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Sci-Fi Mockumentary ‘Gaganachari’ Captivates Audiences Across Generations

The white and blue NASA sweatshirt is a dead giveaway that Arun Chandu, the director of “Gaganachari,” is a space buff. His excitement over the film’s success at the box office is palpable as he settles in for a conversation. “Anyone who knows me, knows I am a space buff and a Carl Sagan fan. There is a ‘Njaan Gandharvan’ poster with Carl Sagan’s face instead of Nitish Bharadwaj’s,” he says, laughing.

“Gaganachari,” a sci-fi film set in a post-apocalyptic future, is drawing crowds across age groups to theatres. As a mockumentary, it is an unexpected success in the flourishing landscape of Malayalam cinema, especially in the year 2024.

Set in the 2040s, the film tells the story of a world contending with alien invasions, climate change, and extreme political ideologies. Shot using the found footage technique, it follows three men — Ganesh Kumar, Aju Varghese, and Gokul Suresh — whose lives are turned upside down by the arrival of an alien named Aliyama, portrayed by Anarkali Marakkar. The name “Aliyama” cleverly combines “alien” and a popular Malayalam moniker to create a character that blends seamlessly into both the setting and the spirit of the film.

The humor in “Gaganachari” alleviates the weight of its socio-political commentary. Arun Chandu manages to balance these elements skillfully, infusing the film with numerous Malayalam pop culture references. A fan of mockumentaries, his inspirations include the horror-comedy series “What We Do In The Shadows.” “After watching it, I wanted to make something political, to tell hard-hitting truths through the mockumentary lens in a lighter tone,” he explains. The result is a film that conveys its messages without alienating or offending its audience.

Ganesh Kumar stands out as the middle-aged alien ‘hunter,’ Victor Vasudevan, displaying impeccable comic timing. Kumar, known for his role in “Saajan Bakery,” Arun’s second directorial work, was the natural choice for this character. “I wrote Victor with Ganesh sir in mind. His south Keralam swag is top-notch, and he understood the film’s potential,” Arun says.

Gokul Suresh, who collaborated with Arun on his debut film “Sayanna Varthakal” in 2018, brings his passion for climate issues to his role, aligning with Arun’s vision. Their shared interest in UFO-related conspiracy theories also played a part in this collaboration. Arun’s journey in film started with Vineeth Sreenivasan’s “Thattathin Marayathu” in 2012, where he handled publicity design, marking the beginning of his association with Aju Varghese, who also features in “Gaganachari.”

In contrast to most post-apocalyptic films that depict arid, desert-like worlds, “Gaganachari” envisions a future ravaged by water. For Arun, this choice stems from personal experience. “My home is in Aranmula, which floods anytime it rains heavily. It’s more of a nightmare for me,” he shares.

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. His mother and their pet dog residing there add to his anxiety each time it pours, making water a fitting symbol for his dystopian world.

Arun recounts the challenges faced during the filming, which he calls a ‘daily test’ of convincing producers and actors about the project. Despite the uncertainties, the cast and crew supported him wholeheartedly. The film’s reception at various film festivals and the Kerala Pop Con in January 2024 boosted their confidence.

Written and filmed during the pandemic of 2020-21, the three-year wait for the theatrical release was unexpectedly advantageous. Arun believes that the film’s future setting kept its themes relevant. “Had it released in 2025, it would have felt present, given that we reference the year 2025 in the film,” he notes. Meanwhile, advancements in technology, particularly AI and CGI, enhanced the film’s visual effects, allowing for vivid yet minimalistic graphics reminiscent of the sci-fi action film “District 9.”

“Gaganachari” garnered accolades at around 25 of the 60-odd festivals it entered, including the LA Sci-Fi Film Festival and the Nico Media Film Festival (NIFA). The standing ovation at the Pramana Asian Film Festival in Italy was particularly gratifying, highlighting the universal appeal of its themes of geo-politics and climate change.

Interestingly, the film was initially conceptualized as a darker narrative, akin to “A Quiet Place.” However, friend and actor Aju Varghese suggested a lighter, humorous approach, which led to a script overhaul following discussions with US-based film writer Rahul Menon, with writer Siva Sai refining the storyline.

Arun, a self-taught filmmaker, wishes he had worked under other directors, reflecting that traditional training might have eased his journey. Nonetheless, his independent path led to “Gaganachari,” a project that might not have otherwise come to fruition.

Surprisingly, the film’s audience spans across generations, despite promotional efforts targeting the 18-25 age group. “Kids and parents are watching the film together,” Arun notes. The film’s success reflects the Malayali audience’s openness and the changed viewing habits influenced by OTT content consumption during the pandemic.

Looking ahead, Arun is not done with the “Gaganachari” universe. He plans to expand it with “Maniyan Chittappan,” starring Suresh Gopi, a character referenced in “Gaganachari.” “The potential of Gaganachari is vast… it can develop like the Marvel universe,” he envisions.

As “Gaganachari” continues to run in theatres, Arun Chandu embraces the love and acclaim pouring in for his innovative, genre-defying film.