Kuttrame Thandanai

Kuttrame Thandanai (“crime is punishment”), Manikandan’s explosive follow-up to Kaaka Muttai (2015), is a quasi-Hitchcockian thriller that takes a unique medical condition and draws out its narrative, cinematic, metaphorical and philosophical possibilities. Ravi (Vidharth) suffers from tunnel vision: his visual field is restricted to a small iris. He lives in a sparsely-furnished studio opening to the courtyard of his run-down apartment complex. He spends his mornings on the balcony observing his neighbours, especially a young girl downstairs. He learns that he is losing vision fast and needs to be operated – a fact that he can reveal to few people without fallout. After a day of disappointments, Ravi returns home to witness unusual happenings at the complex. He decides to get directly involved.

Ravi’s character is fleshed out with a compassion free of sympathy or pathos and neither is the world around him populated with disagreeable specimen. Vidharth portrays the character without any distinguishing tic or voice modulation. His Ravi is a man without a history, completely in the present, seeking to find his ethical code through the events that present themselves to him. There’s an inner life to him that is fittingly not offered to the audience. (For better or worse, the film leaves a whole range of situations unexploited. Mysskin, for instance, would’ve had an entire action set-piece revolving around the protagonist’s limitation. Or a tense cat-and-mouse game between Ravi and the lawyers he’s bargaining with.) There’s an endearing character, played by Nasser, who sees a son figure in Ravi but interacts with him with a calculated caution so as to not have another heartbreak. In a lesser film, this moral centre of the film would double as commentary and judgment. Here he simply is another cog in the alienation-inducing machine that is the city.

The initial portion of Kuttrame Thandanai is constructed around Ravi’s everyday routine – his difficult commute on bike to work, his time at the office where a co-worker has a crush on him, his client visits and his sessions at the hospital – and emphasizes the fundamental inhumanity of our urban spaces without putting too fine a point on it. The residents at the complex keep to themselves, not wanting to get mixed up in events outside home, even if at the cost of someone’s life. Manikandan finds an apt visual rhyme between Ravi’s vision and the peephole of apartment doors, the partial knowledge that results paralleling the film’s development. Ravi’s medical condition – of being able to see only what he wants – therefore becomes a particular manifestation of a general social and epistemological condition.

Manikandan builds the film with direct sounds and a plethora of over-the-shoulder shots and close-ups, creating an intimate portrait. At times, the film’s austere images cannot support Ilayaraja’s lush score, which announces itself every time it appears. Scenes at the apartment and Ravi’s office have a tangible presence that’s absent from most Tamil movies. And, yet, the script gives in to the temptation of a coup de theatre with a gratuitous and pat-sounding ending. It’s a decision that turns the film’s greatest strength to its shortcoming. Throughout the film, the audience is made to identify with Ravi’s perspective. At dozens of points in the film we have the shot combination “Ravi looking at things + reverse shot of what he sees through an iris + shot of Ravi looking again”. This couples the viewer tightly to Ravi’s experience of events, and there are very few scenes where Ravi is not a participant. Given this exclusivity the viewer enjoys, the film’s eliding of a crucial bit of information only to use it for a grand revelation is maddening. The ending catapults the film to a moral plane higher than Ravi’s, falsifying its own approach so far.

Aandavan Kattalai

When, in Aandavan Kattalai (“god’s decree”), the usual set of disclaimers and warnings are followed a message about avoiding middlemen, one expects a film that’s too clever by half. But no, Manikandan’s third feature actually takes that message seriously and gives form to it in various social-minded scenarios that are strung together to form the film’s plot. Hassled by debtors in their village, Gandhi (Vijay Sethupathi) and Pandi (Yogi Babu) decide to go to England with fake documents, masquerade as refugees from Sri Lanka and benefit from government welfare. Gandhi gets his visa application rejected and finds work with a theatre group in the city to avoid going back to his village. Thriving under the mentorship of the theatre director (Nasser), he decides to sort out his papers and get back to straight ways. There’s one problem: his fudged passport mentions a one-in-a-million name as his wife.

What strikes right away is how light-footed the writing is. Right after a set of idyllic establishment shots (the paradise lost to the rest of the film), Gandhi gets the directive from a friend to go west. No voice-overs, no songs, no setting up of the protagonist as the village hero; just an opportunity to kick off the picaresque adventure. The screenplay proceeds linearly – no flashbacks or parallel threads – and rarely where one expects it to go. There are no villains, no scores settled, even though there are insults and betrayals. The tone is consistently comical, but it doesn’t collapse into farce and caricature as much as Kaaka Muttai did. The characters are written around actor’s limitations – Vijay Sethupathi, Yogi Babu essentially reprise their stock roles – and even the secondary characters are given idiosyncrasies that smoothen the scenes they are in.

The film is structured as a romantic comedy couched within a comedy of migration and held together a series of satirical takes on what the writers perceive to be social ills of our time:  discrimination in housing, illegal emigration, increasing divorce rates, lack of security for women, the plague of middlemen in bureaucratic processes. The spirit of the opening warning against middlemen pervades the entire film: wherever Gandhi seeks out go-betweens to sort things out – the fake emigration agent, the passport office broker, the real estate agent, the marriage counsellors, even his friend who mediates between him and the heroine – things take a turn for the worse. Far from the tight drama and carefully-delineated world of Kuttrame Thandanai, Aandavan Kattalai is visually flat and full of contrivances, as isn’t unusual for a comedy. But the contrivances are so intricately mounted, full of symmetries and rhymes that it’s hard to imagine the film otherwise: the ingenious rom-com idea of divorce as the beginning of a romance, the dual figures of Pandi and Nesan, the apartment search that bookends the film in different ways, the opposed moral orientations of the protagonist in the two sections of the film with a heart-warming, theme-encapsulating inflection point where the theatre director hires Gandhi on faith at a single glance.

Girish Kasaravalli

Girish Kasaravalli 

Girish Kasaravalli was born in Kesalur, a village in the Tirthahalli taluk in Shimoga district in 1950 to Ganesh Rao and Lakshmi Devi. He had his primary education in Kesalur and middle school education in Kammaradi. Hailing from a family of book lovers, he was initiated to reading good books from a young age by his father. His father was also a patron of Yakshagana, a folk system of dance, native to Karnataka. All this formed a basis for a life rich with creative aspirations. He was also attracted to the touring talkies which visited his village once in a while to screen popular Kannada films. This was his first exposure to the world of Cinema. Another relative who supported his love for creative arts was his maternal uncle K.V.Subbanna, a Magsaysay award winner who founded Neenasam, a critically acclaimed and popular drama company. After completing his high school and college education in Shimoga, he enrolled for the B.Pharma course in the College of Pharmacy, Manipal. The college was a commonplace for many cultural activities and kept Girish Kasaravalli’s creative interests alive. After completing his degree, he went to Hyderabad for training. But due to his pre occupations in Cinema and art, he found it difficult to manage his profession and interest together. He decided to quit the career in Pharmacy and join the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. A gold medalist from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Girish Kasaravalli started his career in films with Ghatashraddha (1977), over the next 30 years he directed eleven films and a tele serial.The Film he made to fulfill his Diploma “AVASHESH” was awarded the Best Student Film. Avashesh also won the President’s Silver Lotus award for the Best Short Film of that year [Bio Courtesy: Wikipedia, Image Courtesy: ProKerala]


Girish Kasaravalli’s films are full of rituals, ceremonies, legitimization games, legal procedures and codes of communication and social conduct. These narratives are all structured around notions of inclusion and exclusion, of inclusiveness and exclusivity. They are all about who is in a particular game and who is not. Even though Kasaravalli’s films are about rituals, the films, themselves, are never rituals. Part of what makes Kasaravalli’s cinema so rich is the fact that, unlike many of his contemporaries, the director hasn’t allowed his world view to stagnate, his concerns to become characteristic or his explorations to become answers. Even though they have been present in one form or another throughout his filmography, the key question that Kasaravalli’s films have put emphasis on has moved from that of socio-religious institutions and their laws, through that of authorization of those laws by those whom it applies to, to that of justice and its many conflicting definitions that seek to pin down its meaning, all the while having at their focal points the effects that these questions have on the social standing of women. Let’s make no mistake; his films – like many works of ‘Parallel Cinema’ – have always been about with the status of women in a conservative setup. What sets these films apart is, however, the fact that they choose to venture beyond the miserablism that the scenario offers (and which many filmmakers wallow in) and probe what makes a setup conservative in the first place. For every mention of Kasaravalli the humanist, there is Kasaravalli the analyst beneath, for every instance of Kasaravalli the metaphysician, there is Kasaravalli the sociologist operating alongside and for every cry of Kasaravalli the universal, there’s Kasaravalli the native working on historicized junctures.

Despite sharing a woman-behind-bars aesthetic highly typical of Parallel Cinema – locale shooting with an affinity for the horizon and landscapes at dawn and dusk, low-light static compositions (often through doorways) and continuity editing that indicate a respect towards the written word, pans and tilts that unveil details gradually, an inclination towards restrained low-key classical score (by his regular, the highly talented Isaac Thomas Kottukapally) and naturalist sound design complementing re-recorded speech – there are a few directorial choices – the scroll-like horizontal tracking shots that are present right from his experimental, Tarkovsky-esque diploma film Avasesh (1975), the temporalizing intertitles and the major ellipses that bypass drama – which have revealed themselves as stark deviations from the movement’s aesthetic. There are as many shots of freewheeling corporeality in Kasaravalli’s films as there are modernist shots carrying the burden of meaning, as many moments that rebel against the narrative as there are moments that are at its service. And that is indeed a rare sight to see in Parallel Cinema.


[The usual caveat: Lots of films missing here. Notes will be added once I see them]

Ghatashraddha (The Ritual, 1979)

GhatashraddhaThe director’s debut feature, The Ritual, couldn’t have more aptly titled given that every subsequent Kasaravalli film could be named the same. Set in a Brahmin (priest class) settlement where sacred hymns are taught by male teachers and learnt by rote by male children, Ghatashraddha delves into a system of social legitimation that is built on suppressing differences, deviances and dissent. (Having a homosexual teenager in the school is provocative even today). Kasaravalli portrays these rituals – religious and social – in high detail that they seem to almost possess a power beyond the people who perform them. The act of teaching and reciting these very hymns (some of which are specifically written for men) proves to be an authorization procedure for the perpetuation of patriarchy and of maintaining a closed circle of legislative and judicial power. Both the young kid Nani (Ajith Kumar), who isn’t able to learn these chants, and the young woman Yamuna (the beautiful Meena Kuttappa), who gets pregnant out of wedlock, are deemed outcasts. Ghatashraddha pays out like a tragedy in which every attempt to break out of a rigid system of rules is put down and all discursive entities that could undermine the integrity of the system are absorbed into the mainstream. Kasaravalli uses his actors remarkably – almost in a Bressonian manner – pruning down superfluous elements of performance and expression and reducing the tragic presence of Yamuna to an aggregate of glances and stares, and his command on his images is equally noteworthy, with sharp, beautiful monochrome photography.

Mane (House, 1991)

ManePossibly the most unusual Kasaravalli picture and certainly my favorite by the director, Mane (also dubbed in Hindi as Ek Ghar) is a Kafkaesque tale about a young couple (Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval) that moves to the city from a village with the hope of finding privacy and freedom, which are unavailable in the joint family system. For all its narrative excursions, in a sense, Mane is merely about the breakup of a marriage in which the Rossellinian couple, unable to confront each other directly amidst the loneliness of the city, externalizes their troubles – his powerlessness, her desire for freedom and their childlessness – and shifts blame on situations beyond their control in order to act victims. Kasaravalli works wonder with film and sound here, using them to denote the impending break down. (One stunning shot uses the neon lights of the neighbourhood to literally break apart the frame). A critique on urban spaces that suffocate more than they promise privacy, Mane unfolds like a sociological update on Rear Window (1954), in which personal anxieties and fears are displaced onto the surroundings and, specifically, onto a lower social class. In that sense, Mane connects all the way to the director’s latest work in the manner in which it raises questions about the visibility of the class structure and the seeming imperceptibility of the consequences of acts of one class on the other. Mane is full of such encroachments of freedom by other competing notions of freedom – between classes, between houses and between spouses.

Thai Saheba (1997)

Thayi SahebaThai Saheba, I think, is best understood as a transitional film because it is in this film that Kasaravalli tries to streamline most of the diverging concerns of his previous features into a sustained reflection on justice – a topic that he would keep refining in his subsequent three works. Shot mostly indoors with the production design dominated by deep red and brown colours, the film is reminiscent of similarly-themed films of the same decade by Hou and Zhang, especially in the way the women orbit the largely unseen patriarch of the house and how the personal becomes inseperably entagled with the political. Kasaravalli, interestingly, sets his story in pre-independence India in an attempt, however unsure, to make a positive intervention into history and open it up for analysis. More precisely, the period is the 1940s when the independence struggle against the British Empire was at its peak. The leader of the house is a Gandhian fighting earnestly for independence while he keeps ignoring his wife (one among three!), who finds companionship in her adopted son, who, in turn, falls in love with his step sister. The film is rife with such complex familial relationships and forbidding codes of conduct, through which questions regarding inheritance and birth right are broached. (There’s a narrative thread regarding perfumes that Kasaravalli uses as shorthand for feudal legacy). Like the previous picture, Thai Saheba keeps pitting one idea of freedom and justice with other. However, there’s also the feeling that the film might be treating history as a closed book, suggesting that we are living at more liberal times. The corrective would arrive three films later.

Dweepa (The Island, 2003)

DweepaDweepa is a quantum leap of sorts for Kasaravalli. For one, the scenario takes a gigantic jump from pre-independence India to post-globalization India (the jump is highly ironic since the politico-historic situation doesn’t differ as much as one expects it to): to a time when huge construction projects are undertaken at the cost of the livelihood of thousands of indigenous people. Possibly the most keenly observed of all the director’s films, Dweepa finds Kasaravalli shifting his focus from institutions and their laws towards the legitimization of those very laws, to the many internal contradictions a statement of justice has to suppress to create a stable meaning. The film almost plays out reverse-dialectically – like a chain of nuclear fissions – breaking down one stable narrative of justice into smaller narratives each counterpointing the other. The island of the title, then, not only refers to the geography of the story or to the situation that the priest family – father, son and daughter-in-law and the young outsider – finds itself in, but also to this impossibility of consensus and to the narratives of minorities being abandoned in favour of those of existing technocratic and paternal institutions. (The story’s development, in a way, parallels the trajectory of critical discourses in the past few decades, in the undermining of totalizing theories by identity groups). Kasaravalli can’t propose a solution (is there one?), but the response he suggests – of perpetual resistance – is borne out of a deep respect for his subjects.

Haseena (2004)

HaseenaHaseena begins with a bruised, middle-aged woman (Tara) sitting determinedly in front of a mosque before cutting – painfully – to an older, beautiful version of her. Haseena has all the trappings of a “woman’s picture” – a poor lower-class woman, with many kids and a abusive, drunkard husband who beats her up, struggling to make a living in a man’s world – and, to an extent, it is. But instead of converting the scenario into a woe-of-the-week saga and wallowing in self-pity and condescension that almost seems to be the natural reaction from many filmmakers, Kasaravalli, respecting the dignity of himself and his subject, moves beyond superficial humanism to embark on an examination of the law, justice and the crossroads between them. That the story is set in an Islamic community, where laws and rules are more localized and, hence, the idea of justice could be more accommodative, helps illustrate the dynamics of legislation and legitimization with higher transparency. Absorbing a number of uncharacteristic directorial choices, strangely enough, from contemporary Iranian cinema, where too characters retain their self-esteem, specifically in its use of colour and music (Kottukapally’s high-scale stringed compositions, well, strike a chord for those familiar with Majidi’s cinema, for instance) and it’s magic realist finale, Kasaravalli experiments with his new found freedom of form and the confidence of approach that the previous, seminal feature seems to have fortified.

Naayi Neralu (In The Shadow Of The Dog, 2006)

Naayi NeraluNaayi Neralu is the exact kind of movie that Kasaravalli’s filmography was working towards all along. Like Thayi Saheba, this one is also set in a pre-independence era, but instead of treating issues from at a distance and institutions monolithically, Kasaravalli treats them like how a present-day sociologist would talk about present-day problems. Kasaravalli’s intervention into history exemplifies postmodernism as a responsible critical approach (and not as “anything goes” complacency that the term has become a mnemonic for) in the way it keeps revealing the individual not as a rational, integral consciousness trapped inside institutions and their oppressive rules but as a de-centered subject sitting at the intersection of multiple Symbolic orders with much more authority than a modernist illustration would allow for. The complex script (many share writing credits) first establishes, like Ghatashraddha, a widow Venku (Pavitra Lokesh) in a fixed, conservative milieu before introducing a disturbance into the system in the form of a young man who claims to be her husband, reincarnated. The society in question authorizes the intrusion and this, ironically, promises escape for Venku, who crosses over into the new legal contour. After certain unforeseen incidents, the society realizes the radicalism of its own decision and revokes back the patent, leaving Venku outside all social circles. An incisive portrait of law as a sum of countersigning gestures and justice as something more individualized, like a signature, Naayi Neralu presents Kasaravalli’s social study at its most refined.

Gulabi Talkies (2008)

Gulabi TalkiesSet in a coastal town in Karnataka where fishing is the major source of livelihood and at a time when the country was engaged in the Kargil war, Gulabi Talkies, along with the next film, marks another major transitional period – if not a minor fall from the precision of Naayi Neralu, which I think is the case – for Kasaravalli. If, in the previous pictures, the director and the writers attempted to look at the bigger picture – at the narrative that confronts and governs other narratives –they suggest here that one might not be able to get a bigger picture at all. There are a hundred things that are going on in Gulabi Talkies that attempt to tear the film’s focus apart. The first of two major threads involves a movie-loving middle-aged Muslim midwife (Umashree) who is gifted a television set with satellite connection and the second one deals with a group of Visconti-like fishermen who are enraged by the government’s decision to grant permission to a local Muslim bigwig to fish in the same zone as them. Gulabi Talkies investigates how international events and decisions trickle down – step by step – into every day life and acquire a completely different flavour that conceals knowledge of the actuating force. The war against Pakistan (itself a consequence) translates to communal violence within the country, which translates to gang wars among fishermen and which, in turn, bear upon Gulabi’s status as the cynosure of the local housewives. Perhaps, this is why the film’s most telling image is that of a satellite dish on the beach facing the sea: Images from a world beyond having catastrophic effects elsewhere.

Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (Riding The Stallion Of A Dream, 2010)

Kanasembo KudureyaneriKanasembo Kudureyaneri begins quite flashily, as though advertising its own script, with the quip by Godard that a film needn’t have a beginning, middle and an end in the same order. But then, instead of using the hyperlink structure of the script to pull off one emotional coup after another, Kasaravalli and co. use it to emphasize the invisibility of one part of the script to another. The two branches of the narrative – each of which deals with one particular socioeconomic class – are interconnected by a specific event: the death of the village patriarch, which also fulfils its symbolic purpose, but none of the characters that constitute these classes recognizes this. All of them work towards their own individual dreams and aspirations without realizing that this quest of theirs’ shapes and is shaped by the others’ as well. The setting of the story is contemporary no doubt, but there is scarcely anything contemporary about it. It might be true that the remains of feudalism still plague the country’s rural regions, but given that the economic system that drives this problem even today has flourished upon the idea of death of feudalism and even promotes itself at the cost of feudalism, Kanasembo Kudureyaneri comes across as a slightly anachronistic (and assimilable-into-mainstream) film. Having said that, I must also add that the film brings Kasaravalli’s filmography to a very interesting point where, with the support of the finesse of perspective and approach that previous few films have worked towards, he can plunge into more globalized, potentially uncomfortable issues with a more refined and rigorous control over his craft. I think the next one will be mighty interesting.


(Image Courtesy: Various)


Kanasembo Kudureyaneri (2010) (Riding The Stallion Of A Dream)
Girish Kasaravalli


Riding the Stallion of DreamGirish Kasaravalli’s Riding the Stallion of a Dream (2010) is something of a blast from the past, specifically from the Indian parallel cinema of the 1970s of which Kasaravalli himself was a part (This regression in time might just be the point of the film). Like most films of that period, Riding has a keen sense of class politics at work in the hinterlands of the country (There is nothing very specifically 21st century about the script, except for the mention of factories buying farmlands). Furthermore, it embraces the typical aesthetic characteristics of the movement with its use of a traditional, downbeat soundtrack, its penchant for naturalism and, particularly, darkness and its employment of dubbed sound. But more importantly, it retains the optimistic belief of the age that change is indeed possible (even though Kasaravalli’s proposed means of change is much less romantic and much more grounded). However, unlike its predecessors, Kasaravalli’s film is unwilling to overlook the human elements comprising the class struggle. Indeed, this is where the script’s Arriaga-like structure is really put into good use. The film is essentially divided into four segments which alternately present reality as seen by Irya the village gravedigger and his wife Rudri and reality as seen by the son Shivanna and the daughter-in-law Hema of the recently deceased village elder (among other elites). Predictably for a film that deals with multiple classes, Riding is full of ironies small and big. The pristine corridors of the elder’s house are contrasted with the dilapidated interiors and streets of Irya’s home and neighbourhood. Shivanna and Hema are almost always seen trapped inside the claustrophobic villa, which is suffused with the stench of the rotting corpse of the village elder that reflects their moral decay, while the gravedigger and his wife are seen in glorious long shots traversing the wide open spaces and flower farms of the village. The death of the patriarch (whose body has to be forced to a sitting position and whom his son will be taking over from) spells doom for Shivanna and co. while it’s Rudri (there’s even a direct reference to her as Irya’s surrogate mother) who takes to herself to reconstruct her husband’s life. Revealing the old man’s death helps affirm Irya’s dream while it would shatter Shivanna’s and contrariwise. In both camps, it is a blind faith in God and religion that serves to preserve status quo. There is considerable tweaking of the mise en scène – especially in the lighting and actor blocking – as well that aids to emphasize this tug of war. Kasaravalli provides us almost exactly one half of the truth in each segment, leaving it to the subsequent or preceding segment to complement it. A simple shot from a particular segment finds its corresponding reverse shot in only the next segment and vice versa. Each of these couples in the story wants to lead a better, more dignified life, as defined by their social classes. Like the audience, these couples are unable to see what lies on the other side of the hedge and how their seemingly independent plans might affect the other. There is no moral dilemma that they see in their actions. This way, Kasaravalli calls into question the perceptibility of the class structure itself and, subsequently, uses his art to provide us that critical distance from reality which is required to understand it in totality. As a result, the characters in Kasaravalli’s film are not (save for a touch of contempt and sympathy the upper and lower class characters respectively receive from the director – a possible residue of the parallel cinema of yesteryear) class abstractions or oversimplified monsters and victims. They are both individuals with choice and products of their classes (Irya blows his money on alcohol and loafs about regularly, Rudri is a casual thief and some of the landowners in the village do genuinely care about Irya’s condition). Only that each of the couple wants to ride off on its own dream horse and in a direction that it wants. But what both don’t realize is that the horses are tied to the same chariot.


(Image Courtesy: Goethe Institute)