What Santhy Balachandran enjoyed studying most at college was the subject of social psychology. Years later – after she completed her Master’s in visual anthropology from the University of Oxford and became a famed Malayalam actor – it was this topic that made an appearance in her lockdown music video project, Oblivion, launched this summer by the iconic music director A.R. Rahman.
“I am fascinated by how culture influences perception,” says Santhy, who made her acting debut in the 2017 Malayalam film Tharangam, a fantasy black comedy directed by Dominic Arun.
She shot to mainstream fame when her third film, Jallikkattu (2019), directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, became a box-office hit. With three more film projects paused or postponed during the pandemic, an opportunity to work once again with Dominic – this time on an independent music video – drew her interest.
The seven-minute video explores the space between life and death, and the role of the senses in creating memories. It is also inspired by the Nordic myth of Odin, who sacrifices an eye for a sip of water from the well of wisdom. “It is the idea of giving up outward perception in favour of inner perception,” says Santhy, who also oversaw the launch of Instagram ‘filters’ based on the video, as part of its marketing strategy. The filters allow users to mimic the surreal feeling of Oblivion in their own photos. Within the first 24 hours, the filters had 1.5 million impressions online, says Santhy.
Born in Kerala, Santhy was raised in Chennai and Bengaluru before she left India to study in Oxford, UK. Her plans to complete her PhD were cut short when she was in India for a break, and happened to audition for a play. Its success led to a film offer for Santhy.
“The collaborative aspect of theatre and cinema really appealed to me,” she says of her decision to move to the film industry from academia. “It has been a learning space for me to be around so many talented people.”
With each successive film giving her a variety of experiences and opportunities to expand her creative instincts, there has been no looking back for Santhy. After Jallikkattu won various awards and made the news “for all the right reasons”, as she puts it, her film Paapam Cheyyathavar Kalleriyatte (2020), a social satire directed by Shambhu Purushothaman, sealed Santhy’s image as an actor with a bent for the experimental. “But my next two films should swing the pendulum the other way,” she laughs, referring to the upcoming sports drama Aaha and family entertainer Djinn.
Santhy (centre) with the entire team of 'Oblivion'.
With Oblivion, she has further established herself as an artist with a broad oeuvre. Composed by Ashwin Renju, written by Manu Manjith and sung by K.S. Harisankar, the song has somewhat dark lyrics, which triggered Santhy to look beyond the usual themes of Malayalam music videos.
“It could have been interpreted as a usual romantic video – the concept of loss works there too as the lyrics and tune have an element of destructiveness in them. But we wanted to go the unconventional route,” she says.
The abstract concept is considered a pathbreaker in the world of Malayalam music and filmography, bringing in elements of psychology, art history, nostalgia and the perception of time. “I wanted to contribute in my own unique way to the project,” says Santhy.
Their projects on hold after months of lockdown, the team was in a mood to attempt new genres and push themselves creatively, despite the budget constraints. “We didn’t have a lot of money but we had the luxury of time, and could put in our 100 percent,” says Santhy. “It is something that gave us all life in the dark months of the pandemic.”