Somewhere in the United Arab Emirates, Jimmy (Roshan Mathew) and Anu (Darshana Rajendran) fall in love over video calling and text messages. Jimmy proposes marriage to Anu despite never having laid eyes on her. As Jimmy begins to look closely into Anu’s life, on the advice of his friend Kevin (Fahadh Faasil), his findings are both complicated and gruesome.
Jimmy, Anu and Kevin are the principal characters of Mahesh Narayanan’s new film C U Soon, Like the 2018 film Searching, the characters in C U Soon interact only through computer and mobile phone screens. Narayanan wrote, directed, and edited the roughly 90-minute thriller during the lockdown. C U Soon will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video from September 1.
A film of this sort comes with logistical challenges. For one, characters need a valid reason to switch on their webcam or mobile phone cameras for the story to progress. Pointing out how he felt that a character’s installation of closed-circuit television cameras in a room in Searching was contrived, Narayanan said he didn’t want such “gimmicks” in C U Soon.
There was also the constraint of limiting the film to a two-camera set-up, Narayanan said. At any point, the screen could only have one character conversing with another – although a conference call on Zoom would open up possibilities.
Another problem, Narayanan pointed out, was that cutting from continuously filmed action to any other shot, or using lengthy montages to denote the passage of time, could not be employed as they are in traditional films.
“There I apply virtual cinematography,” Narayanan told Scroll.in. “It is where I have edited the film, and then tweak with the footage, amplify a section, pan across the screen, zoom in or zoom out to add tension and drama to the movie”.
The story of C U Soon, Narayanan said, was inspired by a “haunting” and “morbid” video sent by a trafficked woman in the Middle East to her parents. A journalist shared the video with Narayanan, who then showed it to Faasil, who lives a few blocks away from his house.
During the lockdown, when the Malayalam film industry came to a standstill, Faasil reminded Narayanan of the video, asking if he could turn it into a movie. Narayanan’s first draft resulted in a barely hour-long movie. He did a test shoot with Mathew and Rajendran and showed it to his crew members. After taking in their suggestions, Narayanan finished the final script and began shooting. Faasil bankrolled the project.
“Fahadh is always aggressive and passionate about pushing creative boundaries,” Narayanan said. “So we thought even the film isn’t made and released, we could just enjoy it as a home experiment for ourselves.”
The number of crew members and actors on set was limited to under 50, as directed in a mandate by the Kerala state government for films to be shot during the pandemic. Cinematographic woes were minimal because “the natural lighting from the screen when you video call does half the work”, Narayanan said. “And since it’s a screen-based movie, some amount of grain in the footage is natural.”
Narayanan said that his biggest strength and weakness is “I write for the edit”. He explained: “The edit points in my scripts are clearly written. I always make my characters perform towards the edit. I have the clarity of where to go from a scene, where to track the camera, where to transition from the end of one scene to another, and what is the emotional graph of the film.”
That’s why Narayanan said he managed to shoot his directorial debut, the acclaimed Take Off (2017), on a limited budget on 49 days. Shot across Dubai and Kerala, Take Off was a tense thriller documenting the Islamic State’s kidnapping of 46 Indian nurses in Iraq in 2015. C U Soon was shot in 18 days.
Narayanan has edited over 35 feature films, and more in other formats. C U Soon was a “learning experience” different from his previous works, but at the same time not too dissimilar. In all his films, Narayanan said his principles remain the same.
“I can pre-visualise the story as it will be in its final form,” Narayanan said. “But technique or form is secondary. The only thing that matters is content, and I never want form to take over content.”
Can such a clinical style of filmmaking lead to fresh discoveries in the edit room? “I never discover or find anything new in terms of narrative structure,” Narayanan explained. “That is always set. What I discover are performances, reactions, specific cutaways.”
Narayanan said that he had been following “screen-based films” for a while now, such as The Collingswood Story (2006), The Den (2013), Unfriended (2014), the 2015 Modern Family episode Connection Lost, and Searching. He called Searching “a more refined take on all the films previously made like this”.
Narayanan said that he ensured that audiences don’t get lost or distracted by the film’s style and remain engaged with the story. “I think films must be entertaining, and entertainment means engagement,” he said. “So to engage the viewer, I break the film down to the first 10 minutes, then the second 10 minutes, the third, and so on. I need to see if each phase is entertaining and how it moves to the next.”
Following C U Soon, Narayanan is awaiting the release of Malik, his film starring Fahadh Faasil, previously scheduled to be out in April. Spanning the late 1960s to 2018, Malik follows the trials and tribulations of Kerala’s fishing communities.
Costing roughly Rs 20 crore, according to Narayanan, Malik is a film “made on a much bigger canvas, and it’s a film where geography and scale is important, and it’s not just best experienced in a theatre but it also makes financial sense to put it on the big screen, as a 35% occupancy during the pandemic won’t do it any good”.
At this time, Narayanan said, other filmmakers such as Aashiq Abu and Lijo Jose Pellissery are also shooting low-budget films to be released on streaming platforms, ensuring that there’s a steady flow of income for actors and crew members in the Malayalam film industry.
“There’s a system where people get paid for their job on a film per day, but then those without that privilege are only paid when the film is released theatrically,” Narayanan explained. “Films are not coming out in theatres now. One way for them to earn in this period is making films like C U Soon, which would employ up to 50 people at a time. The films we have made for theatres only meanwhile can wait.”