An auditorium is filmed in perfect symmetry from behind a fence as the sun rises over the building. A few men unload musical instruments from a van, parked slightly off-centre such that it tastefully disturbs the shot’s symmetry. The vehicle exits the frame a while later, revealing a dozen individuals at the gate of the imposing structure. The group, we will learn, is a theatre company invited to put up a play at the annual function of a residential association somewhere in small-town Kerala. They have arrived rather early to the venue; they believe they need the time for practice and preparation.

The troupe, called Little Earth School of Theatre, is the subject of Chavittu (“Stomp”), an outstanding new film by Sajas and Shinos Rahman that premieres at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) this week. The Rahman brothers’ third feature is a boundary-bending formalist work that, for the most part, showcases the troupe’s preparations for their upcoming performance. Shot by Mukesh Muraleedharan (Uyare, Varane Avashyamund), Chavittu is dominated by a static, wide-shot aesthetic that loosens up as the film progresses.

We see the company’s rehearsal in considerable detail, their work on gesture, movement, voice and cadence. The nature of play they are putting up, on the other hand, remains sketchy and elusive. We gather that it has to do with money, coins specifically, and there is talk of revolution. There are dramatic confrontations and belligerent assertions. A hint of political lampooning is tangible, as are public service messages. But the directors are careful not to distract us with too much literary material. What we are left with are pieces of a puzzle whose final form is never clear.

Attention is devoted, instead, to the formal elements of the performance. The dance, seemingly a traditional form, involves stomping energetically to oral music made of emphatic scatting. Clenched fists, stern looks and occasional pirouettes feature saliently, while oversized coins, backless chairs, empty frames and long pipes serve as props. The musical sections are interspersed with equally physical narrative bits. The actors’ gestures here are very stylized, perhaps conforming to the form’s conventions. There is some improvisation, but directorial intervention mostly pertains to where a new song should begin or an old one should end. What is patent is that a performer in this company needs to have a supreme sense of rhythm.

These extended passages of theatrical rehearsal are periodically intercut with the auditorium being readied for the evening: props, accessories and backdrops being designed, chairs laid out, food arranged. In a surrealist touch that is at odds with the obsessive materialism of the rest of the film, we see these preparations “spill over” into the surrounding rural scenery: men wandering the landscape seated on each other’s shoulders, playing shadow volleyball, or performing short mime-like actions for the camera.

Much of the critical conversation around Chavittu is bound to revolve around what it doesn’t do. It is plain that the film avoids the temptations of dramatic development; there is hardly any story here to speak of in the first place. But what truly sets it apart is its refusal to offer any sense of interiority to the people we see on screen, who are not as much characters as much as presences. There is no evocation of their state of mind, no references to their private lives. We barely hear their names. These are not individuals that we are dealing with, but a body of consummate professionals.

It is likely that this omission of the troupe’s emotional life, this lack of individuation will be held against the film, but it is precisely what makes it so modern, so bracing. Chavittu is a procedural work intently focused on the physicality of its subjects, who are filmed in various states of undress, in a mixture of mid- and long shots, natural and artificial light. Unlike in a conventional documentary, this scrupulous attention to detail isn’t complemented with interviews or explanatory voiceover.

The sensuality that the film radiates comes not through dramatic or formal devices, but from the raw presence of young, athletic bodies populating the frame. For a bulk of its runtime, Chavittu showcases bare-chested men wearing shorts or lungis working together in close proximity, immersed in performance, not unlike the half-naked legionnaires in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (1996). But in light of the codes of South Indian masculinity, this exhibition doesn’t scan as homoerotic sublimation or suggest the possibility of gay panic. In fact, despite the cohesion that occurs over song and dance, the company hardly feels like a community. What we have here is a group which is bound by nothing else than the activity they undertake together.

The first attempts at discursivity, at accommodating an expositional framework, occurs about an hour into the film, after the sun sets and the annual day function begins. Prominent members of the residents’ association and dignitaries from the town deliver back-scratching opening addresses to a family audience. One elderly executive of the organizing committee rails against the death of Malayalam cinema and literature. Shortly afterwards, achievers of the community are recognized: a local Youtube star, a Facebook poet, an entrance exam hopeful. These felicitations are followed by a series of amateur performances by residents— Thiruvathirakali, a Carnatic kriti, an English number—which take precedence over the troupe’s play, scheduled after dinner.

We are clearly in the presence of a self-indulgent middle class—an anthropological group with a separate set of gestures and rituals, as the film demonstrates—that has lofty ideas about its own role as protectors of culture, even as it preserves a hierarchical notion of the arts. But it is to the Chavittu’s success that this bit of satire doesn’t come across as mean or blunt as it sounds on paper. Even the character of an ex-secretary of the association, a vain old man serving as intrusive coming relief, acquires a touch of grace by the end of the film.

Chavittu avoids devolving into caricature here thanks to the directors’ decision to cut between these amateur shows and the members of the theatre company waiting for their turn backstage. These actors don’t provide any reaction to the performances on stage, refusing us the convenience of second-hand judgment. They are instead absorbed in last minute preparations, refining moves or working over props. For the only time in the film, they are seen in isolation, as individuals getting into particular roles. One actor shaves his feet, another one dresses up as a woman, making us aware of a gendered distribution of roles for the first time.

This contrast between a committed theatre troupe working with focus and discipline and the family audience at the annual day function that just wants to have fun has definite parallels with the filmmaking process. It is notable that, except for the director and the screenwriter, there are no clear division of roles within the company. There is certainly no sense of hierarchy, no rank pulling, that prevents the members from lending a hand in other preparatory tasks. In this regard, it is apt that Chavittu ends on the audience, on us, with an image that embodies a mix of melancholy and hope.


[First published at News9]