EXCLUSIVE: I have a dream cast for my first feature film, says ‘Ullozhukku’ director Christo Tomy

'Ullozhukku' (initially named 'The Funeral') script was the winner at the first edition of Cinestaan India's Storyteller Contest in 2018.

ByArjun Ramachandran

Published Jun 21, 2024 | 12:05 PM Updated Jun 21, 2024 | 12:05 PM

Exclusive interview with Ullozhukku director Christo Tomy

An alumnus of Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute, director Christo Tomy has won the National Awards for his short films Kanyaka (2014) and Kamuki (2016).

He made music videos, too.

However, the young filmmaker turned heads with Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case (2023), a true-crime documentary series streaming on Netflix.

He is now coming up with his debut feature film—Ullozhukku (The Undercurrent), starring Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu in the lead.

Ahead of its release on Friday, 21 June, director Christo Tomy spoke with South First about Ullozhukku, the cast, his filmmaking process, and a lot more.

Q. Tell us about Ullozhukku.

A. Ullozhukku is an emotional drama. A family based in Alappuzha loses their dear one and awaits the funeral, which they couldn’t perform due to floods.

As the corpse begins to decompose, the secrets about the family members start surfacing. How these affect the family is what Ullozhukku is about.

Parvathy Thiruvothu plays the role of Anju and Urvashi chechi (a term used to respect a woman) appears as Leelamma, the mother-in-law of Anju.

The two female characters keep the film moving forward.

Q. Ullozhukku (initially named The Funeral) script was the winner at the first edition of Cinestaan India’s Storyteller Contest in 2018. We learnt that you’ve reworked the script for onscreen adaptation.

A. Yes, I did rework the script several times to adapt it to the big screen.

I took feedback from the mentorship programmes at Screenwriters Lab (NDFC) and Global Media Makers in Los Angeles.

I also considered the opinions of the actors after narrations.

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Q. Why did you choose Urvashi and Parvathy Thiruvothu for the roles?

A. I thought Parvathy Thiruvothu was perfect for Anju’s role. So, I narrated the story to her after my script won the Cinestaan India’s Storyteller Contest.

I approached her again with the new script after the production team changed.

Meanwhile, Cinematographer Shehnad Jalal suggested that I should approach Urvashi chechi for Lelamma’s role. She wasn’t doing films at that time. We all know how great an actor she is and she readily gave her nod to the project.

Even Parvathy was excited when she was told that Urvashi chechi would play her mother-in-law in the film.

For me, this is a dream cast for my first feature film.

Q. Did your previous work help you while making this feature film?

A. I made music videos and shorts while studying at the Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute. And without a doubt, my experience came in handy while crafting Ullozhukku.

Q. Most of your works have intense stories. Is it deliberate?

A. Well, I like intense dramas. As a viewer, I watch and rewatch a lot of emotional and intense films because they give me a high.

For example, I like Mohanlal’s conversations in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare (1989), the scene in Manchester by the Sea (2016) where Michelle Williams apologises to the main character, and a similar emotional sequence in Elizabeth (1998).

I just love the drama in the 80s and 90s Malayalam films. So, I include such intense moments in my work.

All my projects are based on ordinary people who get trapped in extraordinary situations.

Christo Tomy addressing the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, 2022

Christo Tomy addressing the International Documentary and Short Film Festival of Kerala, 2022. (Supplied)

Q. Are you interested in other genres?

A. I have done projects that have excited me as an audience. But, in future, I would like to explore different genres. I want to do comedy and mass-action entertainers.

I do watch movies of all genres. I believe a movie should engage the audience, irrespective of the genre.

Q. You hail from Alappuzha; interestingly, Ullozhukku story is set in the same place. Did a real-life incident inspire it?

A. My grandfather died during the 2005 floods. We had to wait several days to perform his last rites. This had a profound impact on me.

So, I kept it as the basis for the film and weaved a story around the funeral.

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Q. How did you choose Prasant Murali as the husband of Parvathy’s character?

A. I have seen Prasant Murali deliver a brilliant performance in various films. I have known him for a long time.

Also, the character in Ullozhukku required a physique like Prasant’s. He has done justice to the role.

Q. How did RSVP Movies come into the picture?

A. I have known assistant director Honey Trehan and filmmaker Abhishek Chaubey since the Cinestaan India’s Storyteller Contest.

Honey and Abhishek have together made some good ventures in Bollywood like Udta Punjab (2016), Sonchiriya (2019), Ray series (2021), and Killer Soup web series (2024).

I have worked with them. They helped me get RSVP Movies on board for Ullozhukku.

Q. What can we expect from musical sensation Sushin Shyam in this project?

A. I met Sushin Shyam while he was working on Kumbalangi Nights (2019). He knew me from my short film Kanyaka.

He liked the (Ullozhukku) story and agreed to score the music. However, the project was delayed for many reasons.

I approached Sushin again with the first cut (of Ullozhukku) a few years later. He was impressed with it and joined the team.

It was a pretty good experience working with him. Sushin knows which emotion works and which doesn’t in different scenes. So, he composed the music accordingly. His work elevated the scenes in our movie.

Compared to his recent films like Manjummel Boys and Aavesham, Sushin gave a different soundtrack and background score for Ullozhukku.

Q. Coming to Curry & Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case, how did you manage to make that documentary since it’s a real-life incident and a complicated case?

A. Frankly, the project came to me. Netflix called me up when I was busy with the pre-production work of Ullozhukku. I initially hesitated to take it up since it was non-fiction. But then, I went forward because it was a rare opportunity.

Since the case (Koodathayi cyanide killings) got a lot of media attention, many people didn’t readily agree to speak in front of the camera. We had a tough time gaining their trust so they could open up with us.

Also, since the killings took place over 17-18 years, structuring the period of crime proved to be another major challenge for us.

And then, editing was the most challenging part since the documentary was non-fiction and based on a real-life incident (shooting usually becomes a challenging task in fiction). But, we pulled it off.

Q. What are your future projects?

A. I haven’t committed to any new projects for now. You’ll know once they’re finalised.

(Edited by Y Krishna Jyothi)

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