[First part: A Letter to Lijo Jose Pellissery]

A second viewing of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam confirms it as one of the highest achievements of Indian filmmaking and among the great spiritual works of cinema. More than a film that respects its audience, it is one that intimates us of the mysteries beyond the everyday. I still cannot wrap my head around its existence and believe/hope that its innermost secrets will continue to elude me.

Nanpakal is certainly an exploration of religious hypocrisy, but not with the derision and anger that it usually goes with. In my first viewing, I was moved to think of Luis Buñuel because of the peripatetic nature of the story, the absurd humour and the focus on group dynamic. But a more pertinent point of reference is the cinema of Roberto Rossellini, in which “there’s but one step from scandal to miracle” (Alain Bergala).

Set ostensibly around the month of Margazhi/Christmas time, Nanpakal is playing with both Hindu and Christian mythology, specifically the notions of reincarnation and resurrection, complete with a “noli me tangere” moment. James-as-Sundaram is a revenant whose return only occasions disbelief and suspicion among the devout. (The soundtrack plays “Paartha Nyabagam Illayo” from Puthiya Paravai (1964), another tale of a revenant.) Like Rossellini’s The Miracle (1948), in which a simple shepherdess takes a passing vagabond for St. Joseph and becomes pregnant, inviting the ridicule of her upright Catholic community, Nanpakal reflects on the impossibility of true belief. Or rather, on the tragedy that miracles can appear only in the form of heresy or delusion.

Part of why it may be hard to see that a miracle does indeed occur in Nanpakal is that the film doesn’t signal its shift into a meta-fictional mode as openly as, say, Certified Copy (2010) or Fauna (2020). We are introduced to James in the first act of the film as a control freak, and his transformation into Sundaram, a man who is capable of letting go, is not supported by rational explanation. And cinematic structures don’t allow for viewer identification over such radical discontinuities of consciousness (which is the reason films about multiverses like Everything Everywhere All at Once (2022) cannot transcend fundamental emotional limitations). As a result, it is not James, but his unchanging co-passengers who offer us a stable if sceptical guiding perspective through the remainder of the film. (I wonder how the film would have played had James and Sundaram been portrayed by two different actors.)

Yet I think a more rewarding if demanding way to watch Nanpakal is remain with James/Sundaram, to believe. That is the only way to get a sense of the Christ-like tragedy he is put through. What does it mean for James to walk away from his wife Sally (Ramya Suvi) and enter the bedroom of another woman, to be placed in a situation of infidelity? A chastening punishment? Purification through sin? To be turned into everything you hate sounds less like a miracle than a curse, but it is also a calling, a Damascene conversion through unlikely grace.

But there is another marital triangle in Nanpakal. We are told that the original Sundaram, whom we glimpse out of focus at the end of the film, disappeared in the holy town of Pazhani two years ago, creating a breach in the fabric of his community. In James-Sundaram’s familiarity with the place and its people, we see how closely the man was integrated into the life of the village. It is hinted vaguely that Sundaram’s wife Poovally (an excellent Ramya Pandian) has now been ‘promised’ to his brother (Namo Narayana) and that she is/was suspected of infidelity—an accusation refuted by the faithful dog that guards her and the household. Even though she speaks little, Poovally gets the most moving moments of the film. In Sundaram’s magical reappearance lies both a hope and a vindication for her, a closure for a grieving community.

Sundaram’s visually-impaired mother is the only one who has the power of recognizing the miracle, of believing in Sundaram’s return; rather, she seems to have never had a doubt. She serves as the film’s Greek chorus, laughing when others are distressed, crying when others are relieved. If her privileged perspective mimics that of the impossible, ideal viewer of the film, Poovally and Sally offer more intriguing, transitional points of view, between mother’s iron-clad faith and the disbelieving crowd, receptive to doubt and amenable to revision. Suspended in confusion, they accept their altered circumstances wordlessly, letting those around them decide the course of action on their behalf.

It is however through the patience and willing passivity of the two women that the miracle is consummated, that everyone manages to find a way out of their situation. Little happens, in contrast, when men take things into their own hands. The pilgrims and villagers eventually get out of the crisis just as they got into it, that is to say, through the arbitrary workings of transcendent will. “The Rossellinian character is touched by grace when he is least expecting it,” notes Bergala. “The real miracle for Rossellini,” he continues “is that which happens necessarily outside of deliberate choice, conscious thought and even faith.” This is true of Nanpakal too.

Unlike Jallikattu (2019) and Churuli (2021), the two earlier works that Pellissery developed with writer S. Hareesh, Nanpakal is sparse on dramatic incident, which means that there are fewer literary themes and moral lessons to be drawn. Instead, the film harks back persistently to cinematic spectatorship even as it draws on painterly and theatrical traditions. Nanpakal is the cinephile movie par excellence, and watching it as an irate viewer sandwiched between noisy, distracted people, as I did the second time, was an uncanny experience. Rejecting his real community (which happens to be that of theatre), James yearns to belong to another that won’t have him. And what is cinephilia if not the illicit thrill of being in places, seeing and listening to things that weren’t intended for you?

I don’t think any other film has ever quite captured the violently destabilizing feeling of stepping out of the dark of the movie theatre as Nanpakal does in its final moments, when Sundaram dissociates from his role to become James again and the entire pilgrim group trickles out of the village in ruminative silence like a stunned audience. The penultimate shot where James is alone in the bus, solemnly looking out to the village—and at us—so startlingly captures (and in Nanpakal’s case foreshadows) the experience of a perceptive spectator returning home after a particularly overwhelming viewing experience.

I did not have trouble with the film’s pervasive audio citation the second time around, and I think the film’s soundtrack is beautifully mixed in the way it drifts in and out of our conscious attention. All the syrupy scores, the cynical soundbites from M.R. Radha and the advertisements of the 90s combine to hold us in a state of fugue, and Nanpakal deploys them for sudden swings in mood, tone and texture. At several points, Pellissery’s film flits wildly from sad to funny, from absurd to touching, accessing emotional terrains I have rarely experienced in Indian cinema. A supremely spiritual work will stand the test of time.

Dear Lijo,

Like many other viewers, I’ve been an admirer of your tendency to make a film against the grain of the previous one; the way you swapped the fevered cutting of Angamaly Diaries with the long-shot aesthetic of Ee.Ma.Yau, whose scathing social portraiture devolved into the harrowing metaphysical nightmare of Jallikattu, sustained and upended by Churuli. The word I’m thinking of is perversity, that bent of mind which allows you to employ a macho, vein-popping style to meditate on masculinity, to use the event of death to reflect on a community’s self-sustaining reactions to death.

I should’ve therefore already expected a curveball walking into Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, especially given its ‘U’ certification; but nothing prepared me to be blown down by the tenderness of your new film. I’m not sure how to describe the anti-climactic gut punch that watching Nanpakal was. It was perhaps like the muscular reflex you feel when you try to pick up a bottle full of water and discover that it is empty and light, or when you expect a step at the end of a steep staircase only to have your foot land on level surface.

Your story, developed into a scenario by S. Hareesh, is comically simple: on their way back from the Velankanni church in Tamil Nadu, a group of Malayali pilgrims fall asleep on the bus. When he wakes up, James (Mammootty) gets off the bus in the middle of nowhere, walks into a house in a Tamil village nearby, and fully assumes the assumes the role of Sundaram, a man long gone. The dark comedy that ensues involves the pilgrim party’s bumbling attempts at getting James/Sundaram back onto the bus.

Your film revolves around a miracle, but it’s equally miraculous that it exists: a Malayalam movie that develops mostly in Tamil. Or is it a Tamil movie that features Malayalam actors and dialogue? Doesn’t matter, you don’t seem to have patience for language chauvinism and if Nanpakal has anything to say on the matter, it may be that Malayalis are wannabe Tamils or that Tamils are hallucinating Malayalis stuck in time.

And the height of perversity is to win the cooperation of a star the stature of Mammootty and strip him of all aura, dissolve him into the image. I’m referring not just to Mammootty’s brutally casual entry in profile, rubbing pain balm on his wife’s knee (!), or his utterly unremarkable costume and hair. I’m talking about the way you lock him into the master shot, refuse to give him close-ups, minimize him with landscape and architecture, block his body with décor elements, drown his voice in ambient music, film him from the back, at a distance, among the crowd or in the shadows. Half of Nanpakal is, after all, about Mammootty vanishing, leaving the frame.

I would call Mammootty daring, broadminded for choosing to do your film, but that would not do justice to the statistical improbability of what you two have pulled off. Stars participating in auteur projects are rare enough, but I’m hard put to recall a film that has treated its main star so offhandedly or subject him to such aesthetic violence (Even internationally, such glorious cross-connections of the seventies as Jane Fonda in Godard’s Tout Va Bien or Jack Nicholson in Antonioni’s The Passenger seem impossible to imagine today.) Not only have you made real what sounds like an implausible concept project, but also answered such pointless cinephile hypotheticals as “How would Mammootty do a Sivaji Ganesan movie?”

Yet what you offer us is an extremely modern work that benefits from an extremely modern performance. Like Mohan Lal in Drishyam, Mammootty here plays a middle-aged man who wills his way into a starring role as an act of existential negation, an attempt at escape from his life through performance—a metatextual resonance that would have been lost had your film featured a lesser star. You place Mammootty in an overwhelmingly melodramatic soundscape, contrasting the actor’s underplaying with the expressionist acting the music suggests, distancing us from his emotions only to have him wallop us in a climactic moment of dissociation from his role.

But there’s so much more happening on the formal level. Unlike your previous films, you narrate Nanpakal largely through master shots, filmed with a static camera, without building scenes through tighter setups and thus keeping the emotional temperature of your film in control. (A pair of cavorting canines get a pan shot that your star doesn’t.) A strong rectilinearity marks both your visual composition and the way you position your actors in the frame and have them move across it. Your arresting manner of composing in deep space, using all the picture planes, means that there is always something interestingly off-key happening in the foreground or the background for us to linger on: a seasoned parotta master at work, a foreboding lorry at the back, elderly ladies laughing at a private joke or an amorous couple bickering over a mysterious object.

I’m familiar with your serialized style, where actors engage in similar actions one after the other or do one action incrementally, such as when Muthu, Sundaram’s teenage daughter, changes clothes amid bursts of temper (what a magnificent sequence!). But never have I ever seen so much dramatic negative space or so much action thrust offscreen in a star-led film. It is one thing to construct your film symmetrically, or have visual parallels as between a lateral shot of a bus cutting through a corn field and an overhead view of milk washing down the drain. But it is something else when the movie suspends the story to have the star wander across a picturesque village for minutes on end or slip into his afternoon reverie in a montage of loosely related, densely scored, out-of-focus shots. (Nasir did it too, but it didn’t have Mammootty.)

Most of all, I was struck by your insistence on the Z-axis of the image. From the first to the last shot of the film, you have actors and objects relentlessly heading straight towards the camera or away from it. This frontal composition of movement strikes me as deliciously quaint—like echoes from silent comedy calling out to be bookended by irises—in the way they eliminate dramatic diagonals from your film almost completely. (The few shots that are composed along the diagonal are as ravishing as any in Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s work.)

I want to ask you if this emphasis on the Z-axis has a religious dimension, but it certainly serves here to heighten the theatricality of your film. Theatre is, of course, the central theme of your work, which elegantly introduces its three acts with three sequences of collective slumber. The world is indeed a stage, but Nanpakal’s reflexivity became most evident to me in the big scene where Mammootty finally gets to chew scenery. As he continuously asks the villagers if he truly doesn’t belong there, as though finding himself in an old Tamil potboiler, the villagers gather around and in front of him in silence that recalls both street theatre and old-timey film staging.

Redoubling the theatricality is your film’s unremitting sound design, which is filled wall-to-wall with song and dialogue excerpts from classical Tamil cinema, rendering Nanpakal almost a found-footage work in terms of audio. I wish to felicitate you especially on this aspect. Your voracious sampling of archival sound is a testament to the Malayali love for Tamil music, but it also goes directly against the nostalgic button-pushing that so much of Tamil cinema intertextuality has become. Pointedly, your audio largely consists of works from before your growing-up years, sound bites that are not always easy to recall. Instead of finding common ground with the viewers through shared cultural consumption, you seem to be confronting us with an uncanny soundscape that is neither ear candy nor entirely alien.

I confess that I was exhausted by the sound palette at a few places, and there were moments where it embraces the prevalent Tamil cinema practice of ironic commentary. But for the most part, it offers us a total, inescapable sound atmosphere that the characters inhabit, to which they mime or against which they act. A good deal of the sound samples, I will add, is appropriately maudlin, melodramatic. But given you open the film with images of faith at the Velankanni church mixed with shots of religious knickknacks sold around the premise, it seems that kitsch for you is inextricable from belief.

Belief seems to be an important aspect of your work, but not so much, it seems to me, of your personal life. If I were to guess based on your films, you probably aren’t very religious, notwithstanding the Biblical imagery you mobilize. I would’ve invoked Luis Buñuel, but your attitude to religion seems much too ambivalent for radical subversion. I find it interesting, even so, that in Nanpakal you place a group of pilgrims in a situation that obliges them to disbelieve, suspend their faith. The only character who is able to believe without doubt is Sundaram’s blind mother, a TV addict living in the world of sounds. (Talk about perversity! John 20:29.)

To be fascinated by belief without believing oneself is the plight of many a modern artist. And I can’t help but feel that your film gives a certain form to this tension. Without belabouring the point, you offer us a “movie-movie” that creates a space where disbelief can morph into belief (and vice versa); it is telling that the agnostic James turns devout when he becomes Sundaram. This permeability feels crucial to your film; unfolding between dream and waking life, along state borders, it deals with liminal faiths, liminal languages, liminal mind-states and liminal places. Likewise, the time period of the film isn’t very clear, the sound bites spanning fifty years, and this sedimentation of timelines hints at the time machines that movies are.

Seeing may not be believing in Nanpakal, but it is in cinema. Just as the Velankanni church attracts common people of all religious persuasions, movies reflect our indomitable need for transcendent belief, allowing us to lower our rational incredulousness and accept the bizarre, the far-fetched and the inconceivable. In offering the possibility of belief, of return to innocence, cinema trumps reality.

I have a personal reason to thank you for your tremendous film. The last several movies I had seen in the theatres—widely acclaimed projects to boot—had been uniformly uninspiring, whereas I found myself liking those I saw on streaming. I had begun to think that the theatrical medium was somehow affecting my capacity to enjoy films. But Nanpakal has shown me that the fault was indeed in the stars and not in myself. At a time when movies are determined to bludgeon you into submission, your film sharpens our sensibilities. All of Nanpakal’s choices, the theatrical space of action, the frontality and the rectilinearity of composition, the self-reflexivity of the story send our gaze back at us, asking us to consider our spectatorship as we are watching your film. It is a work that invites a conversation, one that takes little and gives back much more.

Your film comes a week after Tamil filmmakers organized a meet to congratulate themselves for their radicalism, to marvel at default setting. Nanpakal will not make a fraction of the money their films make—heck, it will likely be out of theatres this Friday—but in a single stroke, it makes all their pontifications sound like empty hand-wringing.

So thank you, really.

Just Another Film Buff

PS: Your film, I hear, is titled Like an Afternoon Dream in English, but given its theme, might it be more fitting to call it Matinee Madness?

 

[Read Part 2 here]

Ottha Seruppu Size 7 (“Single Slipper Size 7”, 2019, R. Parthiban)

The claim that it’s a single-actor film is indeed a falsity, a gimmick. Sure, we see only one actor on screen (Parthiban himself), but we hear a dozen more on the soundtrack. Worse, it takes pains not to show any other actor even in scenes not featuring Parthiban. So the camera would look away from implied actors, whose exchanges we nevertheless hear. In its minimalist story that could’ve perhaps worked just as well without the conceit, a detained serial killer, interrogated by three or four high-level police officers, confesses liberally to his crimes, but walks out scot free. To avoid the monotony of looking at him speaking for a hundred minutes, actor-director-writer Parthiban cycles through a range of zany camera angles, playing with scales of objects at different distances from the camera. The framing is now partial, now distorted. Parthiban walks in and out of the view of the camera, both the film’s and of the one in the police station recording his testimony. For a major part of its runtime, we share the perspective of the police officers and never once that of Parthiban. This renders him less a character we identify with than a purely external being performing for the camera(s). On the other hand, in a theatrical gesture, we hear the voices that he hears in his head, which invites us to understand his psychology and also serves to insist that he’s not faking his way through the interrogation. I think the end result remains largely stage-bound, with concomitant light and sound effects. Be that as it may, there’s much pleasure to be had in watching the actor get so much manoeuvring space to showboat his unique personality. He forges a quintessential Parthiban character in his serial killer, a Socratic figure whose modesty, piety and powerlessness belie his wit, wisdom and wile. This fusing of Parthiban’s real life identity, his work as a writer and an actor turns him into an all-round film entertainer not unlike Jackie Chan or Takeshi Kitano.

 

Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu (“Wheatish Complexion, Average Build”, 2016, Hemanth M Rao)

Rao’s debut effort wedges together two stories. In the first, a 66-year-old Alzheimer’s patient, Venkob (Anant Nag), strays away from the home he’s admitted in, prompting his caretaker (Sruthi Hariharan) and his estranged, corporate rat of a son (Rakshit Shetty) to go look for him. In the second, two henchmen trying to hide a dead body end up taking shelter with Venkob at the home of a middle-class family. The twinning of stories has two advantages. First, it doubles as a showreel for Rao, who could demonstrate to future producers that he can handle a romantic melodrama as well as a crime thriller. (It apparently worked; his next was a police procedural produced by Puneeth Rajkumar’s new house.) But it also helps balance the film, which is otherwise a bland family drama or a tepid thriller developed in the broadest strokes possible. The characters are all are well-worn types with little inflection. The callousness of Venkob’s son, especially, is drummed up to an unsustainable pitch. It predictably breaks down with Venkob’s disappearance, and the character mellows down. As he searches for his father, he also discovers through oral testimonies his private habits, his romantic past, and his community influence, and realizes that his father wasn’t as generic and boring as the titular missing-person description suggests. In the process, he owns up to his own past, finding his roots and narrativizing his own life. Most of the search takes place through montages and song sequences, and the film itself is overly chopped up, far from the appreciable economy of Kavaludaari. If it’s still moving, it’s largely thanks to Anant Nag, who plays it light, not invoking every characteristic of Alzheimer’s patients. His essential simplicity bestows his character a basic dignity despite the ill-treatment meted-out to it by the script.

 

Taramani (2017, Ram)

Pray you don’t meet director Ram at a dinner. He is the kind of character who can’t pass the salt without giving you a five-minute lecture on the politics behind it. He might not be one to step inside pubs or to work at a call centre, but that doesn’t prevent him from pontificating with great authority on their social dynamics. A gay man in a hetero marriage? Ram knows exactly how he feels. A cuckolded husband? You got it. An adulterous North Indian housewife? Ram’s got you covered. The word pedantic doesn’t begin to describe this type. In Taramani, possibly the most reprehensible Tamil film of the past few years, this personality is given free rein as the director plays the wise prophet in an obnoxious, smart-ass voiceover. As he holds forth about the evils of globalization, employing preciously symbolic CGI birds realistically brought to life by an offshore VFX company, the viewer pictures a smug individual who has figured it all. The film’s ostensible story centres on the relation between a liberal, westernized, conveniently Anglo-Indian single mother (Andrea Jeremiah) and a nondescript, upwardly-mobile, resentful man (Vasanth Ravi). If the film sets their perspectives in parallel early on, it soon tilts the balance to establish a grand theory about the inadequate Indian male grappling with the sexual revolution of the past twenty years. Ram’s hand of judgment falls heavily on (straight) men—fair enough—but he proves himself utterly incapable of acknowledging the basic dignity of women without making martyrs out of them, without surrounding them with countless failed models of masculinity. This strategy also serves to acquit the filmmaker, who incriminates these broken men to conceal his own misogyny. The pat conservatism of a film like Maalai Nerathu Mayakkam, which deals with the same subject, is more honest than the pretend progressiveness of this sham. Taramani is a shameless piece of intellectual fraud.

 

Angamaly Diaries (2017, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Angamaly Diaries is about gangs of young men from respectable social backgrounds flirting with lawlessness. The testosterone accumulates from frame one and, in an escalation of macho one-upmanship, blows up on their faces. There are shades of City of God here, but Pellissery doesn’t judge the community (on the contrary) and offers no higher moral ground. Instead, the filmmaker is paying tribute to the Christian-majority town of Angamaly in Kerala, whose meat trade and beef- and pork-dominated cuisine become primary motifs of the film. Diaries has formally very little to do with Pellissery’s next two films. While Ee.Ma.Yau and Jallikattu are explosives with a long fuse, building up to a crescendo through long, snake-like passages, Diaries is a serial firecracker proceeding at a breakneck pace from the get-go. Several episodes in the film have an average shot length of less than a second, the rapid edits and camera movements reflecting in their aggression the violence of the milieu portrayed. I was reminded on futurist-cubist superpositions in the way Pellissery chops up even brief actions into unrecognizable bits and stitches them back together to produce an impression rather than coherently describe events. So unlike in the later films, editing is the primary motive force and the creator of meaning here. Diaries is also decidedly a more commercial film, with its voiceover and music that reins in the otherwise chaotic proceedings, and without any of the philosophical pretensions of its successors. But if the film makes for such a crowd pleaser, it’s largely thanks to Pellissery’s work with his actors. His film is flooded with colourful characters, all of them played by debutant non-professionals. Even so, a majority of these actors leave a strong impression. The reason for this, I think, is that, in contrast to the use of non-professionals in other films in this roundup, the mostly male performances here are all set at a very high pitch, and they register with us principally through the actors’ physicality and bluster. To use the food metaphor so pervasive in the film, it’s like dousing all your dishes in the same spicy sauce. Leaves you excited one way or another.  

 

C/o Kancharapalem (2018, Venkatesh Maha)

The popular success of C/o Kancharapalem speaks to both the strengths and shortcomings of streaming giants like Netflix. On one hand, the fact that a modest, independent production such as this has found a sizeable audience speaks to the platform’s curatorial power and appetite for risk. But it also testifies to how easily public taste can be shaped. C/o Kancharapalem is practically a student film—a telefilm at best—whose natural home so far might have been Youtube or Sunday afternoon television. But it’s position on Netflix alongside super-productions, prestige pictures and auteur cinema does disservice to both the film and its more competent peers. The film interweaves four short stories, each involving a forbidden romance and all of them set in the titular neighbourhood of Vizag in India’s east coast. The female characters in all four stories hail from a conservative, caste-marked, patriarchal setup, which they are courageous enough to break out of through an affection for the other. This turns out to be an affront to family honour for the men gatekeeping their lives and leads to invariably sad consequences. Then there’s the question of religion, either as faith or practice, which modulates the four love stories. As can be guessed from that synopsis, the film pursues the parallels closely, even mechanically, resulting in an emphasis on the overarching concept (think Griffith’s Intolerance) at the expense of detail and texture. It cuts between the stories rather arbitrarily, sometimes forgetting an arc or two altogether for considerable stretches of time. This produces a curiously uneven emotional profile in which tensions in some sections are resolved while others remain. The film is, of course, not without endearing moments, especially in scenes involving the older pairs, but the actors are asked to do much more than they are capable of and the algorithmic quality of the scenario saps all surprise.

 

Merku Thodarchi Malai (“Western Ghats”, 2018, Lenin Bharathi)

Aka Profit Motive and the Whispering Wind. For most of its runtime, Merku Thodarchi Malai is a low-key portrait of a specific-geographic location: the ghat section on the frontier between Tamil Nadu and Kerala. Nature, of course, is indifferent to state boundaries, and most of the people we see co-habit within a continuum of languages, customs, beliefs and worldviews. We witness life and work in the mountainous region through the eyes of porter Rangasamy (Antony). We get a sense of the local economy, the trade routes, the inhabitants’ relaxed attitude to money, and the near-total lack of a desire for profit. Business is important only so far as it sustains life. There are accidents and there’s a bit of drama, but for most part, Lenin develops a static, existential picture of lives lived at the mercy of nature, which knows nothing of human needs and sorrows. And then comes the coup de grace: a series of events that wrecks the film down in order to build it anew. Troublesome emotions like greed and wrath take on monstrous proportions through politics and come down on the region like an avalanche. Lenin rapidly, but rigorously, sketches the consequences of the breakdown of an agrarian society tenuously held from collapse by labour unions. GMO firms, land mafia, modern machinery and development projects quickly follow, corrupting the ecosystem beyond recognition. The filmmaker lingers on a shot of a shopkeeper noting down what Rangasamy owes him in a ledger—the incipient notion of debt marking the arrival of new economic relations. Like in Happy as Lazzaro, the brute force of modernity brings in newer forms of bonded labour. The community dissolves, and with it its faith and solidarity, forcing even its non-contributing members to take up jobs in the new economy. The last half hour of the film turns our perspective inside out, forcing us to recognize the landscape now as a bearer of grief at the mercy of a human order. Merku Thodarchi Malai is that rare film which is political without being sentimental. There’s a murder that happens, but it’s presented purely as an existential reaction devoid of moral connotations. Lenin concludes with an absurdist wallop in which a uniformed Rangasamy is hired to guard his own unfenced land—now a private property housing a windmill—and protect the free winds from… what exactly? As Lenin’s drone camera flies farther and farther backwards, we see all the surrounding plots of land—each one bearing a tragedy perhaps—occupied by more windmills, those shiny white icons of clean, green progress now looking like gravestones. If you want to know what Marxist cinema looks like today, this is the preeminent film for your consideration.

Gantumoote (“Baggage”, 2019, Roopa Rao)

That a coming-of-age tale told from a girl’s point of view seems exceedingly fresh partly points to cinema’s conditioning of the audience to the primacy of the male gaze. Rao’s film is the hidden half of a story we are intimately familiar with: a lively, popular boy loses his way in life because of his romance. Rao filters the story entirely through the perspective of her protagonist Meera (Teju Belawadi, daughter of filmmaker Prakash Belawadi), in whose voiceover the film unfolds. At times superfluous and overpowering, the anachronistic voiceover oscillates between the adult Meera, trying to make rational sense of her experience, and her teen self, living life as it presents itself, and nevertheless provides fruitful tensions with the image. From the outset, Rao portrays the movie buff Meera as someone who likes to see (the interaction of screen and spectator has generally been the prerogative of male cinephiles). Through countless shot-reverse shot constructions, she makes the viewer share Meera’s awakening of desire. All through, the emphasis is on Meera’s autonomy, her right to be alone, to want alone, to suffer alone. Rao plays off specific gestures (Meera pulling her boyfriend by his shirt sleeves, his preventing her from biting her nails) against a series of moods (the anxious wait for first kiss in monsoon, the languid summer vacation), specific memories of Meera’s against her lack of knowledge of events beyond her purview. Even when it goes in and out of student film territory, Gantumoote is carried forth by Belawadi’s incredible turn. Her frame drooping in harmony with her eyebrows, she looks over the shoulders, hers or her beloved’s, her eyes conveying her inner life with the directness of subtitles. She is an instant star.

 

Ee.Ma.Yau (“R.I.P”, 2018, Lijo Jose Pellissery)

Ee.Ma.Yau deepens the suspicion I had watching Jallikattu: that Pellissery works like a painter. First comes the underlying structure; in this case, the social machinery of a small-town Christian community that springs into action following the death of a member. Overseen by a trusted friend of the deceased’s son, a doctor, a priest, a policeman, an undertaker, a printer, a coffin maker, a gravedigger and a music band galvanize around the dead alcoholic. Overlaid on this impersonal societal analysis, like colours on a drawing, are human emotions and characteristics: desire (of an man wishing a grand farewell to his dead father), malice (of a man who is bent on arousing suspicion around death), self-righteousness (of a priest who makes it his mission to complicate things), greed (of a coffin maker trying to sell an expensive unit), generosity (of a friend willing to abase himself to alleviate his friend’s suffering) and compassion (of a rival battered by the dead man). Like Jallikattu, this is a film about how these individual qualities overwhelm and destroy the community from within, turning a complex collective calculus to see off a man with civility into a spectacle of uncivility. Despite the (sometimes unwatchable) sordidness of the happenings, the stress is on the basic dignity of individuals. Pellissery’s characteristic, long Steadicam shots bridge indoors and outdoors, connecting the perspectives of characters that were only pieces in a communal mosaic before the death. The uniformly caffeinated performances are pitched above everyday realism, but below cartoonishness. While his work on the image is still strong—the floodlight-bathed coastal town has a distinct character—Pellissery has no qualms dealing in the abstract or being literal-minded: a blunt coda resumes the film’s philosophical motivations. A potent shot of cheap liquor you don’t want to try again.

 

Suttu Pidikka Utharavu (“Shoot at Sight”, 2019, Ramprakash Rayappa)

An unmitigated disaster. All it takes is five minutes to figure that this is the work of a bona fide hack. It’s the director’s third film and he’s apparently never heard of a tripod. One could say that Rayappa really puts the motion in motion picture. Three men (or four, who cares, certainly not the filmmaker) rob a bank and hole up in a cramped residential colony of Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu. A hot-headed officer (Mysskin, paying his bills) is on their heels. It so happens that a group of terrorists are hatching a bombing plot in an apartment in the same colony. The specificity of location suggests that the writer-director has a personal connection to it. But all we learn about the area is that it’s overridden by ostentatious and treacherous North Indians, and so the good policemen of Tamil Nadu are obliged to carry out a clean-up job. A big twist at the end is intended to overhaul our understanding of the events. The director is clearly aware that he’s been cheating his audience so far, and tries to cover his tracks with no avail. The result is a cheap prank in the vein of The Usual Suspects. There’s a monumentally irritating constable character whose stupidity is amped up solely for the big twist to work. The sole point of interest is the final reveal montage: in maybe fifty shots in three or so minutes, we get to hear the whole backstory—an indication of Tamil film audience’s increasing capacity to absorb a great volume of sudden information, a capacity thoroughly abused here.

 

Kavaludaari (“Crossroads”, 2019, Hemanth M Rao)

A valuable archaeological find was robbed and the family of the archaeologist murdered in 1977 at the peak of emergency—the original moment of the Indian public’s disenchantment with politics and its practitioners. The case, thought to be a stub, is pursued by a traffic policeman (Rishi) after 40 years when unidentified bones of three individuals are found during a road-widening project. The cop collaborates with the original officer who investigated the case (Anant Nag) to complete the puzzle. Co-writer of Andhadhun, Rao renders the idea of the police officer living with his case literally, as the people involved in the murder materialize in his apartment with post-production effects. The film starts out as a more ambitious portrait of men and their obsessions, problematizing the investigators themselves, but eventually settles on a traditional whodunit arc. Rao loads the narrative with information after information, plot thread after plot thread, whether they serve to enrich it or not, whether they are indispensable or not. The surfeit of information in itself—mimicking the cognitive experience of navigating today’s mass and social media—sustains a feeling of mystery and importance. The film is generally a couple of steps ahead of the audience, but imagines it is taking them along. In a crucial montage, the suspense is taken to an artificial crescendo through an intercutting between three different spaces. It’s supposed to create an anticipation about the identity of the killer, but what it does instead is produce an anxiety that something grave is underfoot. This mechanistic approach to thrill aside, Rao exhibits an admirable economy of exposition. Several sequences are constructed out of the fewest possible shots, the camera craning across space to furnish additional details. There’s a charming shot of the two investigators waiting in a car in which Anant Nag tries to trap a CGI fly as Rishi observes with amusement from the back seat.

 

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (“Evidence and Eyewitness”, 2017, Dileesh Pothan)

Having eloped, Prasad and Sreeja (Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan) are on their way to the north of Kerala when Sreeja’s matrimonial gold chain is stolen by a criminal (an ostentatiously self-effacing Fahadh Faasil) who swallows it when caught red-handed. The trio ends up at the police station of a tiny town to sort out the issue. It’s an open-and-shut case with no information withheld from the audience, and the film rejects novelistic suspense and epistemological mysteries. The director keeps riffing in scenes set in the police station by weaving in peripheral incidents of petty crime, which increases tension by delaying plot progression. This allows him to mix contrasting tones to great effect, visually (as in the shot of the devastated wife sitting next to colourful balloons), narratively (the triviality of the crime set against the seriousness of consequences) and conceptually (the sanctity of a marriage having to pass through a thief’s rectum). In an unusual characterization, he describes the police force as a rather transparent establishment where information trickles up and down with ease. The cops get comfortable with the plaintiffs on a first name basis, while the latter grow familiar with all the policemen. More sharply, the film spirals out of the story of small-time felony to weave a quasi-philosophical picture of individuals caught up in the whirlpool of impersonal institutional imperatives. The film’s Rashomon-like network of perspectives are centripetally held by the act of stealing a gold chain. The husband (seeking the stolen valuable), the wife (seeking honour and justice), the criminal (seeking liberty), the constable who lets him escape (seeking a closure to the case) are acting on a constant drive for self-preservation, but they are also capable of tremendous, sporadic grace. The equivalence between Prasad and the criminal—echo of another Kurosawa, Stray Dog—is perhaps overly stressed, but it doesn’t take away from the considerable accomplishment of this film.

 

Kirumi (“Germ”, 2015, Anucharan)

Anucharan wrote, edited and directed this debut feature. Kathir (Kathir) is an unemployed young man, offended by the disdain of his friends and family for his predicament. When he gets an opportunity to work for the police as one of their black-market mercenaries—employed to gather information, collect bribes and rough up suspects—he sees a way out of his impasse. He makes quick progress, soaring up the preferential ladder until he becomes too big for his shoes. There’s very little feeling for milieu here. We don’t get a sense of Kathir’s social situation. He seems to glide in and out of lower-middle class domesticity, rubbing shoulders with an unmarked pair of financially struggling friends, an underground police informer (Charlie, playing the kind of decent everyman that so well suits him), politically-enabled gambling lynchpins and, later, higher-up police officers. What it lacks in nuance and local colour, Kirumi makes up for with a smart structure. Taking the titular microbe as analogy, it sketches the tragedy of a disruptive agent that infects the corrupt body of the police institution—kept from total collapse by internal rivalries and mutual suspicions—only to end up strengthening its immunity and be rejected. Kathir is presented as someone resenting his lack of power and esteem, and his short-lived ambitiousness a product of his power trip. His horniness is regularly invoked, I suppose, as a reference to his compensatory, self-destructive masculinity. The filmmaking is cranked up for effect and the emotional peaks are somewhat misplaced. But the ending, with its perversely welcome cynicism in the mould of Chinatown, is refreshingly anti-climactic, understated and conceptually at home.

Jallikattu, the South Indian bull-taming sport, both lends its name to and serves as a metaphor for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film, which premiered in Toronto last month. Like the sport, which is not just an opportunity for young men to showcase their bravery and machismo, but also a yearly excuse for dominant castes to flag their importance, Jallikattu is about an animal that becomes a pretext for men to give expression to their aggression, resentment and anxiety. The film opens with a volley of shots lasting one second each—a metronomic editing pattern that will recur several times throughout the film—of yellow-lit faces opening their eyes to the dawn of a new day. Scored to the sound of percussions interspersed with vaguely primal choral utterings, the sequence weaves in shots of ants and worms in movement, in effect situating humans and nature on the same order of things. This rate of 60 shots per minute already puts us on our toes, but the intensity will unwaveringly increase without breather or detour until the nightmarish, all-consuming climax.

This mosaic-like scheme carries over to the first post-credits sequence as well. In a series of extremely brief shots cut to a monotonic rhythm, we see the routine of a tiny town in Kerala on a Sunday morning: a buffalo slaughtered before sunup, the meat sold to thronging crowds and delivered home by Antony (Antony Varghese), a mass at the church, an instance of domestic violence, another of uninvited romantic advance. There is some dialogue, but no central narrative movement except for the general description of the community with a few simmering tensions. It’s only when the film comes out of this pulsating rhythm that the narrative is set in motion. One particularly recalcitrant buffalo escapes slaughter and goes rogue, prompting men from the village and its surroundings to go after it. That’s it. The entire film is the increasingly violent hunt for the animal and its ugly repercussions.

The animal is presented at first as a force of proto-political anarchy that doesn’t see human constructs like fences, religion, private property and political parties. In a parody of communist revolution, it destroys plantations, shuts down businesses and galvanizes the villagers into a collective united in purpose. In a film without guiding perspectives or characters in the conventional sense, the buffalo serves as the absent centre that centripetally holds the separate points of view, presented here as fleeting vignettes. The existential reaction of an animal trying to evade death—a revolt of the Other, in the film’s cosmic view of things—binds the community in a common fear of the Other. But the buffalo turns out to be simply a catalyst that triggers the unstoppable combustion of the village. Long-repressed resentments, sexual jealousy and communal fault lines emerge, which find a violent expression in the course of the hunt.

As the animal flees from the deserted streets of the town into the jungle, the community too splinters into unruly mobs and regresses from civilization (like in Yojimbo, the gun-toting hunter proves to be less effective than the one with the machete). Like the animal, they stop respecting private property and enter other people’s houses. They catch an adulterer and humiliate him. Civility, law and order breaks down and the hunters—all men without exception—torch police vehicles and beat a cop up. Antony enters the house of the woman he desires and forces himself on her. Like in the Jallikattu sport, mob courage masks individual cowardliness, which resurfaces every time the animal charges at the men to disperse them into individuals. By now wandering the jungle harmless, the animal nevertheless becomes an issue of collective and individual male egos, leading to a bloody dogfight between Antony and his sexual rival, who charge at each other like raging bulls.

Progressively removed from naturalism and a sense of reality, the film escapes into pure abstraction after Antony stabs his opponent and runs out of the woods into a meadow. The discrete mobs meld into a fascist collective to pursue Antony. In the oneiric, painterly, Lars von Trier-like end sequence, an inexhaustible mass of possessed men jumps on Antony, continuously piling on top of him until they make up a single mountain of men, the formation covered in sludge, with Antony trying in vain to emerge out of it as an individual. In a brief, possibly redundant coda, the scene shifts to a cave where bare-chested men fight with torches over the carcass of a dead animal. If it’s startling enough to see a supremely tight, 90-minute film getting a mainstream distribution, the stylized final passage of the film—beyond the question of its merit—is a veritable miracle to have graced the screens.

The simplified, whirlwind tour of social ideologies that Jallikattu drives us through—capitalism, communism, anarchism, fascism, what have you—may not be for everyone’s liking, but it shouldn’t be the case with Pellissery’s exceptional sense of image making. Composing in deep space with direct sound, he has precise visual ideas for the film, which progresses from full field of daylight to reduced visibility of the night lit by flashlights and torches. The progression also corresponds to a shift from slender tracking shots through the village streets, relaying perspective from one character to another, to shots handling increasing amounts of humans in frenetic motion. The latter half of the film, with barely-lit animal and human bodies hurtling across the frame at high speed, push the image into the edge of perceptibility where, like in a Willem de Kooning painting, we notice the essential elements of form, but not the exact details. The sound mix, consisting of human cacophony in escalation, is equally a work of sonic abstract expressionism.

Pellissery hardly uses a closeup in the hunt, wide shots of men scouring the landscape being the norm. Characters insult one another, but there’s never a tight shot to capture reaction. Images of hundreds of men bearing torches descending the slope have a pointillist decorativeness. But for the most part, the emphasis is on depth of the frame. A large part of the movement in Jallikattu takes place along the Z-axis. Like Gus Van Sant’s Elephant, Pellissery’s fractured narrative uses a video game aesthetic where the Steadicam follows or leads character into and out of the frame—a pattern echoed in the numerous zooms in and out of tangential information on screen (a branch of a tree, insects, a sunset). These opposed movements are also characteristic of the men’s movement with respect to the animal: they rush towards it when it’s running away and fall away as it retaliates. In a mini set-piece within the larger set-piece that is the film itself, the hunters try to rescue the buffalo, now stuck in a pit, with a makeshift pulley system. Just before the animal lands on safe ground, Pellissery cuts away to secondary detail, returning only to capture the aftermath of the animal’s resumed rampage. It’s a striking example of how deliberate the film’s stylistic choices are. John Abraham invested masses of human bodies with meaning. Pellissery dissolves them in chaos.