The making of ‘Nishabdham’

Director Hemanth Madhukar on how he intended ‘Nishabdham’ to be a small silent film, which has now mushroomed into an international project

Nishabdham (Silence in Tamil), starring Anushka Shetty, R Madhavan, Anjali, Shalini Pandey, Srinivas Avasarala and Michael Madsen, will stream on Amazon Prime on October 2. Nishabdham, which was filmed simultaneously in Telugu, Tamil and English, and later dubbed into Hindi and Malayalam, was originally conceptualised as a silent film.

The thriller set in the USA follows the case of a missing woman, and has Anushka as a mute artist and Madhavan as a musician.

Silence, please

In 2013, director Hemanth Madhukar was re-watching director Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s silent film Pushpaka Vimanam (Pesum Padam in Tamil) starring Kamal Haasan, Amala and Tinnu Anand and thought it would be interesting to make a contemporary silent thriller. “What if the protagonist is hearing and speech impaired and has to communicate through sign language? I wanted to narrate a story from the protagonist’s point of view,” says Hemanth.

Did you know?

  • The American Sign Language (ASL) is different from the sign language used in India. For Nishabdham, Anushka Shetty trained in both forms, to be able to communicate with the American and Indian actors, as required for the story.

Hemanth wrote the story and the initial discussions happened with the PVP group for production: “They liked the idea and had discussions, but there was no further progress. A few months later I bounced off the idea to my old time friend and writer Kona Venkat. He felt the story had the potential to be an international project and suggested we include dialogues. We improvised the script; Kona wrote the screenplay.”

Madhavan and Taapsee were on board but the latter reportedly had date issues. Meanwhile, Anushka heard the story from Kona Venkat on a flight from Mumbai to Hyderabad and was game to be part of the project. Anjali and Shalini Pandey were signed for other key roles. Through a casting agency in the US, Hemanth roped in Michael Madsen. “With all of them coming in, the project grew bigger,” says Hemanth.

He describes the film as “a thriller with elements of horror, and an emotional drama”. Some of the technical crew members were also hired in the US. To keep things realistic for the US-centric story, Hemanth wanted the international cast to speak in English: “It doesn’t sound right to have the English actors speaking in Tamil or Telugu. We can always dub the English lines in other languages,” he says.

Nishabdham has been in the news for almost three years. “News about the silent film got out in its initial stage, so people feel it has been in the making for long,” Hemanth laughs, adding, “We began filming in May 2019 and finished in a single schedule of 55 days.”

Taste of cultures

Straddling different languages was not a humongous task for Hemanth. The filmmaker is well versed in Telugu and Tamil having grown up in Chennai. He moved to Hyderabad when he began assisting director Raghu Raja Pinisetty for Telugu films. “When I wanted to direct my film, I moved to Mumbai. I wanted to do something independently without the influence of my dad (late filmmaker K Baburao),” Hemanth reasons.

He directed the Hindi film The Flat, Telugu entertainer Vastadu Naa Raju and the Hindi film Mumbai 125km. “I won’t say I am an expert. My last film (Mumbai 125km) was a disaster. But I know my job and have a good understanding of the sensibilities of Tamil, Telugu and Hindi cinema.”

The director doesn’t use the term crossover but asserts that he wanted Nishabdham to look like “an international film with Indian and a few American actors”. He liked cinematographer Shaneil Deo’s work in the thrillers Kshanam and Goodachari, and felt he could give Nishabdham the required colour and texture for a horror thriller.

Gopi Sundar composed the songs and sound engineer Vijay Rathinam recommended Girishh Gopalakrishnan for the background score. The duo had worked together for the horror-thriller Aval (Gruham in Telugu). Talking about the effort that has gone into the background score, Hemanth says, “Some of the score was done in Budapest with a live orchestra. We used a few Mozart tribute compositions and wanted cello players.”

Hemanth reveals that there are theatrical plans too: “We hope to release the English version in the US in January 2021, and the other language versions in India. We have made a technically fine film that should be enjoyed in theatres.”