In 2020, as the coronavirus pandemic began creeping across the country, Malayalam filmmaker Don Palathara got to work. The crisis severely disrupted shoots and forced productions to miss their deadlines, but Palathara managed to complete two films.

Everything is Cinema and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam are different – but similar too. Both have the pandemic as backdrops, both explore the tensions that emerge between men and women locked in forced intimacy within confined spaces. In Everything is Cinema, a director turns his camera on his actor wife, simultaneously filming and eviscerating her. As his suppressed bile oozes out, the apartment they share seethes with resentment, hostility and unexpected humour.

Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (The Joyful Mystery) is a one-take film set entirely inside a car. Over 85 minutes, a couple on their way to take a pregnancy test trade barbs, excavate past grievances and test each other’s limits. Viewers who are closely following the dialogue and situations in both movies – one a mock personal documentary and the other an improvised performance piece – won’t miss Palathara’s exploration of acute male anxiety triggered by the pandemic as well as eternal.

“Many of us in relationships were forced to stay with their partners for such a long duration” because of the lockdowns, Palathara observed. “There was no option but to look at each other. That helped me reflect on the nature of relationships, especially in modern society.”

The new productions are in colour – a departure for Palathara, whose previous three features have been in black and white. Everything is Cinema was premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam in June. Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam was released in the United States on July 9 and will be out on streaming platforms in India later in the month.

On July 24, Mubi India will stream Palathara’s 2019 feature 1956, Central Travancore. Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam and 1956, Central Travancore were also shown at the International Film Festival of Kerala in February and March.

Don Palathara.

Palathara has been on the radar of followers of both Malayalam newgen cinema and Indian arthouse cinema ever since he made his debut with Shavam (The Corpse) in 2015. Palathara’s distinctive voice and interest in near-invisible shifts in personal and social dynamics place him within a continuum in Malayalam cinema as well as at a remove from the films that have been making the headlines over the past few years.

In Shavam, a man’s demise prompts a debate about empty rituals, empathy and the role of faith in life and death. A self-described lapsed Syrian Christian, Palathara has examined the place accorded to religion in Kerala in obvious and unseen ways in nearly all his films.

As a young man growing up in a middle-class family in Idukki, Palathara was stepped in his faith – and not always willingly. “Cinema was considered something that no one should do,” the 35-year-old filmmaker told during an interview from Kochi, where he now lives. “By the time I was 15, I had lost my religious beliefs, but some customs stuck with me forever.”

Palathara moved away to Australia as a young adult, training in information technology and working in the sector before enrolling for a filmmaking course. After he returned to Kerala in 2014, he set out to be an independent filmmaker, fully aware of its pleasures and perils.

“I wanted to make something that was closer to my roots and had connections with the culture in which I grew up,” he said. “These are purely directors’ films. I have always tried to stay away from producers who interfere, and that isn’t easy. Luckily with Shavam, I had a friend who gave me money and didn’t really care about what I was going to make.”

Shavam (2015).

When Palathara embarked on his second feature Vith (Seed), a message he posted on his Facebook account resulted in a host of crowdfunders, all of whom had watched Shavam, he said.

In Vith, the subtly evolving relationship between a farmer and his restless son reveal traditions that are changing as well as immutable. The film declares itself to be inspired by the European arthouse masters Bela Tarr, Michelangelo Antonioni, Alexander Sokurov and Nuri Bilge Ceylan.

Vith contains many of Palathara’s trademark stylistic flourishes: a textured narrative, deliberate and unhurried sequences, a distanced camera that situates characters in their surroundings, and naturalistic performances by relatively little-known actors.

The lassitude and ambiguity experienced by the young man as he attempts to fit in with his father’s world came from Palathara’s own experiences, he said. The generational conflict is expressed quietly, through images rather than words and crafted observation rather than overt intervention.

“My films are more questions than statements,” Palathara said. “I am not an activist. I am trying to explore. I am more of a student trying to understand new aspects of things. These are people who are conditioned to be a certain way, it’s not their fault.”

Vith (2017).

The black-and-white palette in Shavam, Vith and 1956, Central Travancore might suggest the work of a nostalgist. Indeed, 1956, Central Travancore is set in the period before land reform dramatically altered Malayalam society.

Rather, the story of two brothers who set out on an illegal gaur hunt is filled with unreliable narrators who spin yarns about themselves and others. “As the movie is about a foregone era and the truth in the stories that are passed on, it in a way questions the validity of historical narratives and the nature of truth itself,” Palathara says in his directorial note.

“My way of looking at life isn’t cheerful or colourful – I want to reflect weaknesses,” Palathara explained. “Even when I choose colours, they aren’t splashy. While working with such small budgets, I don’t have the extravagances of using colours the way I want to, so I felt it was safer to use black and white, where one can control the shades.”

A black-and-white look is often associated with timelessness, but Palathara sees the expression of time in cinema differently.

“When I watch a film, I don’t look at the year in which it was made but go with what I feel,” he said. “In any case, we are always talking about the past while being in the present – everything and everyone is in the past.”

Palathara aims to make each film different from the previous one. He tries to write something every week, he said. He is in the process of working on a new movie, alongside writing the screenplay for an outside project.

While Vith was written with Abhilash Melethil, Sherin Catherine was a consultant on Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam and co-developed Everything is Cinema. Catherine also plays the role of the actor in Everything is Cinema. Palathara provides the voice of the unseen director.

Everything is Cinema (2021).

In Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, the dialogue was created by Palathara and the principal actors, Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthanachery. The movie was made during a relaxation in the lockdown in September 2020.

“I love the outdoors, how to frame a landscape and communicate to its different forms,” Palathara said. “With 1956, Central Travancore, that need was satisfied to a certain extent. I also didn’t expect a lockdown to happen. The only thing I had in mind was to go on somehow and reflect on the new reality.”

Apart from tackling the challenge of filming an entire narrative in a single take, Palathara was keen on studying the ageless power play between men and women.

“As a male who grew up in this society and has had exposure to other societies, I wanted to figure about the male eye, understand more about relationships and about being human and also about the culture in which we live,” he said.

The couple played by Kallingal and Puthanachery rarely leave their vehicle. Their interactions are filmed through a dashboard camera. Palathara was in a car in the front, listening to his actors through headphones but unable to direct them in a conventional way because of the single-take device.

This approach was made possible with a nearly month-long rehearsal with the actors. “What was going on inside the car didn’t matter – it was part of the performance,” Palathara said. “I didn’t want to disturb them in any way.”

After a few attempts, five complete takes were obtained – essentially, five versions of the movie. “All of them were usable, but there were issues, like I felt the emotional transitions weren’t right, or sometimes the timing was off, or sometimes, there were technical issues,” he said.

Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (2021).

The movie is a tribute to the powers of collaborative filmmaking and performance. Kallingal and Puthanachery, like actors in a play, are in perfect sync even as their characters Marie and Jitin move away from one another within the confines of the automobile.

Viewers are bound to have differing responses to the couple. Is Jitin a put-upon boyfriend, stuck with a partner who pounces on his every word? Or is Marie the aggrieved party here, unable to make Jitin shares her anxieties about possible motherhood?

“I was very aware of how people who don’t get deeply into the film might read it in a different light,” Palathara said. “It’s part of the process of finding the right audience. This is always a major challenge – you try to reach out to a hundred people and maybe the film resonates with five or ten of them. That’s normal. I never expected to reach mass audiences and make everyone happy.”

His films have avoided traditional theatrical distribution. Instead, they have been shown at festivals or been released on streaming platforms. Shavam was on Netflix for a limited period, Vith on Amazon Prime Video.

“In India, people think that a theatrical release is superior to every other way,” Palathara said. “But there is no ideal way for people to watch your films. You are forced to include these disclaimers that not a part of your film. Audiences are watching while eating popcorn. My best experiences have been at private screenings and film festivals.”

The Covid-19 pandemic has jumpstarted evolving audience tastes, which might benefit iconoclastic filmmakers like Palathara. “As long as you are not sacrificing the true nature of your film, how you watch it is just a part of the experience,” he pointed out. “Like any other change, there are positives and negatives. The nature of watching is changing, the films you are watching are changing. People seem more ready to accept different kinds of films.”

1956, Central Travancore (2019).

The fiercely independent filmmaker’s journey is necessarily littered with obstacles and hoops, he acknowledged. “It’s not easy to survive unless you get recognised,” Palathara said. “You have to be consistent. You have to keep on doing films without failing, and someday you may be able to sustain yourself. It’s better than doing something that you don’t believe in.”

The road is hard and sometimes lonely too – Palathara doesn’t quite see himself as a part of the Malayalam newgen directors and writers, whose films are gathering attention and acclaim beyond Kerala by virtue of being released on such streaming platforms as Netflix and Amazon Prime Video.

“I personally try not to belong to any particular group or community,” Palathara said. “I’m not an extrovert in any case. It’s better for me to step back and do my own thing. I am a bit more selfish when it comes to making my films. I try and stay true to the word independent.”