Thampu / The Circus Tent (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1978, India/Malayalam)

In the dialogue-less opening to Aravindan’s 1978 film Thampu, an open-air truck filled with seemingly ordinary people weaves it way languidly through the sunlit coastal roads of Thalassery, Kerala. This close-knit travelling circus, made up of a troupe of intrepid misfits and fantasists, have habitually made this journey before, living out a transient existence of boredom, service and entrapment. It would be wrong to deny Aravindan’s films are plotless but Thampu is probably the closest he came to making a documentary. The use of a non-narrative framework that favours episodic situations and a refusal to introduce characters or make them substantial in anyway turns the superfluous such as the assembly of the circus tent into self-contained spectacles of social performance. Aside from the presence of Gopi as the manager, many of the characters that populate the circus troupe are non-professionals, another notable feature of neorealism, a style and form that is stridently transparent in Aravindan’s semi observational approach. By the same token, the black and white cinematography (exceptional work again by the distinguished Shaji N. Karun) is an aesthetic choice that also augments the neorealist style. Accordingly, when the circus delivers their inaugural performance, Aravindan repeatedly cuts to shots of spectators, real faces of the villagers, training his eye on their mesmerising expressions who are completely hypnotised by the spectacle, and in turn drawing out the parallels between the circus and film as intrinsic forms of escape for the masses. Before the advent of travelling cinema shows, the arrival of a circus was a major event in the lives of people craving diversion and what Aravindan captures unequivocally is the fleeting delight and short lived excitement the circus brings to the local area. For the most part, it is the sense of identity and belonging the circus gives to such a disparate community of people that chiefly interests Aravindan, conjuring a melancholic portrait of an occurrence that is evanescently material and magical.

Chidambaram (1985, Dir. Govindan Aravindan, India [Tamil])

When Shivagami (Smita Patil) arrives at a Mooraru government run farmhouse in Niligri as a newly wedded bride she is enamoured by the mountainous landscapes and in these fleeting moments of rapture Aravindan carves and crafts this awakening as a synchronic event that ties Shivagami to nature, an elemental conceptualization. Chidambaram is structured as a classical parable and morality tale on fragile masculinities with a latent critique of caste politics while retaining characteristic poetic refrains that define Aravindan’s rhythmical approach. It is a work that remains largely transcendentally tactile with bird song punctuating the soundtrack in an everlasting chorus of repose. Lensed by regular DOP Shaji N. Karun, the impressionistic photography imbues the film with a painterly texture, a classic Aravindan signature.   

In an early sequence, Shankaran (Gopi), a superintendent of the farm, invites Muniyandi (Srinivas), a lower caste labourer, to have an evening drink with him. Jacob, the bigoted farm supervisor, objects to the presence of Muniyandi, openly revealing his casteist prejudices. While Shankaran ignores Jacob’s hostile sentiments, Muniyandi seems to belittle himself when he spontaneously bursts into a song lamenting his enslavement to the master, a gesture that makes Shankaran uncomfortable, hinting at the complicated hypocrisies at work in the shredded mentality of the men. When Muniyandi gets married and requests an extended leave so he can consummate his new relationship, Jacob arrives prematurely at Muniyandi’s home and instructs him to return immediately while lecherously sizing up his new bride. Smita Patil typically underplays, exuding an intelligence and naivety that marks Shivagami as incorruptible.

It is Muniyandi and Shivagami’s lower caste status that makes them susceptible to an exploitation that incorporates Shankaran as the unlikely perpetrator, reiterating the ways in which casteism is systemic and omnipresent. The dynamics between Shivagami and Shankaran, which is framed as a friendship, is only hinted at briefly as something far more sexual, in a flashback insert when Shankaran wanders aimlessly in search of absolution for his transgression. Muniyandi’s realisation that someone has visited Shivagami when he is at work on night duty is depicted elliptically, Aravindan refusing to explicitly point out who it might be. For a lowly caste oppressed labourer like Muniyandi all that matters is his honour, which he is convinced resides in his sanctity of marriage and his wife. While it comes as a shock to discover that it is Shankaran who has strips away what little dignity Muniyandi has left, the wound of betrayal that is inflicted is a traumatic one, nightmarishly visualised in the dreaded image of Muniyandi swinging from a rope in the cow shed, having committed suicide in an insufferably tragic act of self-destruction.

The final third details the residual psychological deterioration of Shankaran who is consumed by the terrifying, debilitating guilt of his actions, which in turns leads him on a haphazard metaphysical journey for absolution. When Shankaran looks upon the dead body of poor Muniyandi he bolts through the forest in horror, trying desperately to block out the blinding dagger like rays of sunlight streaming through the trees and subsequently throwing himself into a pool of water, a symbolic gesture, so to cleanse himself of his misdeeds. The sacred, ancient Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is where an aging Shankaran retreats, coming face to face with Shivagami, a haunting mythological moment that arguably represents Shivagami as an ethereal yet tortured figure. Carrying with her the mark of violence left by her late husband, Shivagami’s supernatural appearance is arguably a projection of Shankaran’s painful imaginings trying in vain to reconcile with a past from which he cannot escape no matter how greatly he seeks exoneration.

ESTHEPPAN (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1979, India)

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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.

VIDEO ESSAY: THE POETICS OF ARAVINDAN

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.