[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]