it seems like his beliefs about the genre are intact.

“I believe that ghosts exist just like how God exists. And I am also a strong believer that ghosts don’t go about scaring people but rather have emotions and other human qualities,” says director Arivazhagan, as he elaborates on how the project started. “'Sabdham' is the result of me hearing about certain paranormal instances,” he reveals that this story prompted him to revisit the horror genre after a gap of 15 years.

On his writing process, Arivazhagan says, “I don’t consider working on a story if it doesn’t impact me. While reading a book or about an incident in a newspaper, the occurrence should keep nagging me to be made into a film. The constant clamour to recognise sportspersons of non-cricketing background was what led me to explore the world of basketball in 'Vallinam'.”

When we asked if Arivazhagan is planning to build a horror film franchise including all five natural elements, with 'Eeram' (water) and 'Sabdham' (wind) already done, he said that these films were not planned keeping that in mind. “Ghosts have always been identified as gory-looking creatures. To break away from that template, I thought it would be interesting to see a ghost that takes the shape of water or sound,” he quipped. 

On being asked how he managed to stay true to the genre, in the era of horror-comedies, he says, “As a director I believe in telling stories I like, hoping it will also interest the audience rather than stacking up a film with unrelated elements just because it works at the box-office. With that being said, 'Sabdham' has Redin Kingsley in the cast to have the comedy base covered, which I did not do in 'Eeram'. But I see to it that the originality of my story is not being compromised in the process. Also, 'Sabdham' has a sentimental aspect which will resonate with the audience.”

Talking about sentiments and emotions, one wonders why the filmmaker would choose to make a horror film with a ghost that doesn’t scare. He responds, “The idea of having an emotional undercurrent in a horror film excited me after watching Manoj Night Shyamalan’s 'Sixth Sense'. I incorporated the emotional elements in 'Eeram', which gave a satisfying result. I hope this aspect works in favour of Sabdham too.”

In the upcoming project, the director will be reuniting with actor Aadhi, once again for a horror film. “I narrated a few stories to Aadhi after 'Eeram', but it didn’t materialise. But, Aadhi was quick to get on board for 'Sabdham'.” While the director-actor combination paid rich dividends in the past, we asked if he had made conscious efforts to differentiate Aadhi’s character from the one he played in 'Eeram'.

He replies, “Aadhi’s character in 'Eeram' is a cop who discovers paranormal activity while probing a crime scene. In 'Sabdham', he plays a paranormal investigator who knows what he is after and uses science to get to the root of the matter.”

Another combination that is all set to make a comeback, is that of Thaman and Arivazhagan. The music composer was a regular collaborator with the director till 'Aarathu Sinam', which was released in 2016. We asked Arivazhagan how he helped Thaman switch sensibilities from making commercial chartbusters to scoring for a genre-specific film, which also has a special emphasis on sounds. The director says, “It was not hard on my part, Thaman too wanted to reinvent himself. The film just has songs where necessary and since the ghost takes the form of a sound, I instructed him to make the score complementing the story and leave the audience psychologically impacted after leaving cinemas.”

The director then goes on to talk about the visual treatment of 'Sabdham'. “There is something called ‘grammatical shots’ which has been extensively employed by the legend Alfred Hitchcock. These shots accentuate the drama and tone of a scene and are predominantly used in fast-paced thrillers. In 'Sabdham', I have used such grammatical shots and also changed the colour palette according to the mood. Like I said before, I want the film to impact the audience on a psychological level.” 

Though Arivazhagan’s films have a good track record, the filmmaker is known to take long hiatuses. When asked if he is taking these gaps voluntarily, he denies it, adding that there are several factors at play. “It takes me six months to finish a script and another six months for filming, in total, including other pre-and post-production work, it takes me around 1.5 years to finish a film. But other factors determine the release date for instance, 'Aarathu Sinam’s filming was wrapped in 39 days, 'Borrder' in 47 days and 'Tamil Rockerz' in 55 days, so a film’s fate is not just dependent on the speed of my direction. The budget I demand is out in the open but the quality I deliver is not being spoken about as openly.” On delays, we broached the subject of  'Borrder’s release date. “The team is facing financial issues and we are hopeful that things will be sorted out in two to three months,” Arivazhagan signed off.

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