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Seeing Red at the Malayalam Movies

Last updated on: June 01, 2016 11:34 IST

Malayalam film audiences, who had spent close to two decades waiting for something truly interesting to watch at the movies, seem to be finally getting their due.
What's fuelling this resurgence, says Sreehari Nair, is a model they had stopped trusting sometime ago.

Dulquer Salmaan in Kammatipadam

IMAGE: Not only are Left-leaning directors giving movies from Kerala their unique flavour, they also somehow seem more in step with the attitudes that the state is set in. Seen above, Dulquer Salmaan in Kammatipadam.

 Is it a mere coincidence that almost all the interesting Malayalam movies out lately have been made by directors with Leftist leanings?

Dileesh Pothan who gave us Maheshinte Prathikaram -- probably the most exciting Malayalam movie since 1987's Thoovanathumbikal and 1997's Bhoothakannadi -- leans to the Left.

Although it differs significantly in tone from Maheshinte Prathikaram, Rajeev Ravi's Kammatipadam (above), which released only a few days ago, has strong Leftist undercurrents -- consistently, a big part of the movie's charm.

Not only are Left-leaning directors giving movies from Kerala their unique flavour, they also somehow seem more in step with the attitudes that the state is set in.

The satirical Malayalam movies of the late 1980s and early 1990s derived their humour from highlighting how the Left had failed the state and turned it into a hotbed of Trade Unionism and Mass Strikes.

The writer-director duo of Sathyan Anthikad and Sreenivasan, back then, would constantly underline the fallacies of the Left and put forth the belief that 'Self-Good' should, instead, be at the centre of one's being.

The whole idea propagated was that, if we merely strengthened our own four walls, we would get better and better and eventually conquer all evil.

But in propagating this concept of 'Self-Good above Everything Else,' directors like Anthikad turned themselves into reformists and their movies became trite, repetitive and formulaic.

What blog posts with titles such as 'Where has the Golden Period of Malayalam Cinema gone?' don't seem to get is that Malayalam cinema didn't go down in the 2000s because we failed to keep up to the standards of the 1980s and the 1990s; rather, it collapsed because we failed to improve upon the 1980s and the 1990s.

The current crop of Left-leaning Malayalam directors don't concern themselves with conquering evil, and they accept evil differently -- it's a riper sense of evil that they are interested in. These directors are not disillusioned about their Leftist ideals and, most importantly, they also know how to dramatise these ideals.

Kammatipadam ends with a Pulayar community song playing against an aerial shot of Cochin's ritzy towers, coffee shops, malls and gyms. Modest Pulayar households once stood at this present venue of glitz and development and Rajeev Ravi doesn't flinch when he makes his point. He knows that blood has been spilled and he clearly wants us to smell it.

That parting shot is clumsy and inchoate in its design as are some of the other sections in the movie.

Ravi's decision to hold the camera smack up against the actors' faces often drains the poetry off the settings. And the scenes are sometimes crudely constructed, with certain flashiness added just to patch up the deficiencies.

Also, Rajeev Ravi is evidently the kind of director who works best around stories that unfurl with an episodic rhythm; he often discovers the beat of his movies in the course of their making. In this movie, though, you get the feeling that the subject with its wide arcs and feverish pitch isn't quite right for the director's exploratory style.

In the way it is mounted, Kammatipadam is, maybe, only a half-achievement -- flawed and maddening at times. However, in its thematic richness, it belittles most of our immediate anxieties.

I was particularly surprised that none of the critics I had read came even close to calling Kammatipadam a political movie.

Is it because the story flows too much like a narrative and less like propaganda?

Is it because nobody in the movie stops to make obvious, political-sounding statements?

Or is it because there is not a single stereotypical politician-character in the movie?

As I see it, not calling Kammatipadam a political movie is as much an error of judgment as calling Venu Nagavally's Lalsalaam (which was essentially just a neat drama with politics at its centre) a political movie.

Sathyan Anthikad with Amala Paul

IMAGE: The writer-director duo of Sathyan Anthikad, seen above with Amala Paul, and Sreenivasan would constantly underline the fallacies of the Left Movement and put forth the belief that 'Self-Good' should, instead, be at the centre of one's being.

Starting in the mid-1980s, strong anti-Left sentiments were taking root in Kerala, due partly to a perception that the movement had somehow failed to achieve its basic goals when evaluated against the rigours of everyday life.

Every time a rickshaw driver ferried his vehicle without putting his meter on and later charged the passenger a bomb, people saw it as a direct result of Leftist values being misused.

Every time a paid labourer spent an entire day just stroking his broadfork and then, in the evening, demanded his daily wage, noses were thumbed at the portraits of great Leftist leaders adorning the walls.

Fast-talking bus conductors, sarcastic-sounding vegetable sellers and the weed-remover who promised but never turned up all added to the mood of cynicism.

Movies are naturally known to side with the angered lot, and the heroes of the Malayalam movies from this period became the common, suffering middle-class men who were struggling to just get by with their lives.

Pragmatism became the cool new virtue to possess and the butts of the satirical humour movies were those who spouted idealistic theories in the face of raging infernos.

However, as the pragmatic heroes of the 1980s and 1990s aged and had children, something about Kerala's environment too changed.

Fahadh Faasil

IMAGE: In Maheshinte Prathikaram, starring Fahadh Faasil, the characters and the situations impress themselves upon the topography with such authority and with such easy grace that they leave reverberations all around.

Money started pouring in, businesses and business parks flourished -- also attributable to the absence of Leftism from Kerala politics -- and levels of affluence surged.

The petty problems of everyday life could now be overlooked for the larger cause of equalisation. Financial independence gave back to the Malayalis a bit of the social conscience they had chosen to keep parked away.

Like it is also true of pessimism, Leftism was, now, suddenly 'affordable.'

Helped also by a spate of scams, Loyal Comrades who were, till then, lying low and the children of the pragmatic masters now had a new prism through which old Leftist ideals could be seen and interpreted. They fused -- both in spheres of life and art.

The leftist directors of today may understand very well the symbolisms of the Hammer and Sickle and the Raised Fist, but it's a kind of pop-leftism they are really interested in projecting on screen.

By which I mean that leftist principles, for these directors, have mutated into a new set of cinematic principles. And it's these leftist-cinematic principles that have become the reservoirs from which these directors draw their freshness.

Notice for instance, how many of the Malayalam films today aren't class-unconscious. The reformist lot of the past either, liked to pretend that class, caste and religious barriers didn't exist beyond a few cursory cutesy differences OR they turned out to be klutzes like Vinayan who exploited these barriers for a few popcorn-tears.

The truth, however, is that there are indeed psychological connections between the different communities' ways of living and their motivations and actions.

In Kammatipadam, a Pulayar household is set to its own specific rhythms; these rhythms may often sweep up feelings of discomfort in an average viewer. The Pulayar characters are shown to be exploited, though not in a cheapskate-manner -- these characters are doomed in a certain sense; driven toward self-destruction.

When the lead character Krishnan (Dulquer) visits a Pulayar friend upon learning about the death of his grandfather, the slightly-mourning friend starts off by offering him some arrack to drink.

Similarly, the Christian characters of Maheshinte Prathikaram function through precise religious definitions. When Mahesh's (Fahadh Faasil) girlfriend jilts him, she tries to lull the effect of the moment by reaching out to the Christian tenets of guilt, sin and redemption.

In Amal Neerad's Iyobinte Pusthakam -- a glorious failure -- a low-caste, gypsy-like woman is categorised by the villagers, on sight, as a propagator of witchcraft.

These characters don’t learn any grand lessons like the characters of the past. Their feelings aren't planned feelings. They don't become better citizens or individuals. If there is an enduring quality about them, it's that they give into mistakes and temptations without any forethought.

When these characters fight in the dirt or get plastered by mud, you feel like they are turning into their own shrines. And their stories finally become ballads of small glories, achieved and little lives, lived -- very much like how the principles and heroes of the Left-Wing movement had originally got enshrined in the collective consciousness of Keralaites.

Rajeev Ravi and Dileesh

IMAGE: For the Left-leaning directors -- seen above, Rajeev Ravi and Dileesh -- the familiar leftist principles have mutated into a new set of cinematic principles. And it's these leftist-cinematic principles that have become the reservoirs from which these directors draw their freshness.

If equality is an inherent part of their belief-system, the Leftist directors achieve it cinematically by giving all characters in their movies their due dignity.

In Maheshinte Prathikaram, the characters and the situations impress themselves upon the topography with such authority, and with such easy grace, that they leave reverberations all around. A game one can play on every subsequent viewing of the movie is to note how a major character in one scene had appeared as a minor character in some scene before.

Amid an environment of Altmanesque denseness and chaos, even the trivial reactions of the minor characters are suggested to have far-reaching impacts -- there is a sense of society, of world, of communion. You may watch the movie linearly but it actually comes together in your head.

Because they are so elemental and unapologetically so, the Leftist directors in today's Kerala are interested in the ordinary look of things and they achieve this look by turning a different light on the ordinary.

So money is not spent on creating a sense of grandness but on recreating details of the commonplace. A cinematographer like Shyju Khalid, operating under these directors's vision, became a master at simply photographing the mundane and letting it curl into poetry.

The real-life sloganeering of the Left political parties has been parodied in Malayalam movies, but when these parodying movies themselves turned into charters of righteousness, the viewers were left confounded.

A piece of work such as Rajesh Pillai's Traffic is often cited as a new-generation movie. However, if you look beyond Traffic's multiple-narrative structure -- a storytelling device that is as old as D W Griffith's 1916 release, Intolerance -- it is very much just a movie that preaches the importance of making our lives worthwhile; a 'Vatican Movie,' like the movies of the past that attempted to purify our senses -- the kind of movies that virtuous directors like Lal Jose and Ranjith Sankar still churn out. These movies continue to be cast in that age-old crucible of infallibility.

On the other hand, a big advantage that the Left-leaning directors of today have is that they know both the appeal of their political belief and also how it had once slid out of favour in Kerala.

They are not the natural-children of old Leftist Malayalam directors like P A Backer, Thoppil Bhasi, P Bhaskaran or John Abraham.

These directors are more a result of those old voices losing their relevance. And like every movement that resurfaces powerfully after a period of suppression, these Left-leaning directors' style is more visual and more visceral than their predecessors.

They are soft on rhetoric and we accept the unhappiness of their characters, not as aspects that must be refined but as simple truths of their existence.

We see in these directors' movies both the strength of their conviction and a witty acceptance of their own foolishness. They seem to tell us that they are constantly trying something new but also warn us that they may fail in their attempts. And when they do fail, they are gracious enough to accept it.

Viewed from this perspective, these Left-leaning directors appear more forward than the men who actually represent their ideologies on the podium. A clear case, perhaps then, of the artist knowing what the politician doesn't.

Now, is that a tragedy or simply a tune of our times?

Sreehari Nair