A deep dive into 'Rorschach' with writer Sameer Abdul
The Mammootty-starrer’s scenarist Sameer Abdul talks about making a wild idea palatable for a wider audience, character detailing and behaviour, and multiple interpretations
Sameer Abdul has proven himself to be a screenwriter with an inclination for out-of-the-box ideas in films such as Adventures of Omanakuttan (2015) and Iblis (2018). However, it’s his latest, Rorschach, with which he struck gold. In this spoiler-filled deep dive into the Mammootty-starrer released on Disney+ Hotstar after a successful theatrical run, Sameer opens up about its mysteries while maintaining that some secrets are better left to audience interpretation—and rightly so.
Rorschach, it seems to me, is a classic case of an essential film coming out at the right time.
Yes, I don’t think audiences would’ve responded this warmly to something like this a while back. In an alternate scenario, they would’ve expected the protagonist, Luke (Mammootty), to undergo a massive transformation. Today, you don’t need to think of him going on a positive trajectory, an idea with which audiences are on board. Look, everyone, including us, have grey shades. We are not perfect. Our dark side comes out at certain times. (laughs)
Was the core idea initially much more unconventional?
It was. The first thought contained Luke’s self-destruction —the demise of a man trapped in hallucinations, someone who couldn’t give a ghost his comeuppance. It opened with him dying with a smile and then going back to explore the preceding events. But, audiences would find it too dark. So we thought of how to lighten the load, and that’s how it reached its current form. In your review, you mentioned how the film was about families, which we had in mind as well—to cause a tonal shift by focusing on families, their continuous conflict, and how it’s meddled with when other characters enter the picture. We brought them in to break expectations and cliches. Take Bindu Panicker’s character, Seetha: she was just Dileep’s mother until that point, nothing more.
How many drafts did you write?
Honestly, the writing here was less compared to that in Iblis. When we first pitched Rorschach to Mammukka (Mammootty), we had a particular draft. After that, we were more into discussions as opposed to writing. We brainstormed different versions. Initially, it was just a small film with only Luke, Sujatha (Grace Antony), and Dileep (Asif Ali). The inclusion of Seetha happened only after so many drafts.
Did the potential for a web series in Rorschach ever cross your mind?
These are all complex characters. You know, Nisam and I did think about doing it as a series because we consume a lot of shows. We had pondered the possibility of doing it long-form if we got a good offer. In the film, we hop from one character to another; we start their stories at the midpoint of their arcs. There are indeed a lot of possibilities when thinking of their backgrounds. For instance, when we think about Seetha, perhaps it’s not the first time she murdered somebody. When we first see her, she is just someone in the background, like one amongst us, and then slowly, we move closer to concentrate more on her.
What if Seetha was from a good family? What if her husband Balan was a government employee? Was she happy with her marriage? Seetha doesn’t think of what she has done as a crime. In her mind, she is simply protecting her children. She sees herself as the world’s best mom. Such suggestions had to show up in the characters’ body language because that’s the only possible thing in two hours. We only had a vague idea of their backstories, not a detailed one. We took a lot of care when it came to casting these parts.
‘Rorschach pivoted on belief and science’
Casting Bindu Panicker and Jagadish worked wonders.
That’s another interesting aspect. We could’ve gone with unknown faces to avoid the predictability factor—some filmmakers usually prefer that— but Nisam entertained the idea of doing something unexpected with known faces, making the audience see them in that particular character. Therein lies Nisam’s talent. Bindu chechi was the last person to be cast. As for Jagadish chettan, he was open to doing anything. We wanted to portray Ashraf as a tired man on the verge of retirement whose greed for money remains unsatiated. He is a failure, and this is his last effort to become successful in life. Maybe he is an alcoholic who squandered his savings in that direction. Ashraf would be physically weak in that case. That’s why he can’t say complete sentences without taking a pause. I wrote his dialogues with full stops in between.
As far as the audience is concerned, they only see the actor doing something fresh, but only we know the character’s background. The same goes for casting Kottayam Nazeer, who didn’t seem a right fit for me initially, but I agreed because these are all brilliant performers. We knew we could break any cliche associated with them.
Did the various genre possibilities evolve during multiple discussions?
Yes. As I said, the initial idea wasn’t fitting for a film adaptation. But when you have a filmmaker like Nisam, always on the lookout for wild ideas, you know we can work something out. My previous scripts weren’t audience-friendly; they were written just to please me. Rorschach, on the other, was envisioned for a wider audience, and while we made some improvisations to that end, we wanted to maintain an experimental quality. Luke’s nature is such that he doesn’t need to tell his story to other characters to elicit sympathy; that’s not who he is. He is all about hiding, listening, and planning... And the more he doesn’t open up, the more some will find the pace sluggish. Though we incorporated some interesting genre ideas, we didn’t want to lose our grip on Luke. I believe that balance worked well here. The central concept pivoted on two factors—belief and science. I believe Dileep is a ghost; Nisam believes he is imaginary. Some find the former more appealing. When we saw some reviews reading the film as a hallucination, we understood that it satisfied both camps.
The suggestion that Luke knows martial arts is cool.
Yes, there is the suggestion that he is physically strong and may have studied martial arts. After all, he is a successful businessman. There is a bit of krav maga (Israeli martial arts) in that factory fight. We had to include some cinematic sequences which were unavoidable.
I guess it wouldn’t have worked as much had there not been these fight sequences or the dark humour.
Right. The dark humour wasn’t deliberate, though. Also, in your review, you mentioned something interesting about the use of English songs—how they could be Luke’s favourite songs. Although we didn’t think that way directly, we have indeed thought of the possibility of a music track running in his head, like using the track ‘My stories are not over’ in that funeral scene. That kind of music might seem awkward for a funeral, but that’s in Luke’s head.
One of the film’s strong suits is its visual storytelling, aided by clever editing choices, especially with the flashbacks.
Flashbacks in a revenge story have become a cliche, which I wanted to avoid or keep very minimal. I believe audiences might no longer need them after ten years. In Rorschach, the flashbacks play as a loop in Luke’s head, and we added sounds that haunt him, like the security alarm, to take him back to the Dubai incident. These scenes lay distributed in three different places in the film—featuring Ammu, Shashankan and Anil. I also read about white room torture, another potential reason for Luke slowly losing grip on his sanity.
Not revealing the face of Dileep’s ghost was smart.
Yes, because that’s how Luke last saw Dileep. He couldn’t find that out even in that family photograph. It was necessary to have an accomplished actor like Asif Ali play Dileep, and we were sure of him doing it because Asif is into crazy ideas too. He doesn’t sleep every day without watching some content.
Any reason Seetha chose to surrender to the police and then kill herself? Couldn’t she have done that already at home? Also, in the end, Luke says, “Welcome back.” Was he addressing Seetha’s ghost—now that Dileep’s is taken care of?
Now that’s something for which even we don’t have an answer. Let’s look at it as the way her mind operates. As for that final dialogue, it could be her. We don’t show her body, just her saree on the fan, as a metaphor. We deliberately didn’t give any clarity there. As you said, Dileep’s ghost is taken care of, but not hers. Or it could be both Dileep and Seetha. We left it open to interpretation. I recently stumbled upon a reading that said it was simply Luke’s way of waking us up from ‘hypnosis’. I thought that was interesting too.