Shyju Khalid features in the credits of some of the most notable Malayalam films of recent years. The 44-year-old cinematographer filmed Traffic, Maheshinthe Prathikaram, Ee Ma Yau, Sudanese from Nigeria, Kumbalangi Night and Virus. These films are among the productions that are cited as proof of the latest wave of talent in one of India’s most legendary film industries.
One of the main reasons contemporary Malayalam cinema is generating waves beyond Kerala is because streaming platforms are making the names of its directors, writers, actors, music composers and technicians familiar beyond the state. . Among its key architects is Khalid, a self-taught cinematographer with an eye for beauty and grace in the ordinary.
New Malayalam cinema has particularly earned praise for its realistic and relatable storylines, distinctive characters and fine storytelling. Khalid’s ability to convey a film’s themes and create a sense of groundedness, verisimilitude and unvarnished beauty has garnered praise.
Films work because ‘aesthetics and emotions are connected’, says Khalid Scroll.in in an interview with Kochi. “If the film is a good film, it will work. It’s not just about the visuals. The internet is full of visuals. It’s about the feel of the story, the characters that people remember.
In April, two of Khalid’s projects appeared within days of each other. The Thriller Nayattu hit theaters before gaining a wider audience through Netflix. joji, loosely inspired by William Shakespeare macbeth, premiered directly on Amazon Prime Video.
Much of Martin by Prakkat Nayattu was filmed in 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic swept through the country. When filming was interrupted by the confinement required by the health crisis, Khalid moved on joji, starring famous actor Fahadh Faasil.
Khalid assured that Nayattu and joji would not be confused with each other in terms of shooting styles. While Nayattu full of movement and many frames, joji has regular tracking and tracking shots.
The subject dictated the divergent approaches. Nayattu is a poignant story about the politicization of the police, told through the lens of a manhunt. Three police officers are on the run after being involved in a traffic accident.
The dense narrative has many memorable moments. Of these, Khalid is particularly proud of an evocative nighttime sequence that highlights the landscape in which the three fleeing officers find themselves. “I had to use a lot of lights to make it look real,” he said.
After a limited theatrical release on April 8, Nayattu moved to Netflix. On rival Amazon Prime Video streamer is Dileesh Pothan joji, dark chronicle of the implosion of a wealthy family.
Written by Syam Puskharan, joji features Fahadh Faasil as a malevolent force who plots against his father and brothers with the help of his sister-in-law. Khalid’s detached camera work is one piece with Joji’s clinical plot.
In one of the scenes, intended to be the hiatus point since the movie was originally shot in theatres, Joji runs around his estate and lands on a hill, from where he looks down at the house he’s going to torpedo with. his actions – the uncrowned king of a kingdom yet to be annexed.
The climax was written even as the film was being filmed, suggesting it could have ended differently. The 57-day shoot was a challenge, Khalid recalls. The creators had to make sure there was no overlap with Faasil’s recent villainous turns. Pothan rehearsed extensively with his actors, due to which the technicians sometimes had to wait an entire day for filming to begin.
joji reunited Khalid with Pothan, whose Mahishinthe Prathikaaram (2016), again with Faasil, marks a turning point in the career of the director of photography. Maheshinthe Prathikaraam stars Faasil as a photographer who, after being beaten in a fight, swears to go barefoot until he gets his revenge. The seemingly light plot is fruitfully developed into a memorable study of human frailties.
“Pothan didn’t want to make the stages louder or bigger for commercial gain,” Khalid said. “We were initially told it looked like an art film.”
Aashiq Abu’s production was an unexpected success at the box office. As Khalid was about to preview the film at midnight before its release, he received a call from Faasil. The actor told Khalid to call him when the preview was done – which would have been around 3am.
“I didn’t want to call him so late, but I did because I knew he was waiting for the call,” Khalid said. “I told him the movie would be a hit, just to make him feel better. We knew the movie was good, but we didn’t expect it to be so successful.
Aashiq Abu had done three of Khalid’s early projects, salt and pepper (2011), 22 Kottayam Woman (2012) and Idukki Gold (2013). Khalid started his career in 2000 with soap operas. Among Khalid’s assistants was Pothan.
Khalid sharpened his eye by devouring films including Malayalam classics and Hollywood titles – Rambo was a childhood favorite – and later international art house gems. “I don’t have a particular style and I learned by watching other people’s films,” Khalid said. “There’s a basic aesthetic to lighting a scene, which I follow and adapt to the narrative.”
In 2010, Khalid made his first film, Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic. The film contained some of the elements that mark what is sometimes called the “Malayalam new wave”: a simple story layered with sharp writing (a traffic cop secures a heart transplant to a patient), compelling performances by an ensemble cast, a balance between sobering realism and crowd-pleasing emotions.
One of Khalid’s most realistic films, by his own words, is Sudanese from Nigeria (2018). Co-produced by Khalid and Sameer Thahir, the sports drama traces the friendship between an injured Nigerian footballer stranded in Mallapuram and his manager. Brimming with humor, goodwill and a lovely grandma, the film won over audiences and won a National Film Award.
“I shot the film with very little equipment,” Khalid said. “We didn’t have a lot of money and we didn’t know how the movie would go.”
One of Khalid’s most beloved films is also his most visually striking. Madhu C Narayanan Kumbalangi Nights (2019) is the story of four brothers from a fishing village on the outskirts of Kochi. Frequently torn apart by sibling tensions and differing ambitions, the emotionally disheveled and parentless siblings are ultimately brought together by circumstances and their acceptance of their particular family dynamics.
Many of the film’s sequences, again written by Syam Puskharan, are fan favorites. The opening montage, on the magnificent song of Sushin Shyam Cherathukal, establishes the characters and their dilapidated house. The romance between Bobby and Baby takes place in an emerald grove that looks like the most romantic place on Earth. The track of tender passion between Bobby’s mute sister, Bonny, and a visiting American tourist is Khalid’s favorite. It includes a scene of the couple swimming in phosphorescent waters.
“It was a tough shoot, there was a lot of nighttime footage,” Khalid said. Madhu C Narayanan and his assistants spent over a year in Kumbalangi prior to filming, identifying locations that would eventually be used in the film. “Spending so much time on location helped us get all those details,” Khalid said.
Puskharan’s script includes several memorable scenes, including the one in which elder brother Saji brings home his friend’s widow and child. The film examines Christian themes of guilt and redemption. In this sequence, the woman, who wears a white and blue outfit, is an embodiment of Mother Mary as well as the motherly presence that is missing in the lives of the four men.
Khalid struggled for a few sequences, including one that follows a meeting between the brothers and their mother, who has joined a religious order. Like the three brothers of The Darjeeling Limited, siblings of Kumbalangi Nights struggle to make sense of their mother’s decision.
The sequence was felt to drag out the narrative, but Khalid insisted it stayed – it provided a vital bridge to the denouement, he explained.
Khalid is involved in his projects from their inception. “I don’t want my name attached to bad or even okay movies,” he said. “Every filmmaker wants it too, of course, but I’m very strict about it. I lived on little money, so that’s fine – I don’t want to do anything ordinary.
Khalid grew up in Fort Kochi. Her father, VP Khalid, was a theater and film actor. Her brother Khalid Rahman is a filmmaker, while another brother, Jimshi Khalid, is a photographer.
In 2013, between two collaborations with other directors, Khalid became a director. The anthology film 5 Sundarikal (2013) features Khalid Sethulakshmi, about a schoolgirl exploited by the owner of a photo studio. Among his future projects is a film directed by Vineet Kumar and starring Tovino Thomas.
“Expectations are very high” for Malayalam cinema, Khalid observed. It’s safe to say that at least in the cinematography department, some of those expectations will be met.