Sci-fi movies often trade in scenarios that are set in a distant future, but which are largely determined by the conditions of the present. It is not just that the worlds imagined by these works are invariably limited by the possibilities of today—quickly rendering them quaint or antique with the passage of time. It is that many of them, by design, seek to clarify the present moment by isolating and exaggerating its most prominent aspects. The health crisis of the past two years has brought out many of the fault lines underpinning modern civilization with blinding clarity, making it easier for artists to extend them in creative speculation.

The current pandemic hovers in the background of Prappeda (“Hawk’s Muffin”), a feverishly active science-fiction feature in Malayalam made by Krishnendu Kalesh, playing now at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR). We don’t, however, witness any images of the present, which is invoked solely through an on-screen transcript of a conversation between a military pilot, assigned with the dispatch of ‘antidotes’ following a virus outbreak, and his command base. After the drop, the pilot is rewarded a vast stretch of land and instructed to go into hiding “until last man standing.”

What follows is a story set some hundred years after this murky operation. The land, now a dense rubber estate, is occupied by the descendants of the pilot: his grandson (Sreekanth Pangapattu), the senile patriarch of the clan who is also the narrator of the film, the old man’s middle-aged daughter (Nina Kurup) who has stopped speaking after a mysterious encounter in her youth, and granddaughter Ruby (Ketaki Narayan), a sensitive young woman who looks after her mother. The old man has relegated the management of the estate to hired hands Xavier (Jayanarayan Thulasidas, also the film’s producer), a military renegade who keeps outsiders at bay, and Shepherd (Mano Jose), a priest-cum-retainer intended to rein in the unruly Xavier.

This feudal order of things is challenged when a local policeman Thumpan (Nithin George) enters the premise, claiming to be an heir of the pilot and demanding a share in the estate. Roaming the woods, meanwhile, Ruby discovers an alien being that has crash-landed (Rajesh Madhavan). The creature, seemingly out of a movie by Guillermo Del Toro who is thanked in the credits, has an endearing air about him: his extremely frail frame, beady eyes, silly hair and jerky gestures are put to comical use, multiplied by jump cuts and time lapse shots. He performs a dance, gifts Ruby precious stones and takes her to a hidden niche near a majestic waterfall. A fairy tale romance ensues; the alien helps Ruby see the world anew, she takes him in her protection.

As the synopsis suggests, Prappeda unfolds partly like a children’s fable, partly like a political allegory. The film opens with a faux-newsreel about a mythical amphibian that will help the world’s elites in their domination of the planet. The continued influence of this elite is announced by helicopters constantly flying over the estate and by mysterious bots invading the premises following Thumpan’s “contamination.” The inhabitants of the manor, like the residents of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village (2004), have no contact with the outside world and believe everything that this implied nexus wants them to believe.

The film is saturated with these weighty assertions and mythical notations, but pursuing them may not lead one any further than a set of conspiracy theories. Where Prappeda succeeds is not in the quality of its ideas, but in its constant attempts at formal invention. A cinephile-turned-filmmaker, Krishnendu Kalesh adopts a heterogenous style reflective of the name of his production company: Hybrid Tellers.

He employs a host of narrative modes with roots both in mainstream cinema and art film: musical numbers alternate with naturalist drama, silent cinema pastiches with impressive special effects, melodramatic episodes with abstract passages. Low-key drones are interwoven on the soundtrack with an emphatic, staccato score made of violins and percussions. The taciturn Ruby can speak, but her words are conveyed to us through intertitles and on-screen texts, which share the work of exposition with voiceover and dialogue. There is no sense that the filmmaker perceives a hierarchy between these modes, which co-exist without harming the film’s fundamental tone.

Prappeda has the stylistic brashness that one expects from debut works, and thankfully so. It trots out one power move after another, which succeed more often than not: a remarkable shot of Ruby discovering the fallen alien floods the frame with the blinding white of a parachute; a crack appearing on a wall is cut to an intertitle supplying building instructions; when Ruby and her friend discover photo negatives in the attic, the sequence suddenly atomizes into a series of photograms; a text on screen identifies a popular song playing on the soundtrack.

Besides Del Toro, the credits also thank Georges Méliès, Andrei Tarkovsky and Hayao Miyazaki all of whose influences are tangible here. There are repeated invocations of silent cinema, in particular, in the use of intertitles, sped-up footage and changing aspect ratios. Ruby observes a fight between two men, scored to slapstick music, through a Nickelodeon-like opening in the wall, as a projector hums on the soundtrack. This combination of dystopia and film history, seen recently in Norbert Pfaffenbichler’s 2551.01 (2021), imparts an unusual texture to the film, even when the two are not always perfectly integrated.

The production design, likewise, mixes markers of different eras such that we are never sure what time period we are in. The archaic rubs shoulders with the futuristic in Prappeda: candles and sewing machines find a place alongside electronic gadgets and modern weaponry. The sylvan setting, the earthen colour palette of browns and greens, the expressionist wall design incorporating creepers suggest a distant past, while CGI robots, war machines and synthetic noises hint at a far future. This lack of specificity, it must be added, plays to the film’s advantage.

Prappeda does not seek emotional involvement from the viewer as much as a visceral response. This is, after all, a film where the narrator vanishes midway in a blink-and-you-miss moment of stupidity. The meek and caring Ruby is offered as a provisional point of identification, only for this connection to be severed after a tragic event. The story is shrouded in mystery, and an explanatory montage towards the end only complicates the affair. What Prappeda instead provides is the pleasure of fabrication, a vision born of an adolescent daydream. Chances are slim that you will see a shot of a woman delivering a baby as she is parasailing over the clouds in another film any time soon.


[First published at News9]