A few years ago, I wrote an article titled The Five Filmmaking Tropes of Mysskin. In it, I had mentioned Mysskin’s Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum (2013) as his best work. I was pleasantly surprised to find a Tamil book of the same title, at the Pure Cinema Book Shop, a small store in Chennai that specialises in books on cinema. The book is composed of two parts—the first is a scene-by-scene commentary by Mysskin describing his thought process, and the second is the film’s complete screenplay. I thought I could translate some passages from the book that I found interesting.
The Opening Shot
Anjathey (2008) was the first Mysskin film I watched. It opens with a straightforward sequence on paper: a bunch of thugs confront a guy seen exercising on bars in an open field. But the way Mysskin had staged it—with the camera looking up at the sky—had me hooked. Every film of his after that, I paid attention to the visuals that set the film in motion. The opening shot of Pisasu is my all-time favourite: we see an extreme close-up of a lady’s eyes, the camera zooms out slowly, we see her lying on the road in a pool of blood.
While speaking about the films of S Balachander, Mysskin professed his admiration for the opening shot of Andha Naal: the sound of a gunshot against a black screen. Sivaji Ganesan, seen from the murderer’s point of view, stumbles away from the camera in shock, and drops dead. The rest of the film is an investigation into the murder. The opening shot of a film can launch you right into the storyline, while giving you a premonition of what is to come. This is what Hitchcock did memorably well in Vertigo, by dropping us in the midst of a chase that reveals to us the protagonist’s condition.
In the opening scene of Mysskin’s Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum, we get a wide, overhead shot of an empty road. A visibly injured character runs into the frame from one end, drops to the ground, fumbles back on his feet, and exits the frame from the other end. We cut to a closeup of the pistol he dropped; it is drenched in blood. Mysskin declares in his commentary: “You are going to watch a film about guns and blood. How does man change when warm blood comes into contact with cold metal? This is what you’re going to see.” (Interestingly, the opening shot of Andha Naal also cuts to the closeup of a handgun, its shadow rather.)
I saw this opening shot as symbolic of the film’s narrative. It shows us the fall of Wolf—the overhead shot is tilted to look like a decline into hell. He is guilty of having killed an innocent man. His act of dropping the gun and fumbling to his feet is his redemption, as he lets go of the violence of his past. The blood and the consequences of his actions still remain, for everyone to see and judge, just like the monologue towards the climax, when Wolf confesses to the audience. The first two shots of the film, thus, visually encapsulate the film’s story.
Kannada filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli, once explained that there are two schools of filmmaking. The first is dense and multi-layered storytelling. The filmmaker focuses on adding numerous elements, shades, layers, meanings to the narrative (like Satyajit Ray and Ingmar Bergman). The second is minimalist filmmaking, tearing away everything until you are left with only the core (like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Robert Bresson). For example, if you are shooting a conversation in a restaurant, the minimalist would show you the two people against a minimal backdrop, like a blank wall. The other kind of filmmaker would prefer to layer the frame by adding fringe characters or props in the background, maybe a child to add contrast, if it is a grim scene.
Mysskin prefers the minimalist approach. He says, “Poetry is half-complete when written, the other half is completed by the reader. I want my films to be like poetry.” One of the paid killers in the film is shown to have a Bible and a pistol in his bag. This is the only detail we get about his life.
From Mysskin’s book:
“You open a person’s door. Based on the objects you find within, you get to know him better. I saw the killer’s bag as a door to his persona. The Bible and the pistol are objects of opposite qualities. When dharma [good] and adharma [evil] mingle with the shifting mindsets of man, when he is in a quandary about his path, adharma sways him sometimes. This is how criminals are formed. Those who were pushed towards dharma escaped the sin of choosing the gun. The gun was placed beneath the Bible in the killer’s bag. He found the gun to be heavier than the Bible. He chose to take the path laid out by the gun.”
Mysskin emphasises the economy of words:
“The journeys and storms of an entire life can be condensed into a single word of dialogue.” When the blind mother was beaten up to reveal Wolf’s hiding place, she says, “I told them I didn’t know where you were. They scalded my feet. I couldn’t bear the pain. I was on the verge of blurting out the truth. Thankfully one fellow kicked me on my breast. I fainted.”
The key word here is thankfully. Here I am reminded of Tamil filmmaker Mahendran, whose sharp storytelling and exceptional use of silence found an admirer in Mysskin. (I have written about Mahendran’s filmmaking tropes here.)
On the use of camera
Mysskin has mentioned in some interviews that he finds close-ups of faces boring and wants to explore other ways of using the body to express emotions. In this book, he reveals yet another reason for this. In the scene in which the police commissioner instructs his men to kill Wolf, we are initially able to see his face. But when he adds that it does not matter even if Chandru were to die, he walks towards the camera and we lose sight of his face.
Mysskin explains why:
“In my films, whenever characters lie or do misdeeds that go against their conscience, I do not wish to see their faces. The police commissioner is a good man at heart. When he asks for Wolf to be killed, even if Chandru’s life is lost in the process, he has society’s best interests in mind. Regardless of justifications, what he said was unjust. So I did not wish to see his face. I hid it from viewers as well. This is the angle from which I would like to see the scene unfold.
I have used this technique in Anjathey, and in my recent film Savarakathi too. A man is ashamed to see his face in the mirror when he commits an evil deed, or is complicit in one. He shrinks in shame. I empathise with their guilt and avoid showing their faces.”
Mysskin mentions noting down in his screenplay that he wanted the final monologue to be shot on a 50mm lens from below the eye level. He made this decision because he wanted the audience to witness the confession directly, but from a distance. He considers camera work of a film to be a kind of dance. He determines the placement of angles and movement of the camera by considering the “hero of the scene.” Rather than the entire film having a single hero, he considers each scene to have its own hero, whom the camera uses as a focal point.
Mysskin also mentions that most of Onaayum Aattukuttiyum was shot near and around his office. Since he knew the area well, he was able to stage scenes on the same road but make it seem as if they were happening in different parts of the city. This reminded me of Satyajit Ray’s article Extracts from a Banaras Diary, from his book Our Films Their Films. He writes about his journey to Varanasi, in preparation for his second film Aparajito. Since he spent time studying the milieu, he was able to incorporate various visual details of Varanasi’s daily life into the script—like bodybuilders exercising beside the river bank and monkeys that create a ruckus with temple bells. Knowing your location matters for framing.
Since Mysskin is also the actor playing Wolf in this film, the book is filled with anecdotes and ruminations on what makes good acting. This is what he has to say about his experience of acting nude, during the splenectomy sequence in the film’s first act:
“I lay nude on a table in front of thirty members of my crew for four hours. I thought about many aspects of my life during those four hours, especially the freedom of nudity I enjoyed as a child. When was the first time my mother hid my nudity by clothing me? When was the first time I shared my nudity with a woman? I thought of my nude body being washed ceremonially, after my death.Termites and worms would gnaw through my clothes and bite into my naked flesh after my burial… All of these visuals filled my head. I was left with an immense tranquility. I would say this was an important scene for me as an actor, a director, and most of all, a human.”
Mysskin is taunted by doubts when he is forced to push his actors in order to obtain an intended effect on screen. For a particular scene, he wanted three policemen to fall to the ground in unison, after being shot. The three supporting actors simply could not get it right. After 22 retakes, when he finally got what he wanted, Mysskin had a chat with one of the actors, only to find out that he had a heart condition. Each time he fell to the ground, the actor had been afraid that something untoward might happen.
“What is acting? What must you do to be true to it? To what extent can acting be true? My confusion around these questions keeps growing whenever I discuss them with my filmmaker friends, or when I read books on cinema. When I am a director, why do I behave inhumanely like a dictator? The scene must come out well. Is this answer merely an excuse? Why couldn’t I have simplified the scene to make it easier for the actors?
One of the definitions of acting is, ‘Living truthfully in an imaginary situation.’ I have never been able to understand this definition. In order to live truthfully, I made the actors fall down 22 times in those 22 takes. The imaginary situation is a scene I created. It is not real. But the actors must imagine it to be real when they fall down. Getting your arms and legs injured, bleeding, and almost getting a heart attack—is this the meaning of living truthfully? I don’t know. Other filmmakers or critics might say, ‘No! You should have shot this scene differently by intercutting shots from multiple angles. You could have used other means, including camera tricks, to create the effect that the policemen fell to the ground.’
David Mamet said you can show the effect instead of showing the act. I understand this in principle. I could have shown the van leave, and then cut to the policemen lying dead on the ground. But on location, the director’s voice in my head wants the shot to be a particular way. I listen only to this voice. I obey whatever it tells me.
In order for a scene to be real on screen, sometimes I torment my actors and thereby I torment myself. This begs the question, ‘What kind of cinema is this?’
‘Is there a God?’ ‘Is there good and evil?’ These questions have never had final answers. Likewise, ‘What is acting?’ is a question that evades answering.”
I found his anecdote on a particular closeup quite interesting. It comes right after the blind mother is revealed to have scars on her feet. That is the moment Wolf realises she has been tortured.
“After looking at her feet, I had a close-up shot, in which I had to stare into the distance. My eyes had to display a variety of emotions—intense anger, immense sorrow and suffering. My eyes also had to convey that I was being chased by Death. I had to bring out all of these emotions in that close-up. It was a single close-up shot.
I thought long and hard about this and the final answer I got from within. Since the complete truth had been revealed in the earlier shot (close-up of the mother’s feet with scars), instead of expressing how it affected this man in this close-up, if I showed him freeze, without any emotion on his face, then the scene would hold great potency for the viewers.
One of the wonders of cinema that never ceases to surprise me is the appropriate use of a good close-up. If you study the close-ups in the films of Kurosawa, Bresson, or any master of cinema, you will find that their characters appear to be frozen.
I did not act in that close-up. I understood that there was no need to act. If I had acted, it would have come from my sense of self, my ego. The audience would have figured out the farce. In order to escape this situation, I froze without any movement on my face, with my pupils completely still. I performed 14 takes for this shot, to ensure that I did not act.
Since I was one of the actors, my assistant directors would call out, ‘Start, camera, action!’ at the beginning of each shot. As soon as I heard the word ‘action’, my face automatically took on one expression or another. So, I went over to my assistant and asked him not to say ‘action’. I instructed him to start recording and keep the camera rolling, until I raised my head.
This shot taught me all about acting in cinema. When I look back at this scene, I see another scene playing within it: the scene of Mysskin the actor depositing his face and soul in the hands of Art, bowing down and staring at the ground. I feel the scene moulded me simply and beautifully.”
For the hordes of starry-eyed youngsters who turn up outside his office with dreams of becoming an actor, he mentions the need to read about cinema and hone one’s craft.
“The people I admire in cinema—Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray, Mani Ratnam—have read widely. Actors like Kamal Haasan and Nasser are voracious readers too. Why do people who come in search of film opportunities fail to understand this?
They can find a full time job in cities like Chennai, and approach selected cinema offices for opportunities during weekends. They can use their evenings to attend acting workshops, to learn the basics of acting and the methods of great actors. This will ensure a solid foundation in acting as well as a secure future for them. This approach will require time, but even if it takes five to six years, you won’t feel disheartened. The more you wait, the more your potential grows.”
He elaborates on the mystery that shrouds the process of acting and how he arrived at his own definition of acting.
“It is to put an end to the mystery of acting that we have thousands of books on what acting is and how to create a character. But the training given to an actor is only for his body, voice, mind. When an actor stands in front of the camera with his body, mind, and voice, uniting at the singular point of that character, then the actor’s self vanishes. The truth of the character enters the actor like a ghost and he speaks like someone possessed. They are the words of the ghost from within.
It’s as though I’m standing beside a well and whispering to my actor, ‘Do you see a lot of water inside this well? I’m sure it’s at least a hundred feet deep.’ I give him this warning and push him into the well. If he can swim and emerge from it, the shot is okay. Being alive, dying, re-emerging alive—that is acting.”
While writing about his five minute monologue at the graveyard, Mysskin muses that this scene may very well be the reason why he wrote this entire book. He mentions postponing the shoot of the monologue as much as possible since he was stumped by how to play it.
“I tried twice to memorise the lines [of the monologue]. As soon as I could recite four lines correctly, a thought arose in my mind, ‘Phew! I’ve said these lines correctly.’ This thought was accompanied by the fear that I must say the subsequent lines correctly. Many such thoughts flooded my mind one after another. This reflected on my face too. I was not Wolf anymore, I was a student reciting answers for an examination.
‘You need to give a specific amount of emphasis to these words, you need to make these expressions while saying these words,’ a man inside my head guided me. This was a hurdle too. ‘Widen your eyes for this line, twitch your lips a little for this word, give a pitiful expression when you say this.’ The words of the man in my head felt like lies. Immediately, I threw away the ten pages of dialogue. I instructed my assistants to get the camera rolling.
‘I’ll sit down in front of the camera. Let’s do a single take. No matter how good or bad it turns out, that is what we’ll use. Even if I get stuck in the middle and can’t talk further, I’ll remain seated and let the camera keep recording. I’ll stay motionless for a while and walk out.’
I got the blind parents and the girl to be seated in appropriate positions. Before the camera was turned on, I thought about the blind family seated in front of me. I thought of the lamb that had rescued me. Many people lay buried around me (in the graveyard), ready to hear my story. I thought of them too. How did the death of a young man alter me, an assassin? How much did the young man’s family love me? I thought of all these things, knelt in front of them, and began to tell my story.”
Mysskin goes on to share that some critics tell him that there was a method and a non-method in his acting. But he feels, “Regardless of what anyone says, I swear I do not know how I managed to act in that scene. On many days and in many situations, this is how I have lived my life. There is a special joy an artist finds in living this way.”
I particularly liked the line above where he mentioned that the buried were ready to hear his story. He writes about the graveyard where they shot for eight days. After scouting multiple graveyards, he says he finalised this one because he spotted Tamil actor Chandrababu’s grave in it. He sat down beside his grave and read many haikus.
“During breaks, when the actors were getting ready, when the lighting or camera was being set up, whenever I got a little time off, I looked at the graves all around me. They were quite densely packed together. There was hardly any space between them to place a chair. So if you wanted to sit, you had to sit on a grave. You couldn’t walk without stepping on a grave.
We are always told, even as children, that we should never disrespect graves by sitting or stepping on them. Even if our feet were to touch a grave by mistake, we were told that evil spirits would be unleashed on us, and bad things would happen to our families. During the eight days that we filmed in the graveyard, I was reminded of this every time my hand or feet touched a grave.
Every human is on a journey towards this dark place, a journey towards these pits. Every other journey in our lives is frivolous. The only true journey of man is the one in search of peace inside a six-foot pit.”
When I first watched Anjathey, the pathos of the storyline and the sequences showing a rookie police officer coming to terms with the harsh realities of his profession impressed me so much that I convinced a few friends to watch it with me that very night. Funnily, none of my friends could sit through the film (it was three hours long) and worse, I sat tongue-tied as they derided every moment of the film that had moved me. It was not that I disagreed with the flaws they pointed out. I could see them too, but somehow there was something undefinable that resonated with me, so much so that I was willing to look beyond the mistakes.
In this book, Mysskin talks about a scene he considers emotionally charged, but many of his friends lauded it as a great example of humour. This is the scene in which two paid killers shoot down some police officers, each of whom drop dead after calling out a God’s name.
“I asked every person who gets shot and falls to the ground to utter a God’s name. God does not rush to rescue when there is danger. When you die, he does not send angels to protect you. But they die with the belief that God will save them in their afterlife. A God who does not help us while we live, what is he going to do after we die? This scene is an inquiry into this question.
After watching each of his colleagues drop dead on the ground, the last constable is left clueless. His hand involuntarily moves to a salute and the word ‘Sir’ escapes his lips. Just as he has saluted every higher official in his entire life, he salutes the murderer holding a gun in front of him. He is saluting Death.
I do not find this scene funny even when I rewatch it today. I want to cry like a child. The constable looks like my father, he looks like every kind-hearted 56-year-old I have seen in my life. How would I find this shot funny?
The person who played this constable is a security guard who works near my office. I loved his face the first time I saw him. He was clueless when I requested him to act in this film. I told him, ‘You don’t need to do anything. You simply have to stand and salute,’ and gave him a police uniform. I needed that particular face for my shot. I’m glad I made him act.
He is not going to act again. He won’t budge even if he is requested. Did he go to the cinemas to watch this particular scene that he acted in? I don’t know. But he has lived in a philosophical scene, and died, and lives on.”
Recently, I rewatched one of my favourite scenes from Anjathey, in which the protagonist, played by Narain, is shocked to find a man dying on the road. As he stands clueless, an old flower seller passing by offers to help. The two of them carry the injured man on Narain’s bike, but the man dies on the way. I had a lump in my throat but my friend beside me was chuckling. Why does this happen? One might reason that cinema is a subjective experience and each viewer brings their lived experiences to complete a film. There might be some truth to this but I do not find it convincing.
“I believe firmly that cinema is a dramatic medium. My films overflow with emotions. We go to the cinemas to witness an abundance of emotions. The situations and people that express abundant emotions in real life are sparse. Abundance is not a bad word. It is a dramatic tool.
‘Reality and cinema are two different things,’ they say. Cinema contains an abundance of truth when compared to real life. An incident from a novel or a scene we witnessed in person may not always induce tears. But a film can crumple us in a moment. I see cinema as a medium of hyper-reality with an abundance of truth.”
This abundance or hyper-reality may be powerful on paper. But when executed with amateur acting, it does not come across with the intended impact. Both Anjathey and Onaayum Aattukuttiyum suffer from this problem. In Anjathey, after the injured man dies, Narain gets reprimanded by another police officer for bringing the dead man to the wrong police station. A battered Narain gives the old lady a lift back to the spot where the injured man was found. The flower seller sprinkles a few flowers on the spot and leaves after saying, “Forget what the officer told you. You are the real police officer.”
On paper, this is an apt ending to Narain’s first day as a police officer. The day began with uncertainty and fear, moved to shock and helplessness, heightened to panic, and ended with this pronouncement reassuring him that he is on the right path. The scene from Onaayum Aattukuttiyum in which Chandru, a medical student, saves Wolf by giving him an injection plays out the same way. A lunatic on the street hails his good deed and declares, “You are a doctor!” It is this declaration that gives Chandru the assurance that he can perform the operation on Wolf himself. In his latest film Psycho, when the protagonist is unsure what to do, a psychiatrist pronounces that blindness is not a limitation and that he should go find his lover.
This recurring trope of a guardian angel appearing to reassure the protagonist and guide him on his quest makes it clear that Mysskin is obsessed with Joseph Campbell’s edicts from his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell, who analysed the story arcs of various epics, elaborates on a story structure that he found the world’s mythologies have in common. And Mysskin wants to follow it to a tee. That is perhaps what leads to contrived scenarios sometimes, like the scene in Psycho I mentioned earlier, which made audiences laugh. Another reason could be that Mysskin’s films are sprinkled with haiku moments that one must pause to reflect upon. For instance, he explains that he chose an old watchman to play a minor role. All he had to do was stare directly into the camera; one of his eyes had cataract and this communicated to Mysskin the vicissitudes of an entire life.
Another such moment is when one of the paid killers is found dead with his Bible on his lap.
“The killer is found dead, leaning against the wall. We see his Bible placed on his lap, his bike rammed into the fork of a tree. A question arises in the audience’s mind. Who lifted the killer from his bike and placed him against the wall? I did not show the shot of Wolf lifting his body from the bike and placing him against the wall.
Although Wolf is a killer, he leaves behind an object in the dead man’s hands, an object that can cleanse his soul. I felt this was an important duty that Wolf performed towards this dead man. I wanted the audience to understand this on their own. So I did not show an explicit shot of Wolf placing the Bible in his hands. I’m providing a chance for my audience to understand Wolf better by mulling over this scene.”
This seems to be Mysskin’s boon and bane. He wants to leave many things unsaid. It is a boon when everything comes together. But when the sparse details are not shown clearly, or when they are marred by amateur acting, they leave the audience feeling confused or disconnected. If he can manage to get the viewers emotionally invested in the story without explicitly requesting them to remove their ‘helmet of logic and leave it in the parking lot’, then his films can avoid the outbursts of unintentional laughter.
The scene in which the trans person is killed due to Chandru’s silence is a good example of getting it right. Chandru is shocked and battered by guilt, while the trans person looks at him with compassion. The heightened drama of this moment, captured through two closeups, is far removed from real life and belongs solely to the realms of cinema. But it still works, and this was for me the most emotionally charged moment in the entire film.
Striving for the perfect film
I loved this particular passage from the book, which I shall present as is.
“I never tell myself that a scene must be shot a certain way in order to attain perfection. The first lesson I learnt after making three films is that perfect cinema is fake. It is a farce that a director indulges in to give expression to his ego. Osho Rajneesh said, ‘There is no perfection in this whole world. Nature is beautifully imperfect.’
I never attempt to make perfect cinema. I know that cinema is born from a thought which you try to expand, and then incorporate all possible elements that do not affect its core.
When a poor household receives unexpected guests, the mother uses what little portions of rice is available in the kitchen, plucks whatever vegetables she can find in her backyard, and cooks up a meal. It turns out to be sumptuous. What matters is the love with which she cooks to serve the guests who came all the way home. It is her love that makes the meal delectable. Not just food, anything made with love will be beautiful. Cinema is no exception.
The only point I wish to make to all my assistant directors, to the filmmakers of the future, and to youngsters passionate about cinema is this: your creativity stems neither from your intelligence nor education nor from the films you see. Creativity blossoms from love, compassion, truth.
Although your film may not appear perfect, it will be beautiful. This is what I have learnt. I have in my heart the love for making good films. I strive to do that with whatever money and actors I can get hold of. My films are like the hurried cooking of the mother and I consider that to be a lofty ideal to live up to.
Many masters of cinema have had this quality. Robert Bresson’s films never had perfection. I want my films to be the same way. Young filmmakers of today put in so much hard work for a specific camera angle. Rather than thinking if it is relevant to the storyline, they waste their time running after impressive angles, perfect staging, and mind-blowing shots. Spending huge amounts of money or putting in a lot of work for composing a single shot—I find all this utterly boring.”
The Miracle You Can Never Plan
The shot of a train’s smoke blanketing a field of white kaash flowers is an iconic moment from Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali. Ray has revealed in some of his interviews that it was not something he had planned for. It was only when he arrived at the field with his crew and saw an actual train pass by, that he noticed the trail of smoke it left behind, which he decided to incorporate in the film. Mysskin reveals two such moments while shooting Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum.
Right after Chandru completes the splenectomy successfully and saves Wolf’s life, Mysskin cuts to the visual of a spider web. Elaborating on this shot, he says, “When I was walking around the paddy field in Kumbakonam, where we shot this scene, I noticed that a spider had spun its web like a thread connecting two paddy plants. A human life is as fragile as a strand of a spider’s web. It may get torn any moment. That visual belonged to my film and I captured it immediately.”
The second moment is when Wolf realises that he has to fight off two men while protecting the blind girl. He does this by removing his coat, holding it in front as a shield, pushing the girl to his back and letting her hold his belt. Then, he turns around to face the two armed men and gets ready to fight.
And that is when something unexpected happens.
“Sometimes when I’m making films, some unexpected extraordinary moments happen. I consider these to be cinematic achievements. Such moments whack the director on his head and put him in his place. The only thing left for him to do is to be a witness and capture it.
You may be an arrogant director who believes your film shall take the world by storm, but these moments leave you tongue-tied. I did not know that the child’s feet appeared between my feet while I was acting out the scene. After the shot was taken, I went over to the monitor to have a look. I was overwhelmed by the unexpected beauty of this shot. Without any effort on my part, without my thinking self being involved, a tiny cinematic miracle had occurred on its own.”
My sincere thanks to Tamil poet Isai for nudging me to write this article, and for helping me obtain permission from Mysskin to translate parts of the book Onaayum Aattukkuttiyum.
You can buy the book here.
About the author
Depending on his mood, Ramchander oscillates between Medium and Tumblr for blogging. On his desk you might find photos of Steve Jobs, Buddha, Isaac Asimov and Satyajit Ray. He is the co-editor of The World of Apu and Aroo, an online Tamil magazine for fantasy and science fiction.