Born to blush unseen

Print edition : March 31, 2017

A still from Manhole, directed by Vidhu Vincent. Photo: Youtube Screengrab

Vinayakan in Kammattipaadam.

There was a shortlist of 10 Malayalam films made in 2016 before the three members of the jury for the John Abraham award this year. As a jury member I couldn’t help feeling depressed as film after film unveiled before us. Each of them was a distinctive and stimulating experience. Each had its own artistic integrity, its own freshness and newness, its own defining aesthetic and craft. Each of them was way better and more profound and more engaging than the routine, star-centric fare spewed out by the industry, so routinised and formulaic that the slightest variation of star act or talk is made to appear like a path-breaking innovation.

These, on the other hand, were the films which were making conscious departures from the trodden path. These were the films which refused to hang the plot and the theme and the cinematography and the editing and the special effects and the songs and the background score and the on-screen and off-screen artists and technicians and all their earnest work on the one single peg of the star. These were the films which touched our raw nerve, which plumbed our subconscious, which opened up, in ever so many little ways, new dimensions of artistic experience. But, with a couple of exceptions, they won’t even get to be seen by the people. Because that’s the way the distribution system, the cinema theatrical circuit, the TV satellite rights deals, work. Because that is how the entire economics of the industry is configured—at the mercy of the star. Hence the depression, at the thought that such accomplished works are destined to wander about like unseen orphans in a cinematic social order where the star (by definition male) is the paterfamilias.

The difficulty marriage-ready women in Muslim families in Kerala face in finding husbands becomes an abstraction of search and expectation and a vicarious fulfilment of matrimonial consummation in Siddique Paravur’s allegoric road movie, Kanyavanangal. The roads travelled at once traverse different locations in Kerala and neighbouring Karnataka and lead into the minds and hearts of the women who await with uncanny certainty the man in their lives. It is the same man, or so it is rumoured, or rumour-mongered, who manifests himself differently to each of these brides in waiting. The restlessness of their biding hearts resonates in the restlessness of his travel. Such a man, if there be one, would, in the eyes of society, naturally be a fraudster cheating women with his promise or act of marriage, even if for them, even if and after he has left them, he continues to be their deliverer. The police, thus, are out to track him down. The tale, at once intriguing, amusing and sad, shifts from the real to the illusory and back and leaves us travel-lagged between the two zones and uncertain about our certainties. The film is alluring in its elusiveness.

Renjith Chittade’s Pathinonnaam Sthalam (Eleventh Place) is a simple device of a story about the sequestered, anonymised life of the tribal, the original inhabitant, of Wayanad [a district in Kerala], but is strong and assertive in its telling and in its apportioning guilt to the outsider who has appropriated his land and his ecology. It is only their totemic belief system that continues to invigorate the tribal peoples’ existence. It is only their magic that self-validates them, pitted as they are against organised politics and religion, and the commercial aggrandisement of ruthless developers who romanticise their avarice in syrupy, touristy terms. They are airbrushed out of existence even as they live, and continue to be anonymous even when they die. All this and more hang by the thread of a simple anecdotal experience in this film, which is all the more fine and delicate for it.

God Say is a rather contrived title for a film, not least for its obviousness in seeking to double-mean divine will and the one who killed Gandhiji; it is also clumsy because it sounds ungrammatical, and one can’t help thinking that if the filmmakers were adamant about packing in the two-in-one meaning, they could perhaps have settled for God Says (even if that would have meant, in the other meaning, a proliferation of Godses). But the film turns out to be surprising and creatively agile in its meaning-making voyage and makeover of an All India Radio artist, from alcoholism and near-nihilism to Gandhian purposiveness, at a time when Gandhi isn’t exactly hot currency even in the government-owned media. The directors Sherrey Govindan and Shyju Govind could have kept the material less loose and more taut, but they manage to sublimate the Gandhi appeal into an aspiration from amidst the crass compulsions and conflicts that afflict our lives.

Saheer Ali’s Ka ppiri T huruthu, in which situations and events propel the protagonist from his teashop on the backwaters of Kerala to becoming a powerful Sufi singer in Delhi, covers a considerable time period and spatial canvas, yet manages to not get lost in spite of all that goes on—and there’s a lot going on. The film overall tends to appear like an overgrown bush that needed trimming. It suffers, sometimes from too much of a good thing, and at others, of an excess of not-so-good things. It is elaborate, fanciful, and a bit loud in all respects, but eminently watchable. The three films which bring up the rear of this top 10 of the other-than, better-than, box office Malayalam cinema, too, are, in their own ways, unique. Ayaa l Sasi (He, who is Sasi) by Sajin Babu is a strange concoction about a terminally ill bohemian (the part is played with panache by Srinivasan) and his grand final act of setting himself afloat on a river in a ‘smart’ coffin, fitted with gizmos and gadgetry that could make dying as much a technological feat as a biological act. There is this tenor of outlandishness through the film which makes it a class of its own. Anil Thomas’ Minna minungu (Firefly) about a woman struggling, multitasking really, to make ends meet and look after her aged father and her teenage daughter with aspirations in life, stays doggedly level-headed without lapsing into mushy piety and hopelessness. Surabhi in the main role stretches to transform herself in her role as it proceeds from difficulty to desperation; only, the effort shows. Saji Palamel’s Aaradi (Six Feet) is a good idea gone slightly sour. It is about the tokenism that Dalithood fetches socially and politically. The body of a local Dalit leader, waiting to be ceremonially disposed of, goes through a series of reality checks of indifference and insult until the family decides to dig a grave within his own house to bury him. The importance of the theme gets undercut by artificially imposed situations and forced acting.

Spell-binding cinema

The film that really reaches out to grab you and hold you spellbound is Ottayaal P aatha (The Narrow Path) directed by the Babusenan brothers, Santhosh and Satish. What looks deceptively like little more than a home movie turns out to be an epic. The human face, the film seems set to prove, is all one needs to see and all one needs to know. The camera, for most of the film, dwells on the face. The visage is the ultimate visual. It draws us by its shades and nuances of mood and expressiveness. It draws us into the minds that the faces are indices of. A paralysis-struck, apparently uncaring and rough-edged father and his undemonstratively filial but caring son, who is an engineering graduate, tango through their game of domestic one-upmanship in a series of fascinating chessboard-like moves.

The slum-like setting where they live in a cramped ramshackle two-room flat is claustrophobic for both of them. The father, retired from a government job and handicapped by the paralysis, almost compulsively schemes to foil his son’s plans to move to another city with the woman he loves and take up a job there. The son knows and resents and resists this but cannot, when it comes to it, cut himself loose. The interiority, the involuted intensity, the bristling body language and the tense mutuality of the body chemistry of father and son are underscored and accentuated by a tight screenplay, by dialogues that flow so naturally and seamlessly from the situations and the motivations of the characters in each instant that it is hard to imagine that someone actually wrote them up in advance, and by a background music score that provides buffer and pique in just the right degree. Kaladharan as the crusty old paralytic is devastating. He gets not only into the skin of the character but into its body and soul, in a supreme identification of artist and role. The denouement is sublimely searing. It seems nothing short of a cultural crime for a film like this not to be seen widely in society. The film, incidentally, was the unhesitating, unanimous choice of the jury for the John Abraham award.

If Ottayaal P aatha rivets you to your seat, Vidhu Vincent’s Manhole yanks you from it and forces you to look. And, of course, you don’t like what you see. Because what you see is people who occupationally clear clogged drains, lower themselves precariously into manholes and heave bucketsful of faeces out, who are suffocated by the miasma of poison and stench in the nether zones they work in and who often succumb to it, and die. You can’t look away because you know that you are culpable. What you see is what you always knew was going on to keep the shit from rising and flowing into your homes. What you see is what you are told does not exist because, manual scavenging is, has been illegal and forbidden for some time now. What you see is the hypocrisy of it all, a hypocrisy you know, even without anyone having to tell you so, you are part of.

Vidhu Vincent has no use for aesthetic filters to tell her story. Neither does she have the financial resources to vest it with technical heft or finesse. It is a raw, pared-down narrative with a semblance of a plot line. It is more like a journalistic story than a cinematic one. But it works like nothing else, or more, in its stead could have. The film, which had already created a buzz at the latest international film festival in Thiruvananthapuram, has gone on to win the top Kerala State award, and Vidhu Vincent has bagged the best director prize. It was also the close runner-up for the John Abraham award and the jury had made a special mention of the film in its citation.

A crossover film which has caught the popular imagination and done well in the awards circuit is Rajeev Ravi’s Kammatti paadam. The film assuredly carries a rising star, Dulquer Salmaan, rather than the other way round, which is the norm, of the star carrying the film on his shoulder. Dulquer adapts to the milieu of the underbelly of crime and grime with remarkable resilience and passion.

But the film, even more than him as the main protagonist and the director who seems after a point to be running after the film when he should be reining it in, belongs to Vinayakan. A spring coil of energy and anger, a grasping henchman impatient to strike, a devoted friend to his gang mates, a possessive lover, a naive loser before his unscrupulous, scheming masters—he combines all these and more in his screen persona to give an awing performance. There is tremendous promise there. It remains to be seen if the industry has the bandwidth and creative latitude to nurture that promise.

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