In real life roles

Print edition : July 31, 1999

A fledgling director uses a cast of non-professional actors from a Kerala island community to fashion his low-budget film into this year's surprise winner at the Cannes Film Festival.

LATE in the evening of May 23, passers by at the busy crossroads of Njarakkal, on Vypeen island in the mouth of Kochi harbour, sensed a ripple of excitement among local people who had gathered around Sanjeevan's public telephone booth. Journalist Johnny Parambaloth, who reports for the evening newspaper Sayahna Kairali from the island, a densely populated, 20-km-long sliver of land hugging the Kerala coast, had just received a choodu vartha (hot news) from his newspaper's office at Ernakul am on the mainland. The news referred to was that a Malayalam film, Marana Simhasanam by a relatively little known director, Murali Nair, had won the "Camera d'Or"- the Golden Camera award - at the Cannes International Film Festival for the best feature film by a new director. The film depicts a situation in which common folk end up as pawns in the game of politics.

For the people milling around the telephone booth, the news had special meaning: they knew that Marana Simhasanam had entirely been shot around the tiny islet of Manjanikkadu in Njarakkal within just two weeks in January, with many of them activel y taking part as cast and crew. Many of them had enacted their real life roles. Those who could not act had helped behind the cameras, rummaged through the neighbourhood to find whatever props were required, or, if the occasion demanded, come together as instant "extras" to create crowd scenes.

Johnny was already putting together his "inside" story about the film for the next edition of Sayahna Kairali; something that the bigger Malayalam language dailies would "lift" the next day. Meanwhile, the news was carried rapidly across the islan d - to 12-year-old Jeevan Mitra, a Sixth Standard pupil in the school attached to the nearby St. Mary's Church, who played a small but memorable role in the film; to Bharathan Njarakkal, a local playwright, who converted the director's story idea into a screenplay; to Gangadharan, owner, cook and waiter all rolled into one, of the chayakkada (tea shop) at Manjanikkadu across the creek, which had served as the operational headquarters of the film crew (Gangadharan played himself - as did regular customers such as Chandran Elankunnapuzha, who took his surname from the adjacent panchayat, and Thomas Parakkal, the local pharmacist).

Telephone booth operator Sanjeevan sent a boy to a tiny hut two kilometres away, across several rivulets and prawn hatcheries. The hut, which was awash with flood water from the monsoon showers, is home to the film's "lead star", 52-year-old "Vishwamchet an" aka Vishwas Njarakkal, a house painter by profession and a make-up artist for local drama troupes, when the occasion demands.

When the director, Murali Nair (whose family house or tharavad was located in Anandapuram near Thrissur, 70 km away), came scouting for locations in early January, he knew no one in Njarakkal except Bharathan, who had come on board as the script w riter and being a local person could gather many of his friends to join in and even suggest what was to become the film's only location: a 50-metre stretch of backwater separating Manjanikkadu from Njarakkal.

Barring the female lead, almost all roles were played by local people. So, a wider search was launched through an advertisement in the Malayalam daily Mathrubhoomi. Among those who responded was a widowed basket weaver, Lakshmi Raman. She lived al one at Irimbanam village, 10 km from the "royal" town of Tripunithura. She was exactly what the film-maker had in mind - and Lakshmi was to be the only "outsider" in a film which soon became Njarakkal's adopted project.

Murali Nair with the award for the best feature film by a new director at the Cannes festival.-MICHEL EULER/AP

EVEN as news about the award-winning film and its unique cast of non-professional common people appeared in the national media, Sanjeevan's STD booth received a call from Murali Nair in London, who tried to share the excitement with as many of his collab orators as possible. Most of them had no idea how they "looked" in the film - or even how the final story turned out, because the director had rushed the exposed film to Chennai for processing and then to France for the Cannes screening committee. Now N jarakkal would know that Murali Nair had couriered a cassette of the final print to Vishwas.

In early June, a well-known artist, Kaladharan of the Ernakulam-based arts school Kerala Kalapeedom, himself a native of Vypeen, borrowed the cassette from Vishwas. He was so excited by what he saw that he arranged a small private screening at the Kalape edom for members of the Cochin Film Society. This was possibly the first time a small audience in India (which included this correspondent) could see the film that was one of the most surprising winners at Cannes this year.

The cassette was passed around in Njarakkal from house to house, and proved a deeply moving experience - not least for the untutored "stars" themselves, who were being gently teased by their friends for turning out to be Vypeen's answer to matinee idols Mammooty and Mohanlal.

Some of the cast and crew of Marana Simhasanam outside the tea shop which figures prominently in the film. The film was shot entirely around the islet of Manjanikkadu, with many of the local residents pitching in as cast or crew.-

Marana Simhasanam

Today, Vishwas Njarakkal, who plays the central role in the film as a poverty-stricken farm labourer driven to stealing a few coconuts for survival and bizarrely ending up executed as the first victim of a new high-tech "electronic chair", is still his o ld dignified self. He says, "I used to make enough money painting houses in the dry months to see me through the lean monsoon season. Now people are afraid to call me for painting." He adds ruefully: "They perhaps think that 'Vishwam has become a big sta r'. It looks as if I must convince people that I am still the same old Vishwam". A well-known face in the nadakam make-up business around Kochi, Vishwam was the only person among the actors with some idea of stagecraft.

"But one of the first things 'Murali Sir' told me was: forget everything you know about stage drama and just act your natural self. That's what this film needs." Many of the other actors did not need even this suggestion because they were required to be themselves, speaking the barest minimum of lines, which were recorded at the outdoor locations and used in the final version. There was no re-recording. To achieve the realism he was looking for, cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan used no artificial ligh ts and the actors sported no make-up.

Scenarist Bharathan, who has directed a number of stage plays and served as the director's assistant in some Malayalam films, today works as Assistant Director on an upcoming film Bharya Veettil Paramasugam (Laid-back Life at the Wife's Place), wi th Director Rajan Sithara, who also had a hand in the realisation of Marana Simhasanam. When they could not find an actor to play the Union Minister who turns up in the film's final moments to "switch on" the electronic chair, Bharathan donned dho ti, kurta and cap to play the role. For Kailas Malipuram, who hails from the adjacent village of the same name, Marana Simhasanam was his debut as assistant director. One of the key tasks of the team was to round up the props required; and since t he spartan decor designed by Preeya Nair - Murali's wife and a graduate from a British film school - called for a bare minimum of items, these were usually borrowed from nearby houses. In any case the house of Paul Mannadan, who plays the feudal tham puran or landlord, is only a stone's throw away and a location to shoot. Set decoration usually meant dragging out the "easy chair" and a few teapoys.

In Gangadharan's tea shop, a key location, it is business as usual these days. Chandran Elankunnapuzha and Suhas Thayat, who played political leaders in the film, drop in for a chaya as before. So does Thomas Parakkal, a few sharp comments of them on the ongoing tragedy make his character of a tea-shop regular a sort of sutradar or muse.

On any day in Vypeen, one can meet the Marana Simhasanam cast - friends and neighbours who interrupted their daily labour for 13 days to take part good-naturedly in an enterprise which has unexpectedly turned the spotlight of publicity on them. B ut little else has changed. This is a film made on a shoestring budget and so most of these people received only small compensation in terms of money. They agree that Murali Nair has been generous in sharing with them whatever the film earned. But life i s still a hard grind. When we visited Vishwam's hut, his three young daughters were away. His wife Lalitha was around, busy clearing the mud floor of their few valuables and hoisting them on a plank running the full length, because the flood water was al ready creeping in. Across the Ernakulam Channel, in Irimbanam, Lakshmi is back to weaving and selling baskets. She cheerfully admits that the Rs. 15,000 she received for her role as the labourer's wife Chirutha has long since gone - mostly as assistance to her married daughter. On July 13, her neighbours in the Karshaka Colony joined to salute her - and Vishwam - at a small function arranged by the Irimbanam unit of the Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI). They each received a brass lamp or kuthuvilakku"at the hands of the local Taluk President. There has been no other indication that any one in the State or Central Government has even learnt that a humble group of Kerala villagers have participated in an unusual film which has a brief but pungent message to deliver - a message which discerning judges in one of the world's best-known international film festivals found sufficiently moving to crown the film as the best debutant effort of the year.

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