Film review

Malayalam film "Run Kalyani": Patriarchy in perspective

Print edition : August 28, 2020

A promotional still featuring the protagonist, played by Garggi Ananthan. Photo: by special arrangement

Geetha J., the director.

A poster of the film. Photo: by special arrangement

The team behind Run Kalyani, after a screening in Thiruvananthapuram.

The Malayalam film Run Kalyani is making waves with its realistic depiction of the romance of everyday living.

It is not always that other characters in a film also become a leading character, despite the film already having a leading character. Perhaps this is where the ‘what’s in a name’ idea turns out to be a major area for critique.

One of the famous texts that Kerala has produced is Nalacharitham by Unnayi Warrier, a Kathakali play or aatakatha. In it, the male protagonist is Nalan and the female protagonist is Damayanthi, both supposedly the major characters. However, when we delve deeper into the play, it becomes evident that without a messenger, it would not be a brilliant one. That messenger comes in the form of the ‘hamsam’ (a bird of passage).

Perhaps it is the indelible nature of the ‘hamsam’ that is seen in the character of Kalyani in the movie Run Kalyani directed by Geetha J. The movie has been critically lauded in several spaces, ranging from the Kolkata International Film Festival 2019 to the 20th edition (virtual) of the New York Indian Film Festival on July 24.

Giving a glimpse of the storyline that begins in an ‘agraharam’ (Brahmin street) in Thiruvananthapuram, Geetha said in an interview to The Hindu (November 14, 2019) that the film tracks Kalyani from the time she wakes up in her rented house in the ‘agraharam’ and makes her way to the high-rise apartment of a bachelor where she works as a cook. Then, she works in a house inhabited by a joint family. And, in the evening, she returns home.

“This goes on for three days, and on the surface, her day looks monotonous but no two days are the same. There are several interesting interactions with the members of the household, and there are visitors too. In the meantime, she also acts as a go-between, carrying poems written by Nirmala (Meera Nair), the young housewife in the joint family, to the resident (Ramesh Varma) in the flat. The complexities go on increasing subtly every day till it all explodes on the fourth day. It is a pattern film about people keeping hope alive in oppressive circumstances, a realistic theme that focuses on the romance of everyday living, of grief and grit,” she said.

Although this happens to be a major plot in the film, as explained by the director, for a viewer there are multiple plots that can be deciphered and delved into through difference and repetition.

Humankind has been the subject and object of a history that has always been confronted with the most mechanical and the most stereotypical repetitions, inside and outside. Although we try to endlessly extract from them little differences, variations and modifications, the realisation of women also being part of the workforce has remained far away from the idea of representation in a patriarchal society.

Run Kalyani  is a glimpse into the daily life of the female workforce. This is a movie that takes one into varied realms of toil, class relations, and, most importantly, an identification of what it means to be a human amidst all the bourgeois ailments that populate the environment we live in.

In other words, the movie is a documentation of how to lead one’s life along with the ‘other’. Here, the ‘other’ need not necessarily be a character; it can even be an imaginative force that stimulates the self to work for others. It can be an illusion that just keeps someone up and running.

This agency, which functions through living a life characterised by an extreme, deep-seated, far-reaching responsibility for others before oneself, is what Run Kalyani tries to portray.

Portraying repetitive differences

Garggi Ananthan, who plays Kalyani in the movie, uses her theatrical training to brilliantly establish relations with the other characters in the film by conveying things that are not always verbal.

Garggi has put her body and soul into the role. It is not always that one can express the toil one undergoes without speaking, but Garggi has perfected this with utmost diligence.

The true success of a hidden talent is when repetitions are perfected. In a traditional artistic sense, one may call it ‘sadhakam’. Garggi as Kalyani in the movie has perfected this ‘sadhakam’ in portraying these repetitions very differently but with precision. The viewer is convinced that the other characters are also equally leading characters when the film succeeds in portraying the ‘repetitive difference’ of the characters. All the actors who are part of this film have achieved perfection in portraying this repetitive difference.

It is also this repetitive difference which is the major signifier employed in the film throughout. This is because the run is for a need and the need marks the limits of a variable present. The variable present for Kalyani has always been repetitive. This is because repetition is essentially inscribed in need, and it coincides with the duration of contemplation. All the characters in the film are in a way objects and subjects of Kalyani’s contemplation owing to her forced circumstances that have been repetitive in nature.

As Gilles Deleuze said: “Novelty passes to the mind which represents itself: because the mind has a memory or acquires habits, it is capable of forming concepts in general and of drawing something new, of subtracting something new from the repetition that it contemplates.”

It is perhaps this repetitive nature that creates a stage of novelty for Kalyani also to stay up and running.

Romantic poetry in acting

Run Kalyani  is yet another cinematic vehicle that wonderfully documents the brilliance of Ramesh Varma’s acting. A trained theatre artist, Ramesh Varma’s very involvement in this film is yet another example of romantic poetry, which he embodies both in his acting as well as in life. This romantic poetry in his acting seems to be getting more and more immanent at the same time aesthetically hidden as time and reel passes by. There is a particular scene in the film where he philosophises the beauty of ‘nothing’. The scene is minute and lasts only a few seconds, but the very articulation of saying the word ‘nothing’ when a girl asks him is a larger symbolic representation of every human in this world who has his/her heart firm in their beliefs.

Meera Nair in the film becomes an epitome of a spiralling staircase. Though the steps are spiralled, the ultimate arrival is at a larger world of flying without boundaries. A world that is bereft of a containment zone. Meera Nair’s acting is definitely a slap on the face of patriarchy and perhaps no one has ever immersed in a character to realistically portray living trauma to such an extent.

The trauma inside manifests not just as silence but also as actions, and these actions are a punch to the face. In a society still weighed down by the burden of historical patriarchy, Run Kalyani comes as a redeemer that questions the past.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow once wrote: “The heights by great men reached and kept were not attained by sudden flight, but they, while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night.”

Men as spectators

Kalyani and the film represent a toil wherein men remain mere spectators. The representation of women as labourers remains in the shadows even today. The reason for this is what the classical Marxist from Kerala, Dr T.K. Ramachandran, called an ‘ultra-conservative backlash’. This backlash marks the majority of the society we live in today.

He said that this society can be a representation of the unabashed idealisation of the feudal past, its belligerent apolitical posturing, its unconcealed male chauvinistic and sexist bias, its pathological dread of people’s movements and its strident revivalist rhetoric.

Run Kalyani goes against this ultra-conservative backlash by positioning Kalyani as an achiever who is optimistic, hardworking, determined and a fellow being who is always there for the ‘other’.

For this courageous attempt, Kalyani and the film have been rewarded with success, but as Geetha. J put it, this is the beginning of a larger beginning.

The movie was available on the site nyiff.moviesaints.com, NYIFF’s screening partner, until August 2.

Sankar Varma is a research scholar with Christ University (deemed to be), Bengaluru.

Works Cited 

https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/geetha-js-run-kalyani-revolves-around-the-life-of-a-young-cook/article29971252.ece

Ramachandran, T.K. (1995): “Notes on the Making of Feminine Identity in Contemporary Kerala 

Society”, Social Scientist.

Deleuze, Gilles (1994): Difference and Repetition, Columbia 

University Press.

Lukacs, Georg (1972): History and Class Consciousness, MIT Press.

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