Quarries have had a bad rap of late, especially in the wake of the landslides that rocked Kerala in August this year. As fingers were pointed at quarries - illegal and otherwise - the state government had issued an indefinite ban on quarrying making these pits even more villainous in the eyes of the public. Though the ban had long been revoked, the tag has stayed. Films depicting quarries as safe havens of nefarious crime syndicates too added to their notoriety.
And yet there's at least one that has evaded such labelling, one which continues to be viewed still through a rose-tinted lens of industry and growth - St Jude near Vazhakkala in Kerala's Ernakulam district. Owned by VP John, St Jude was one of the many quarries that mushroomed in Kochi in the late 1980s. The Edappally thodu (stream) that flowed nearby made it possible that the rocks quarried here and from other sites in the vicinity were transported easily via the stream to the heart of the city, fuelling its growing ambitions.
While stern laws and rapid urbanization have resulted in the closure of many such quarries in the area, St Jude had stood undeterred. This is in part because it had always co-existed quite seamlessly with its surroundings - most of which have now been turned into urban complexes - and also in part, because it had, as early as the 2000s, found another function, a higher calling: serving as a filming location.
From the crowded Vazhakkala junction, teeming with migrant labourers and film aspirants, it is difficult to imagine that a few hundred meters into one of the small lanes there, snaking its way through what are now thickly-paced residential areas, is a quarry, let alone one that resembles a hilltop station more than the terrain that envelops it. Tall green gates, like the ones that you would see outside a factory, guard it from nosy strangers and trouble-makers. But one step in and it is your guard that drops! It is breathtaking - the sights, the smell, the very air! The clamour of town that had clung to you thus far is replaced quickly by only the chirp of birds and the rustle of branches. Tall trees stand silent vigil on either end of the road as it slopes down in a spiral to where the quarry pit once was. Now, flooded, it is a glorified lake augmenting the hilltop station experience.
That's not all. There is also a 100-year-old mango tree, a disused football ground, and remnants of a time when the growl of industry bristled through these lands. An old structure sits atop a small hill nearby, like an iron pike on the quarry skull: the rock crusher. Beside it lay abandoned buildings that once facilitated the business. Though quarrying stopped in 2014, the rock crusher still operates, under the same name: St Jude. Despite it being well nestled in a residential zone, it has never posed any problem. A lot of the people who stay nearby are unaware such a thing even exists.
After VP John, the operation of the quarry was overseen by his two daughters, Rekha and Tissia. It was Rekha who moved here first, in the late 1990s. Her husband Ciby, a reputed builder in Kochi, was quick to recognize the innate beauty of St Jude and decided to leave the terrain as it is when constructing their home. Built in a colonial style, the house, with its sloping roofs and long verandas, is magnificent and sits atop the quarry like a crown jewel. Yet, the idea of turning the place into a film shooting location had not even remotely entered the couple's minds. Had it not been for the visit of their few friends who had connections to the film industry, Paaramada Veedu, as St Jude is now famously called (meaning a house built in a quarry), would have remained but a quarry and a house.
Ciby is delighted that this has worked out the way it has. His passion for construction and architecture has extended to even the outer grounds. Everything is crafted to perfection - the hedges that line the wall, the fences, even the rows of flower pots and the height of grass on the lawn. The interiors of the house too reflects that familiar composition - of gritty rocks and comforting woods. In all, Paaramada Veedu glistens in his pursuit to add a little magic into all things.
A lot of the credit goes to his wife, he says with a grin. "She is the artist." And indeed she is. If Ciby is the one who builds, it is Rekha who adds the colours. The house walls are lined with her artworks, all masterful. All of them hint at the two key ingredients that have made up Paaramada Veedu the most sought-after film shooting location in Kochi: time and talent.
"People are taken to the greenery here and the colonial style of construction. Even when the quarry was fully operational, film shooting crew had no problem getting their work done. There are enough open spaces here. I don't think there are many other places where an entire crew can dismantle the way they do here. But what interests them most, in my opinion, is perhaps the privacy that they get here. It's another world entirely within this compound," Ciby says when asked what made Paaramada Veedu alluring to filmmakers.
That's not all. Paaramada Veedu has easy access to the town. Everything's just an hour's drive away. This saves a lot of time and effort for the film crews.
Advertisement films were the first to be shot here. As the place gained prominence through word of mouth, films too started using Paaramada Veedu as the location. Ben Johnson, a 2005 action-thriller movie with Kalabhavan Mani in the lead was one of the first movies shot here. It wasn't until the hit Malayalam soap opera 'Sthree' began shooting here that Paramaada Veedu became one of the go-to locations for film shooting in Kochi.
"I love this space," exclaims Sinu SJ, the director of the popular sitcom that's been the rave among youngsters in Kerala, 'Uppum Mulakum'. He nods to the earlier reasons suggested by Ciby as to why Paaramada Veedu is very sought-after, and also adds that money too plays a role in the decision making. "To get a space that looks as exotic as this, one might have to shell out a lot of cash, spend days travelling. For a team that's only just starting out, it might be a big hurdle to get over. Here that's not a problem. Big and small teams line up for this space because honestly, I don't think you'd find another film location in Kochi, however magnificent in appearance, that can match the charm of Paaramada Veedu."
"Though we have done very thorough framing sessions here, we are still discovering new frames every day. There are a lot of angles here. All of which are very scenic. The house too can be used in many ways, in many angles that make it look as if its a different setting. This is a cinematographer's paradise," Sinu added. Ciby points to the hill where the rock crusher is and says that it is often used as the villain's lair or for fight scenes.
Sinu is also all praises for the privacy that one gets here. He recalls how even elite Malayalam film stars are at ease in the compound. "They won't even use the caravan here. I've seen them find a shade and settle there. I don't think they could relax the way they do here, even in 5-star locations."
Almost all of the big stars have graced Paaramada Veedu - you name them, they've been here. Mammootty (Pokkiri Raja), Mohanlal (Pulimurugan), Dulquer Salmaan (Charlie), Jayasurya (Happy Husbands), Prithviraj (Lollipop), Jayaram (Happy Husbands) and many others. Nayanthara, who is now one of the leading actresses in South Indian cinema, had her ticket-to-fame Vismayathumbathu shot here. In all, about 200 movies have been shot at Paaramada Veedu. Also, numerous ads, including one by Manappuram Finance which features Bollywood megastar, Akshay Kumar.
Even big-budget movies that can afford to go to exotic locations ensure that at least one of their scenes is shot here at Paaramada Veedu. If not that, then certainly the pooja ceremony. Sinu tells us why: "There's a charm to this place that we don't get anywhere. Many films shot here have had success at the box office, so there's also that history. Call it superstition if you will, but we filmmakers, we do it all to ensure that our films are well-loved, successful."