Film Bazaar: Malaysia’s Rajendran Brothers Rage Against Oppression, Deforestation in ‘The Depth of Darkness’ Project

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Malaysia’s Rajendran brothers, producer Kumanavannan and director Gogularaajan, are angry and have a divinity-tinged story to tell.

Tamil and Malay-language project “Depth of Darkness” (“Kaali”) comes to India’s Film Bazaar co-production market from Busan, where in October, it won the development award at incubator program Malaysian Development Lab for Fiction Feature Films (mylab), an initiative supported by the National Film Development Corporation Malaysia (FINAS), the Singapore Film Commission (SFC), the Film Development Council of the Philippines (FDCP) and Taiwan Creative Content Agency (TAICCA).  

“Depth of Darkness” is set in the 1960s, in a secluded Malaysian oil palm plantation which borders a thick forest. Kaali, an innocent, young wife and plantation worker of the Tamil diaspora community yearns to be a mother but is unable to conceive. This subjects her to the oppression of her own society and family. A series of tragic events lead Kaali to realize the divine Mother Goddess in herself and she rises above all the ill doings to protect the innocence of life.

“I began this project as a rebellious act. I wanted to express the helpless anger arising within as I witnessed our ancient and diverse rainforest in Malaysia being cut down to make way for monocultural oil palm crops which did not even belong to this land,” Gogularaajan told Variety. He and Kumanavannan co-founded Padai Art Movement, a group that aims to find an original collective narrative for Malaysian Tamil cinema.

“I want to personify the struggle of nature in the character Kaali. Through her, I want my audience to feel Mother Nature’s pain,” Gogularaajan said. “I want us to question, what led us astray, how we drifted so far from our Mother Nature, and even worse, grow up willing to hurt her? I want to invoke the forgotten Mother Goddess inside all of us and let her lead us to appreciate life and mercy in this world.”

Kumanavannan said: “This is a story that a lot of us in Malaysia are familiar with, even among my peers, but no one has told it yet. We identified this gap and took it upon ourselves to fill it.”

In 2021, the project was selected for the Young Filmmakers Workshop in Malaysia where it was mentored by producers Bianca Balbuena and Leonard Tee and won the Next New Wave Support Award. Subsequently, it was at Seapitch, part of the Bangkok ASEAN Film Festival, where it benefited from mentoring by festival curators Deepti D’Cunha and Paolo Bertolin. At Busan, project mentors included Anurag Kashyap, Marten Rabarts and Marie Dubas.

The next step for the Rajendrans is making a research documentary titled “Plantation Life: As It Was,” capturing the essence of plantations in the 1960s, supported by Malaysia’s Krishen Jit Foundation, and to make a short film from the same universe.

Plans are underway to tap into Southeast Asian funding from FINAS, FDCP and SFC, Busan’s Asian Cinema Fund development grant and Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals development fund. Production could commence by 2024.

“The language, proximity and similarity in culture compels us to look at India as a potential partner and we believe Film Bazaar is definitely the right place in terms of exploring that possibility,” Kumanavannan said.

Gogularaajan added: “We intend to create our own aesthetic/style in filmmaking without borrowing the film logics of Indian cinema. We believe that the land of Southeast Asia has its own pace, poetry and rhythm. We want to derive our unique voice from this interesting clash of Indian and Southeast Asian sensibilities.”

Kumanavannan and Gogularaajan Rajendran.

Film Bazaar is operated by India’s National Film Development Corporation and runs Nov. 20-24.