VK Prakash’s horror thriller Praana is the latest addition to a sparsely populated list of single-character films. There haven’t been too many, apart from Sunil Dutt’s black-and-white Hindi drama Yaadein (1964) and the recent Kannada film Illa (2017), directed by Rajprabhu.
The only character in Prakash’s January 18 release is young writer Tara Anuradha (Nithya Menen), who moves to a house that appears to be haunted. It sounds like a regular horror movie, but there is more to Praana, Prakash told Scroll.in. “The horror in Praana isn’t of a teeth-blaring-blood-gushing-painted-faces variety,” he said. “It is a film that talks about fear, but about the fear experienced by a writer or thinker today, the intolerance that he or she faces in society today. It is this fear that is externalised and depicted using both realistic and fantasy elements.”
The screenplay has been written by Rajesh Jayaraman (Sound of Boot, Bangkok Summer). Praana has been shot in sync sound in Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Hindi by the Oscar-winning Resul Pookutty and has been lensed by the legendary PC Sreeram.
The film creates what Prakash calls “visual discomfort” through the visual diary that Tara maintains on her camera of the occurrences in the haunted house. “Much after our screenplay was finalised and we began shooting, Gauri Lankesh was murdered,” Prakash pointed out. “Our film has nothing to do with Lankesh’s story and Tara is not Gauri, but you can sense a connection in terms of ideas of intolerance and a threat to one’s freedom of expression which continue to remain issues that we are facing today.”
This is Prakash’s 25th film since his debut in 2000 with the National Film Award-winning Punaradhivasam . Stories of suspense and intrigue have always drawn Prakash, such as Freaky Chakra (2003), Moonamathoral (2006), Beautiful (2011) or Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla (2013). Jayaraman’s script for Praana too fascinated Prakash for similar reasons.
“I have worked with Jayaraman in Moonamathoral and we had been thinking of doing something interesting,” he said. “When he narrated the script to me, I thought it offered an edge-of-the-seat kind of experience. What will hook audiences to this film is fear. In fact, we didn’t set out with the intention of making a single-character film at all. It was when we delved deeper into the script that we realised that this is a one-actor script.”
Prakash had no doubt about who would play the lead role. He has worked with Menen in the Kannada film Aidondla Aidu in 2011. “Nithya has the capability of delving deep into a character and grasping the in-between-the-lines stuff and interpret it differently,” he explained. “She’s more an internal actor than an external actor and I wanted someone like that for this role. But I knew Nithya does not like horror. So, I told her to give the script a shot and said if you are okay with it, we’ll do this film. Else, we’ll forget it and I won’t make the film either. She loved the script.”
Menen’s multi-lingual fluency was also the reason why Prakash decided to shoot the film in four versions in sync sound. The choice of the sound designer for the task was again a no-brainer. “Resool is an old friend and when he heard the script, he said let’s do something different,” Prakash recalled. “So since the film has a single actor located in a single space, he decided to use a microphone called Brahmma which he briefly used in Slumdog Millionaire. The microphone has heads all around, which works well for sync sound.”
Pookutty, Prakash and the production team had to ensure that they shot at the right time each day since “8 am in the morning does not sound like 8 pm”. Sound has also been used differently in the film: “The first half of the film has more silences while the second half makes good use of music.”
The only remaining question for Prakash was who would shoot the film. “PC [Sreeram] and I had been wanting to work with each other for a long time too,” Prakash said. “But I was doubtful if we’d be able to afford him or if he’d be free. When we narrated the script, he loved it. Again, since it is a single-actor film, he had to plan the cinematography carefully – from the point of view of the character, around the space of the actor. Especially creating this sense of claustrophobia for this character.”
Sreeram took around three months to grade the film. “He took every frame individually and has approached them as he would approach a painting,” Prakash said. “Normally, horror films tend to be dark, but this film is the complete opposite full of bright lights and with a kind of colonial feel.”
Praana has been a “most challenging, most exciting and most entertaining experience” for Prakash. “I love to experiment when it comes to my cinema and with this film, I got a chance to do so with three passionate and talented people,” he said. “Usually, when I choose a project, I go with my gut. All I want from the project is for it to be interesting. I did Marubhoomiyile Aana because I like to laugh and because I enjoy the sense of humour of Malayalee actors and their improvisational skills. I liked the script of Beautiful because it told the story of a wonderful relationship in a light-hearted manner. I liked the challenge that Natholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla offered because it had too many layers.”
Prakash has finished shooting for two Hindi web series for streaming platform Zee5, one of which is an adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s stories. However, all his energies and attention are focused on Praana’s theatrical run. “The more encouragement such films get – now with the digital medium also at our disposal – more experimentation can happen,” he said.