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Christo Tomy on Crafting the Depths of ‘Ullozhukku’: Shades of Grey in Malayalam Cinema

As the Malayalam film ‘Ullozhukku’ celebrates its blockbuster success at the box office, its creator, Christo Tomy, is savoring the moment. The debutant director’s feature has captivated audiences with a narrative interwoven with themes of resistance, remorse, and reconciliation, all centered around two women entangled and distanced by their secrets.

Anchored by potent performances from Urvashi (playing Leelamma) and Parvathy Thiruvothu (Anju), ‘Ullozhukku’ maintains its grip on viewers as the characters undergo trials that test their physical and emotional limits. The moral complexities and deep human emotions are depicted with fine nuances, chiseled by Christo’s astute direction and engrossing screenplay.

The backstory of ‘Ullozhukku’ has roots in personal grief for Christo Tomy, who began writing the movie’s script following the demise of his grandfather. The flood in Muttar in the Kuttanad region of Kerala not only delayed his grandfather’s burial but also left a profound mark on Christo, prompting him to explore themes of life, death, and perseverance in his writing. Thomas’s death in the movie mirrors this incident, causing a rift fueled by suspicions between his mother, Leelamma, and his wife, Anju, amidst a flood delaying the burial.

Christo’s directorial intent was clear from the outset: no character was to be purely virtuous or malevolent. “I was determined that there should be no black and white characters. Like in real life, there had to be grey shades in all of them,” Christo shared. The script, started in 2016, has seen various developmental phases. It gained recognition by winning first prize at Cinestaan India’s Storyteller’s Contest, the largest contest of its type in India, and participated in both the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) Co-Production Market – Film Bazaar in 2018 and the NFDC Screenwriter’s Lab in 2017.

When discussing his characters, Christo recounted the organic evolution of roles within the script. “Prashant’s character (Thomas) initially had limited space, but as I revised the script, his role gained more importance, influencing the dynamics between the two leading women,” he explained, emphasizing how the characters grew not from imagination alone but from a mosaic of observed traits and behaviors of real people.

Before venturing into ‘Ullozhukku’, Christo had already made a name for himself with two National Award-winning short films, ‘Kanyaka’ and ‘Kamuki’, and had garnered praise for his Netflix true-crime documentary ‘Curry and Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case’. His characters in ‘Ullozhukku’ reflect generational shifts in thought—Leelamma embodies the sacrificial ethos of an older era, whereas Anju represents contemporary individualism, unwilling to subsume her identity for familial duties.

Christo’s personal experiences profoundly shaped the characters and the story. “I have seen how my mother and aunts tackle problems. For them, the family comes first, often at the expense of their happiness. Such sacrifices were seen as vital for family cohesion,” he mused. “But today’s women view such situations differently, and this change in perspective is something I wanted to capture.”

Casting Parvathy Thiruvothu as Anju was a deliberate choice, as she was the only actress Christo envisioned for the role once the script was completed.

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. For the role of Leelamma, his director of photography, Shehnad Jalal, suggested Urvashi. Meeting in Chennai, Urvashi shared her insights, aligning closely with Leelamma’s character.

The generational gap was evident not merely in the storyline but also in the approaches of the actors to their characters, given that Urvashi and Parvathy represent different acting generations. “Urvashi chechi’s outlook was akin to Leelamma’s, while Parvathy views things differently. This provided intriguing dynamics both on and off the set,” said Christo.

Christo recalled the immersive experience of shooting in rural Kuttanad, with actors living in houseboats to stay close to the shooting locations. Parvathy, initially unfamiliar with the setting, was inquisitive, while Urvashi, known for her spontaneity, sometimes rehearsed her lines aloud to capture the right tone and inflection. Their ability to deliver quality performances with minimal takes speaks volumes about their skill.

Despite concerns expressed by some producers about audience reception, Christo remained steadfast. The overwhelmingly positive reviews since the film’s release have affirmed his vision.

The choice of location was another story element deeply tied to Christo’s past. “The visualizations for the story always led me back to my ancestral home. When we couldn’t find a more fitting location, we settled on using my house,” he said. This choice was practical as well, fitting the narrative needs for flood scenes and expansive back yards.

‘The family’s relocation during the year and a half of filming marked another personal sacrifice, highlighting the project’s importance to Christo. The frequent flooding the family had once viewed as beneficial for agriculture is now seen as a worrisome consequence of climate change, compelling many families to leave the area.

Returning to the themes prominent in his works, Christo emphasizes the relatively harsher realities faced by women as central to his storytelling. “For both ‘Kamuki’ and ‘Ullozhukku,’ I found a woman’s journey more challenging and compelling,” he pointed out.

Looking ahead, Christo is open to exploring various genres to broaden his directorial horizons. With ongoing discussions for a series and a willingness to direct scripts from other writers, Christo looks forward to a dynamic future in filmmaking. “Writing is a solitary and arduous process. Directing well-crafted scripts by others would indeed be a pleasure.”