Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Manipulating The Mind

The Vancouver-based Malayali director Ray Raghavan talks about his stunning debut sci-fi feature film, 'Violentia'

By Shevlin Sebastian

Very early on in the science fiction film, 'Violentia' (2018), a student is shown entering the foyer of a school. He is wearing a blue denim shirt and black trousers, a rucksack on his back and holds a guitar case in his hand. A group of youngsters, a mix of boys and girls enter.

One of the boys pushes against the guitar-toting student, who goes and hits a locker. The group gives mocking grins. The next scene you see is of the boy opening the guitar case, pulling out a hunting-gun and shooting the students, one by one. A girl's scream can be heard on the soundtrack. 

In a parallel screen, the girl's father Dr Adam Anderson is returning home in a car from work. As he enters the house, he senses something is wrong. When he climbs up the stairs and enters the bedroom, his weeping wife, wearing a blue miniskirt, is on her knees, her hands tied at her back. Suddenly a masked man lunges forward from behind a curtain with a knife and attacks Anderson, who fights back. 

The death of his daughter prompts Anderson, a pioneer in the field of nanobiotechnology, to look into a psychopath's memories to find reasons for violence and ways to treat it.

The film explore the reasons why people choose violence, and the extremes that governments go to, in order to prevent such violence from happening,” says the Vancouver-based Indo-Canadian director Ray Raghavan. “So, Anderson wants to reprogram violent people, including the one who killed his daughter.” 

It is a taut, riveting film but the many instances of random violence can be unnerving. Nevertheless, the film has received good reviews. In the prestigious Sight and Sound Magazine, of the British Film Institute, critic Anton Bitel placed Violentia in the top ten of the Sci-Fi-London fest 2018 held in end May.

Writes Bitel: 'Raghavan’s film is a twisty affair, playing out its morality drama (concerning the limits of free will and state control) on an ambiguous stage where people’s memories, real or manufactured, can be viewed “like a movie clip” – making them difficult, crucially, to distinguish from the texture of the film’s own constructed reality'.

And it seemed to have gone down well with the audience, too. After the screening, there was a line of people who wanted to take Ray's autograph. “I was blown away by the love that I received,” says Ray. 

Asked why he focused on violence in his debut feature film, Raghavan recalled a childhood memory. For a few years, he studied at the Kendriya Vidyalaya school in Jagdishpur, Uttar Pradesh because his father, an engineer, worked in a steel company in that area.

Some of my fellow students looked at me as an outsider,” says Ray. “They came from different backgrounds, the children of villagers, businessmen, farmers, and politicians. And they were very motivated in assaulting me. They felt I was a rich kid because I came to school in a car.” 

That got Ray interested in the subject of physical force: why do people get violent? Later, at Delhi University, Raghavan saw Stanley Kubrick's classic 'A Clockwork Orange'. “It was a tremendous film that deals with violence in great detail,” says Ray.

Then in recent years, he came across a TED talk where scientists Steve Ramirez and Xu Liu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology talked about their research on whether they could edit memory. The duo aims a laser beam into the brain of a living mouse to activate and manipulate its memory.

All these thoughts came into my mind when I began writing the script of 'Violentia',” says Ray, who migrated to Canada in 2005 and did a year's stint at the Vancouver Film School. He also worked for two years as an intern in a production house. 

And creative talent runs in the family. His late grandfather was the famous writer KG Raghavan Nair, based at Ottapalam, Kerala, while both his Kochi-based parents are avid film buffs.

Asked about his future plans, Ray says, “I want to continue writing and making films that are hard-hitting and gritty.” 

(A shorter version appeared in the Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi)

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