As Malayalam cinema continues to invite comparisons with the best in world cinema – incidentally overtaking tame Bollywood offerings – the recent release Pada (army), directed by Kamal K.M., stands out for its nuanced, realistic and powerful storytelling.
Based on a real-life incident, where a collector in Kerala was held hostage by a few ‘militants’ in connection with the law on Adivasi Land Rights in 1996, the film is a visual treat even as the political and human narratives maintain a tight grip.
A graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (Pune) in his mid-40s, Kamal had started his filmmaking experience working with Santosh Sivan before making his own films Alif (2010) and ID (2012), both in Hindi. And then he returned to Kerala, where he taught screenplay writing and direction at the KR Narayanan National Institute of Visual Science and Arts for four years before making Pada.
Aided by a brilliant cast and haunting camerawork, the film steers clear of bombast and rhetoric, focusing throughout on factual performances and dialogues while maintaining extraordinary suspense. Excerpts from an interview with Kamal:
How did this film happen?
While discussing multiple ideas in 2018, we just happened to discuss the 1996 incident where four men held a district collector hostage. Then we asked ourselves: is there any possibility to adapt this into a film? Even though it happened 25 years ago, the issues still remain the same. No change in relevance or urgency at all. On October 4, 1996, four men took the Palakkad collector hostage in connection with a bill on Adivasi land rights – an issue still not resolved. We just had to make this film! The risks those men took, in a subversive way, to challenge a government, a system!
Next day onwards, I started to research the incident. This was in 2018, when most of the people who were involved in this incident were alive. I started meeting people – political activists, the chief secretary involved, the concerned collector, the mediator zilla judge and the IG on special tasks – everyone contributed to the script. I had a screenplay in mind, and whenever I met them, I could integrate almost all the details they were sharing with me. Through this research process came the screenplay.
Once the screenplay was ready, we planned a budget, which was when we realised it was a big film. And that was one of the challenges we faced: how to make a non-commercial film with a big budget? We blindly believed in the script. We thought it has a thriller edge, so people will appreciate it.
What are the problems you faced?
Making a non-commercial film on a big budget has many related risks. So we made a casting plan according to the mainstream pitch. A huge cast like that required big money. Everyone understood the importance of the project and supported it, that is how we made it without too many obstacles. The only problem was Covid. We had to wait for two years to release the film. We shot it over four schedules that spanned around 60 days.
The cinematography is of special note, the camera angles are unique...
It is the mise-en-scène that turned out to be unique. Cinema as a language needs to keep in mind the story and setting. We are telling the story of two days over which the incident took place. We knew we had to design it in such a way that there should be curiosity, the intentions must be slowly revealed, a certain kind of suspense should be maintained to give it a thriller style. That work came from my entire team, the cinematographer, cast, costume designer – that look we achieved. When you set a film in the '90s, the landscape is different, the streets are different, the hairstyles and costumes are different, everything is different. So, we combined all of that to achieve the visual detailing.
Did you expect the film to do well?
While we were making the film, we knew we were making a good film with full heart, with full conviction. We concentrated with commitment. We were in deep discussions about the scenes while creating them. That participation came from everyone: the actors, the technical team... Automatically, you get an intuition about a film. People can have varying opinions on the finished film, but all our viewers said it was different and powerful. That was encouraging feedback. Among the OTT platforms and satellite platforms we approached, there were immediate takers. We covered our costs in those sales. Even before the theatre release, we were in a comfortable position. It did well in theatres, too, and across all age groups. We are still getting feedback from all over India, from all over the world.
Pada is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.