Aravindan’s art

Print edition :

Aravindan the director at work.


Excerpts from a critical assessment by Sashi Kumar of the master Malayalam film-maker G. Aravindan (1935-1991), published in the June 10-23, 1989, issue.

COMING to grips with the oeuvre of a film-maker like Aravindan can be tricky because his work does not lend itself to normative interpretation. His films are like an observation, in the margin space, on the eddies and crosscurrents of the mainstream of society. An observation that not necessarily studies, critically or analytically, but is more a spontaneous response to aspects of his environment that impinge on his consciousness and sensibility. The delectable cartoon series he ran for years in the Malayalam weekly Mathrubhumi before he took to film-making had already set his quaint perspective. Titled ‘Small People and a Big World’, the anecdotal series, through the eyes of its non-participant and often non-plussed protagonist, stands a jargon-ridden, self-righteous world on its head.

Aravindan’s first film, Uttarayanam (Throne of Capricorn, 1974), is an extension of this small-man-in-big-world view. The unemployed young man, whose father had fought and died for national liberation, is – like Ramu of the cartoons – the estranged protagonist who, from his vantage position of the outsider (as rather gratuitous scenes of his reading Camus’s novelette of the same title jarringly remind us), acts as a sop to the hypocrisy and double standards of society. The hero’s feeble attempts to participate in the social rigmarole – whether in hitting the bottle with his zestful college-mate medical rep, or the ‘ganja’ session with a clone of a dropout who sings the same song each time in Yesudas’ mellifluous voice – are doomed to fail. Nor is alcohol or opium an escape route for his more evolved personality.

On the other hand, he is not a victim either, sinned against by society. Indeed, there is no such scheme of villainy in any of Aravindan’s work. It is an amoral world; bribery, corruption, opportunism, narcissism are all germane to it. Only the characters who mediate his artistic perception of it are not. This marginalisation is the existentialist predicament thrown up by his films.

Aravindan’s finer moments of ellipsis lie in his transmuting that predicament. In Uttarayanam, the disconsolate youth goes through the paces of social contact to seek solace finally in the warmth of a fire lit in some wilderness by an anonymous old woman. Her charming, naive, toothless smile lights up his face with spontaneous, child-like laughter. In a symbolic act of oneness with that pure moment, he throws the mask that is ripped off society’s face into the flames. In that final imagery, the outsider is in harmony with his true self. His alienative experiences are brought to the touchstone of nature.

Almost as if elaborating on that image Aravindan’s second film, coming after a gap of three years, is an eclectic celebration of nature. Kanchana Sita is based on a version of the epic Ramayana, according to which Sita’s trial by fire does not set at rest doubts of her chastity among Rama’s subjects, and he is forced to abandon her. Slighted, grief-stricken and pregnant, Sita throws herself into the Ganga, and the river bears her twin sons, Lava and Kusa, down to sage Valmiki, who brings them up.

The narrative strand of the film itself is drawn from the sequel to that story, in which Rama’s Aswamedha sacrifice brings him face to face with his sons. In Kanchana Sita, Aravindan synthesises into a consummate whole his marginality principle and his anthropomorphic contemplation of nature. The roles of the epic heroes are, in the film, played by Rama Chenchu tribal people of Andhra Pradesh, who claim lineage to the mythological Rama. Sita is never actually seen in the film, but her virtual presence is compellingly evoked in the moods of the forest and the elements.

The anomie and rootlessness of marginal living become the striking metaphor of Thampu (1978), which deals with the roving small-town circus of Kerala. Shot in black and white in a direct documentary mode, the film gives sudden, fleeting insights into the lives of these itinerant entertainers. The film-maker’s effort – and its effect – is poetic and intuitive, rather than sociological. When the circus pitches a tent in a village, it is a welcome break for the local populace. But ringside is as close as one should get for collective entertainment. Beyond that are atomised souls – the forlorn clown, the despondent acrobat, the slipping gymnast. Even as some of them begin to befriend or strike an emotive chord with some of the villagers, it is time to cut loose and shift camp to another village, another small town. Because theirs is a journey with no destination. And so it is as if the film-maker hops on to the circus wagon as it moves into the village, and drops off as it leaves the place. In that slice of space and time what can be attempted is a thumbnail sketch, not a full-blooded portrayal. But the thumbnail touches now and again a raw nerve and then, those flashes of vital truth.

And then comes Kummatty (1979), the Pied Piper-like figment of Malabar’s folklore. Here, and in the subsequent film Esthappan, Aravindan’s formal content approximates to the magical realism of a Marquez or a Calvino. The bogeyman of grandma’s stories materialises from nature one day to mingle with and weave a spell of carefree abandon around the children of the village. He is not the evil spirit summoned to coax children into obedience, but a genial, if mysterious, companion who transports them into a world of fun and frolic. There are some anxious moments when a boy, transformed into a dog, gets lost; but all ends well and Kummatty melts back into nature. The whole film happens on a plane of distraction from society; a heightened plateau of simple, sensual delight. Esthappan (1979), who walks in from the shimmering, quicksilvery sea, is an even more elusive character. To the fisherfolk of the coastal Christian village, he is at once an eccentric simpleton, a possessed soothsayer and faith healer, a Satanic grave stealer. Esthappan embodies the enigma of the indeterminate individual whose inscrutable attributes are the stuff of which fables are made. He is, in this sense, the inverse image of Kummatty. While Kummatty already exists in the collective psyche of generations, Esthappan is the process of that transmutation; the making of the myth.

Marginality and tremulous brinkmanship are made one with nature in the breathtaking twilit aura of Pokkuveyil. Nature at twilight, captured in its bated tonality and lent a mood of the verge by Hariprasad Chaurasia’s haunting flute notes, is the terra incognita of the human mind. Treading that slippery ground is the young protagonist, regressing irredeemably into a cocoon of alienation from society. It is a journey back to the source, to original innocence.

The final shot shows the young man curled up in foetal position in his cell in a mental asylum. If Esthappan and Pokkuveyil are, in a sense, about the indefinability of the human mind, Chidambaram (1985) is about its indestructibility, its amorphous nature.

In the subsequent work, Oridathu (Once Upon a Place), it is a bolder, if uncharacteristic, Aravindan who actually steps into a social milieu. Almost as if to confess that he is here himself seeking out his characters, he conjures up the situation of a village just being electrified. That simple act of technology itself literally sheds new light on the villagers and their mundane concerns. There is here an equivocal approach to technology – a means of material betterment and a corrupting force. Its ominous potential is hinted at in the final scene when a fireworks display in the temple festival takes on the apocalyptic vision of the mushroom cloud of an atomic burst.

Aravindan’s latest film, Marattam (Masquerade, 1989, made for Doordarshan), unfolds like a sensuous discourse on the phenomenology of art itself. In a tour de force of interpretative brinkmanship, he makes a mockery of cause-effect, subject-object dualisms. The artistic event – Keechakavadham, or the killing of Keechaka – breaks out of its formal Kathakali mould to become a tantalising and elusive murder mystery. Keechaka is actually killed, but is it the Kathakali personage or the actor who dons the role who is done to death? Why? And by whom? There are at least three constructs, three versions, each of them as convincing as the rest.

At the end of it all, was Keechaka killed in the first place? If these questions remain unanswered, already the process of unravelling the mystery has shifted subtly from a routine investigation to a metaphysical enquiry. Marattam comes like a reaffirmation that Aravindan’s innate artistic vision remains as unfazed and uncompromising as ever.