KV Guhan is one of the elite long list of cinematographers who have also proven themselves as capable storytellers. After an extremely successful stint as a technician for almost 15 years with films like Kushi, Athadu, Aarya, Dookudu and Seethamma Vaakitlo Sirimalle Chettu under his belt, he fully committed himself to directing with films like Kalyan’s 118 Ram and the release of Sony LIV WWW.
His latest release is also a thriller – Highway – a road film, made for an OTT aha platform. In a chat with OTTplay.com, Guhan talks about his penchant for the thriller genre and why he made Highway on a low budget. From ideation to casting and characterization, the cinematographer-director gives us a peek into the making of Highway.
The motivation to do Highway – the genesis story
Typically, the thrillers you watch are action-packed and designed for theatrical experiences. During the lockdown, when it looked like cinemas weren’t opening anytime soon, OTT’s popularity was on the rise and I felt I had a lot of stories to tell that were ideally suited for streaming. Until the theaters opened, I wanted to try my hand at conceptual and offbeat films that deviated from the norms of mainstream cinema.
It was time to try and the OTTs encouraged us to explore new horizons. Once the WWW ended, I immediately tuned into a psychopathic thriller happening on the road. Even though there was pandemic danger, Highway was a movie that can be shot with a core crew and luckily things were going well when we started filming.
When we cross paths with someone, one or other of our lives will likely change – it can be very marginal or even huge. You can meet someone on a train and they can become your soul mate. Ten people like us go to a tea vendor and ultimately contribute to its survival. What if the fates of a cop, a serial killer and an innocent woman intertwine on a highway? The film was born from this idea.
None of the characters in the film are heroic. We are all connected to nature on some level. When everything is connected, how does nature react? It’s the climax of Highway and there’s an element of surprise associated with it.
The challenge of making a road film with limited sets/characters:
It was very difficult to prepare the scenario because it does not contain any point of reference. I tried to be true to myself in telling this and I don’t know how the audience will react. I don’t even know if the inside story will reach them. I gave him everything. Although it is a road movie, Highway is not limited to “roads” but speaks of situations where the lives of the characters change radically. How can you stop changing someone’s life?
The creative choice behind telling Highway through the eyes of a photographer:
It’s a life I know quite well. I wanted him to be a really sweet guy who gets put in a situation where he has to deal with a serial killer. He’s not a hero and he’s not trying to do anything bigger than life. If this is an ordinary movie, the character would go out of their way and attack the villain. He’s an ordinary man and even if I put myself in his shoes, I’m not sure I can handle the situation.
Heroism isn’t just about getting things done, it’s also about trying. During hijackings or train accidents, a human stands up for the co-passengers and tries to save them even without knowing them, thus risking his life. A father who does odd jobs for the well-being of his children is also heroism for me.
Anand in Highway is someone who doesn’t hesitate to try and does his best to save a girl. It’s a girl he had met only a few hours ago, he was instantly seduced by her. Someone can decide the love of their life in an instant; it’s a stroke of magic. He helps her not only out of love but also out of human concern.
Create the character of a psychopath without exaggerating the obvious:
I had a lot of trouble dealing with his character in the script. If you read Ted Bundy or the life of any other serial killer in the history of the world, they are like ordinary human beings. Ted Bundy, in fact, had a chemical imbalance in his brain that caused him to find pleasure in killing people. He is otherwise known to be very well behaved with his friends and family and few would believe that he killed more than 40 people. He has no control over him. I tried to design a character like that and maybe he has no reason to commit crimes. Indian cinema always requires a criminal to have a motive behind his actions and I have given a brief story to justify his behavior. History lets you know the trigger point for which he became a monster.
Unconventional cast for Highway – Anand Deverakonda, Abhishek Banerjee, Saiyami Kher and Manasa Radhakrishnan
Even before Anand Deverakonda came along, I cast Abhishek Banerjee for the serial killer role and he was my first choice for it. After seeing Paatal Lok, I wanted to cast him in our films too. He’s an unconventional, odd-looking guy who shatters all stereotypes of an ordinary villain with his looks. He wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. Abhishek had a childhood near Chennai. He was looking to make his debut in a Southern film and I approached him at the right time. He connected to the character and immediately said yes. He was very cooperative and spontaneous.
Saiyami Kher was returning after Special OPS and she is well aware of the body language and composure to play a cop role. She did a good job. Manasa Radhakrishnan’s eyes are slightly unusual, I wanted someone to look usual and innocent. And you never know what can captivate a viewer. What is Om Puri without the many pores in its face? What’s Nasser sir without his nose?
As a cinematographer, I appreciate every type of skin, every texture, I find beauty in everyone and I don’t like makeup. When you make up the main actors, you make everyone look the same. I didn’t want Manasa wearing makeup and she is a good performer. She was a child artist before and I still believe they are prepared to do well. As a child, he better understands the process of action and develops well over time.
For the Vishnu character, I wanted to choose someone who isn’t heroic and would split the screen space between four characters equally, because we’re focusing on their whole lives. It also has very short screen time in the first hour. Only a sure actor who trusted the story could have done that. Anand Deverakonda did a fantastic job with the character. Whenever I work with actors, I just explain the situation and give them the opportunity to improvise and add some lines even if they are not on paper. It was a good experience for Anand. He usually took time for workshops before his previous films and he didn’t have that luxury here. Spontaneity also helped in our case, he was a natural performer.
Directing a film on a low budget without compromising on the job:
I didn’t have a lot of budget constraints with WWW, but Highway was a huge responsibility. It revolved around four characters on a highway and the narrative had to be hectic, keeping the audience glued. It was hard but I think we managed to get through it. With Highway, I did everything I could within budget. After finishing the film, I humbly accept what the audience says – I’m fine even if they praise or denigrate it.
As director of photography for films, he also directs:
As long as it doesn’t cross boundaries and deals with a bigger canvas, working as a cinematographer for my films is always easier. It’s a challenge, yes, but the process is worthwhile. It’s like jumping from one channel to another – I need to see a scene both as a director and as a cinematographer. I don’t let any of the specs compromise. In the end, the director in me must be happy. If I’m doing a larger scale film, I might need someone to do the cinematography, so I can focus more on the performance and the emotions, the craft in general.
The possibility of working as a director of photography for other directors:
In fact, I want to do cinematography for other directors too. It opens up my learning process and pushes my limits. Ultimately, I have to bring someone else’s vision to life. I’m thrilled when a director is happy with my shot and it’s shaping up to their expectations. It’s a nice challenge. I want to do cinematography for other directors but writing scripts takes up a lot of my time, at least six months. When I’m working as a cinematographer for another film, I don’t have much time for my scripts.
The difference in approach to the technicalities of cinema between feature films and OTT:
Apart from the concept, a film remains the same everywhere, whatever the medium. People are starting to buy big TVs and quality home theater systems – nothing can be left to chance. For all my OTT movies, I did Atmos and did a lot of sound design work. Nothing changes on the production, only the output medium is different.
The desire to launch a web series soon:
I would love to pick this up and even the streaming platforms are expressing more interest in supporting them. I want large-scale web shows. I don’t want to limit my scope to thrillers and seek to tell stories on a large canvas. Something like Mission Impossible and The Lord of the Rings is happening on OTT today. It takes a long time to make web series. In a few years, there will be clear demarcations on who works on feature films and web shows. Web shows take time and effort and you have to stay in the same zone. From now on, I focus on theater films.
The reason for the popularity of thriller as a genre and his preference for it:
Even as a viewer on OTT, I look for thrillers first. Audiences want something unpredictable and unusual these days – thrillers fit well into this space. For someone like me who moved from Chennai to Hyderabad focusing on Telugu content, I may not know about nativity as much as other local storytellers here. I don’t want to touch anything I’m not sure about.
Thrillers are universal, the same concept can work in multiple languages. I don’t think I’m cut out for family drama or romance. Genres require a great understanding of the smallest details and nuances. I may even have the courage to repeat them in Tamil because I better understand the public’s state of mind.