Aravindan’s 1979 feature film Estheppan (Stephen) is a companion piece to Kummatty, also released in 1979. Estheppan, a mythical entity conjured by a Christian fishing village in Kerala, materialises magically in the contested narratives of the village folk. It is the restful Keralan coastline Aravindan turns to as a natural landscape from which Estheppan emerges. The intent here is a subjective treatment by the village folk who relay their own personal stories of Estheppan, and in the process constructing an episodic narrative that analyses religious mysticism as inherently paradoxical. Like Kummatty, Aravindan adopts a striking rhythmical tone, using strategies of ellipsis and delay to invoke a community in which Estheppan seems both disconnected and vital to its primordial existence. As the threadbare narrative unfolds, Estheppan is increasingly ridiculed in a series of satirical situations that recall the folk rituals that also characterise Kummatty. The flashbacks that recount the tales of Estheppan steadily construct an impression of someone with prophetic powers. And in one of the penultimate sequences Aravindan uses a series of haunting interconnecting shots that simply track Estheppan walking across the Keralan landscapes as someone not of this earth, a mystical guardian and soothsayer who transcends human comprehension. With the constant toiling of the church bell that rises up out of the soundtrack juxtaposed to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shores of the Keralan coastline, it is an aural motif that comes to define an inescapable sensuality at work in Aravindan’s poetic folk tale.
A Video Essay in 3 Chapters on Govindan Aravindan’s 1979 film Kumatty (The Bogeyman, India) – Nature | Topography | Magic
This new video essay looks at a few of the aesthetic and thematic ideas in the work of Aravindan’s Kumatty (1979). There seems to be a lot of Indian films which are being restored, occasionally playing at film festivals or selected film events. Yet there still seems to be no viable means of distributing marginal, alternative or forgotten Indian films whereby a wider audience can get access to them. I’ve been quite surprised by Netflix, which has a healthy list of contemporary Indian titles from the independent scene, a welcoming shift in terms of making streaming more accessible for new and alternate Indian cinema. What we really could do with now is some kind of distribution model, perhaps an Indian streaming version of Mubi, that can curate, provide a platform for critique and engage with Indian cinephile culture in a more democratic way. For instance, John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan and Aravindan’s Kumatty are circulating on the internet in newly restored prints, which makes the job of the Indian cinephile somewhat worrying, especially since these two films in particular deserve a legitimate DVD/Blu-Ray/Online release.
It is noble and right that preservation has started to become a significant issue in Indian cinema today and much work is being done to protect and preserve the legacy of Indian film history. But what is the point of this exercise in film preservation if ultimately only an elite actually get to see the newly restored Indian film classics? The initiative becomes counter productive to the field of Indian film studies if it does not aid the process of revising the history of Indian cinema, scholarly research and cinephile culture. By all means let us preserve, restore, exhibit Indian Cinema but we must also remember the significance of distribution – this is where an understanding, appreciation and love of Indian cinema is likely to have the greatest impact. But this change can only come about through investment in new, innovative and alternative distribution models.