Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is a masterpiece, and like most masterpieces of the cinema, it's a great act of folly, observes Sreehari Nair.
In Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, Lijo Jose Pellissery seems to be telling us, 'This is the Mammootty everyone talks about' while simultaneously telling us, 'And this is the Mammootty I hold close to my heart.'
Nanpakal contains so many clues to Pellissery's artistic genesis that beyond terming it 'a ghost story' or 'a story about identity crisis', you might as well call it the Lijo Jose Pellissery Origin Story.
The whole film is set to the rhythms of the theatre, of the stage, yet the sounds of pop culture permeate it like sunlight, like sauntering spirits.
Pellissery's latest is a masterpiece, and like most masterpieces of the cinema, it's a great act of folly.
Petulant James, the character Mammootty plays in Nanpakal, is as prickly as his hairdo: The man is just this side of 'anal'.
We see him returning home with his family after a trip to Velankanni -- the bus rumbling along; James grumbling -- and the parallels between the character and the actor become quite evident.
Our hero is a blow hot and cold sort of fellow. His biggest fear is that if he loosens up, he would lose his grip over life, and life would turn too sugary for his taste; so every moment of tenderness that he unwittingly creates, he follows up with a huffy remark.
For James, jesting and taunting are one and the same.
The man is fidgety to a fault, and the only time he sits still is when the driver of the bus puts on a grainy print of Parampara, Sibi Malayil's forgotten melodrama from 1990, which has Mammootty in a double role.
The reference to Parampara feels like a wink, a piece of candy-floss, until it reveals itself to be an Easter egg, a precursor of things to come.
Almost on impulse, James gets off the bus and steps onto a land so brown and arid that its intermittent greens seem as if done up using watercolours.
In the language of the theatre, this is what they call 'a change of scenery'.
Over the next few sequences, James treats the winding lanes of a nearby village as his wing space, dips into a house in the village, changes his attire, and starts behaving like a man of the household and a man of the village, a certain Sundaram who had gone missing two years ago.
The villagers are perplexed to see the rather slap-happy Sundaram come back in a new body; even as James' family, which also includes his wife and his son, debark from the bus and reach the village to claim ownership of their original grump.
In the above sequences, the terms of the movie are laid out; and if these sequences have the texture of 'wakeful dreaming', that's because they are a result of Lijo Jose Pellissery ransacking his unconscious for inspiration.
Pellissery has woven a tale out of his recollections of those days and nights he had spent as a boy travelling with his father's drama troupe through Tamil Nadu, presumably in buses just like the one James abandons.
I know it's difficult to picture a full-grown bearded artist as anyone else, but let us try to think of that little boy and his first experience of stagecraft, of the spine and its tingle, of watching from close quarters such wicked virtuosos as Thilakan light up the gloomy sky.
To the cinephiles and the film festival audiences, who come to Pellissery's movies to salivate at his peppy camera and his stoner-nihilism, this retreat to childhood must feel like a betrayal.
"The shots are static this time," a prim gentleman had commented with a confused cod-like face after the film's debut at the International Film Festival of Kerala last year.
Back then, hardly anybody had talked about the dialogues, which have been carefully made only as sharp as one hears in real life.
But the plain dialogues and the static shots of Nanpakal have their own density, and they are being constantly transfigured by the drone of radio and TV sets; with everyday imageries and conversational deadlocks finding their counterpoints in the glug of bad spy movies, in the obsequiousness of overly devotional songs, in the sentimental cheats of daily soaps, and in such brand messages as The Healthy Oil For Healthy People.
One of Mammootty's heart-rending speeches, a Hamletian monologue, is capped by the sparkling overture of the Nirma Washing Powder jingle, with its promise of gung-oh whites and blooming rainbows.
It's not every day that an Indian superstar's grand performance is cut short by a bunch of nameless chorus girls, but such disturbances fit wonderfully well within the artistic scheme of this movie.
The Mammootty in Nanpakal is not a Mammootty built up for wolf whistles (as in Bheeshma Paravam), or a Mammootty put together for course corrections (as in Puzhu), or a Mammootty hollowed out and made lifeless (as in Rorschach).
This is not a Mammootty who clamours for close-ups and zoom-ins and tracking shots.
Much like Amitabh Bachchan's in Gulaabo Sitaabo, Mammootty's performance in Nanpakal is one that merges the star with life, brings him back to earth than confines him to exalted galaxies.
The pleasure is in noting how the actor smacks his own backside after a punch dialogue, as if to say 'Bazinga!'
The pleasure is in noting how, when he lip-syncs to a thunderous Tamil film dialogue, he does it with a lapidary's precision, incorporating even the phlegm and bile of the original scene into his recital.
The earthy Sundaram dives into pools that the anal James would have grouchily sidestepped -- the pleasure is in noting how effortlessly Mammootty gives both those persuasions their just dues.
Keeping his nose sufficiently in the air, Pellissery has located his Mammootty inside jumbled memories, half-remembered gossips and lost possibilities, before locating the character in an instance from his own cinema-crazy years when the actor had left the future film-maker astonished and agape. And now, grown up and groping, Pellissery passes on to us some of his sickness.
When James is informed that he does not belong to the Tamil village, he goes round the bend.
'If I do not belong here, who does? asks James, and with that one question he pulls us down a rabbit hole, to a place where rational thinking has to be cast aside in favour of poetic truth.
Twenty-five years ago, as Vidyadharan in Lohitadas' Bhoothakkannadi, Mammootty had argued for a beautiful girl he had imagined into existence, whose rape and desecration he had witnessed from a non-existent hole in his prison wall.
Lijo has stated in interviews that Vidyadharan was the model for James; and you can see now how the two cuckoos dovetail.
If the strength of Vidyadharan's schizophrenic visions could choke you up, James' belief in his imaginary roots can alter your sense of reality.
James is 'at home' as Sundaram; so at home that he resumes family conversations left unfinished by Sundaram, coos at Sundaram's twitchy cow and his wise dog with an affection that's anything but second-hand, guards with a natural bitterness Sundaram's bitter gourd plantation.
James is so at home he does not realise that the questions he is posing to his fellow villagers are being carried away by the wind, and not even considered worthy of deliberation.
Yes, if this interloper, this someone-from-somewhere, this sincere stranger, if he does not belong to the village, who does?
The implied joke in Nanpakal is that James, who starts out eager to cross the Tamil Nadu border (he is a racist of the 'offhand quips' variety), ends up reluctant to leave the state.
In consequence, two communities, two cultures, two sets of lives moving at completely different speeds, are forced to come together.
Pellissery's people do come together frequently, and frequently on the flimsiest of pretexts: To play cocks of the walk; to dress up the dead; to shoot dice; to corner elusive beasts; to bitch and slander with their mouths cupped.
In Pellissery-land, any event that allows human energies to collide freely is a cause for celebration; and to all such events, it's the camera that brings the tinsel and confetti -- circling a bunch of loose cannons; going smack up against a frayed nerve; traveling breathlessly with a group of out-of-breath sprinters.
The idea, this time, is to narrate a story with shades of the supernatural, but have it unfold right in front of your eyes.
The idea is to photograph the chaos that ensues, but never stray from the ethos of the theatre.
In Nanpakal, there are scenes of goading and pushing, of people flying off the handle and blowing gaskets, but the camera simply sits back and records these with the impartiality of a CCTV capturing road accidents live.
The camera watches calmly as people grow into colossuses or shrink into globules.
The camera sits back, even as one of James's co-passengers experiences spiritual awakening in the still of the night.
'Did we ever think there would be a place like this? Did any of these people think they would meet us?' inquires this lovelorn, sleep-deprived Malayali Buddha, as he stands in the glow of a streetlight, a dumpy monk with bags under his eyes and bugs convening above him.
The camera may sit back, and yet the characters in this movie are so vividly drawn that you can tell who is who, regardless of whether they are lodged at the bottom of a long shot or walking hand in hand like comrades in a Bergmanesque procession.
From any gathering of such cacklers and mutterers you can easily pick out Ashokan's Babu, James' vinegary relative, full of restless rustlings, mundu folding, and his tone of 'Let us get cracking, puh-lease!'
In this manner are the two wives vivid, despite their speaking not more than ten words in the course of the movie.
The perceptive audience member would have no trouble judging Sundaram's mournful wife, Poongulazhi, as 'anything but a shrinking violet'
There's something indefinably sensual about Ramya Pandian's quiet performance here.
It's in the way she moseys across the screen; it's in the way she carries on her face her foolish hopes, her prayers, her unfulfilled desires.
A lock of hair that falls casually on her forehead; the grace in her grieving neck; the measured paces she takes -- Poongulazhi is beautiful, beautiful.
And beautiful is James' wife, Sally. On the bus, you see Sally using her husband's chest as her makeshift pillow.
Later, when the chest switches loyalties, she becomes as immobile as a frozen geisha.
The situation, then, seems too complex for words. So Sally, she of the nylon sari and noble ways, when asked about her situation, simply swallows her tears and says, 'Nothing!'
She says 'Nothing!' and meanwhile he, now fully in character as the Happy Hillbilly, milks his cow and takes off on his motor scooter.
The wait for James to regain his identity seems to play out in real time.
There are shots of people sitting idly, standing confusedly, straining to rise through their hemorrhoids and ulcers -- and you can see how this aesthetic posture connects subliminally to Lijo Jose Pellissery's current stance.
Since the release of Angamaly Diaries in 2017, Pellissery has been making movies with such a feverish intensity that one gets the sneaking suspicion that rest terrifies him.
Maybe it does, maybe this is why he has made a movie in which life has slowed down and states of inactivity dominate the frames.
But here's a note of agreeable irony: Pellissery gets so fascinated with exploring 'inactivity', that he turns it into a rich subject worthy of contemplation.
So a simple frame, of robust Malayali women holed up in a room, with an old bedridden Tamil woman being continuously fanned in the foreground, acquires a kind of unexpected grandeur. And because Pellissery's mission statement is to achieve new meanings this way, by stretching the possibilities of the medium, he doesn't feel the need to put such lowly things as plot-points within quotation marks.
I could only marvel in retrospect at how underplayed was that key moment of James rousing from his afternoon slumber, walking up to Sally, and intoning, 'Let's go, let's...'
The line tells you that James is at least partly conscious of his brush with insanity, that James and Sundaram are not mutually exclusive anymore. And yet, the only way you can catch the subtext is by paying close attention to how Mammootty modulates the line: he modulates it like an absolute angel, making it sound like a child's apology for coming home late.
Nanpakal is a homecoming for Pellissery, too.
After a series of detached metaphysical speculations, he has made something personal, something whose beats are close to his very private cadences.
Think about it: A supernatural story told in stasis; a motion picture that muses about the transience of life while treating you to sudden bursts of evaporating pop; the work of a maturing artist surveying every now and then those impressions from his childhood.
Yes, Pellissery has devised something so personal, here, that it cannot help but jolt you out of your programmatic responses.
So I smiled at the dream logic in Sundaram's blind mother never discharging more than two peals of laughter: It's all she can afford between “responding to real life” and 'returning to her TV.'
I was oddly touched when drunken James, caught up in a Tamil film scene he is lip-syncing to, says "Get Out!" and a fellow drunk takes it as a cue and actually leaves the bar.
This is a film marching so clearly to its own drum that you have to consider valuable even the boredom that it inflicts on you.
The occasional boredom that you experience at a movie like Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is the boredom that you must have felt for certain passages in epic poems and great novels -- it's the boredom that comes with encountering something fresh, something done up brown, something that makes demands on your attention span. But having watched it twice, I can assure you that this is one of those rare movies that will seem more seductive with each viewing.
Once you give yourself over to its larger vision, its occult symmetries, the sense of lucid hallucination it can induce, you will locate the movie inside you. And then, it will become a permanent part of you.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com