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.
Born in Kerala in 1933, M.T. Vasudevan Nair is one of India’s most prolific literary voices. Nair is also seen as a key figure in the development of Malayalam art cinema, having written over fifty screenplays and directed a number of influential films. Nirmalayam (The Offering), Nair’s directorial debut, was made at a time when the Parallel Cinema movement was entering the final years of the creative first phase (68 – 75).
The story explores the anxieties of a village oracle, a man of faded glories and religious servitude who fails to recognise and accept to what extent his family cope with an abject poverty that he cultivates. Parallel Cinema was often characterised by the ideological capacity to directly critique and deconstruct orthodoxy and which appeared in many guises. In this case, it is religious orthodoxy. Since very few people in the village go to the temple anymore to give offerings, the oracle is forced to beg for food. In one sequence, the oracle, exploiting his status as a religious figure that everyone respects, visits the homes of local people for rice. However, when a women rebuffs the oracle for begging, it is just one of many humiliating scenarios that marks the decline of faith in the village and ridicules his position.
The film opens with a montage of quick edits venerating the image of the Mother Goddess followed by a short sequence in which the oracle performs a ritualised Chenda dance in the temple. Nair imbues the oracle’s extended religiosity as a feverish performance, a true devotee. The ritualised dance is made altogether potent with the iconography of the ceremonial sword wielded by the oracle in a brazen style and that draws blood. But as soon as the ritualised dance is over, we learn about the dearth of offerings and how the people of the village have stopped visiting the temple. The priest who has been appointed to serve at the temple announces he is leaving, arguing a dwindling lack of revenue cannot sustain him a livelihood in the village anymore. Unlike the priest who abandons the temple, the oracle is dead set in his ways, dismissing the warnings of his wife that they are barely surviving. Later, a new priest arrives, an educated young man, who seduces the oracle’s daughter, Ammini, but only to leave abruptly to get married. Appu, the son of the oracle, also leaves the village, completely disillusioned with the family’s impoverished state. Even the feudal landowner who lords over the village pokes fun at the redundancy of religious rituals, ceremonies and processes that can no longer be sustained in the face of modernity.
But what makes Nirmalayam a daring work is the ending, a radical tour de force of expressionist imagery and religious symbolism. Upon discovering his wife has been sleeping with a Muslim shopkeeper from whom he has borrowed some money and which he has no way of paying back, the oracle who is set to perform a ritual dance at a major ceremony in the village unleashes his rage at the Mother Goddess whom he has served with such unswerving dignity. In the closing moments when he is in the temple, the oracle spits blood at the Mother Goddess, a defiant gesture that he also realises will curse and condemn him. But Nair frames this defiant gesture as something instinctive, necessary, and a source of expiation, carrying with it a vehemently anti-religious coda that is inherently radical in the way modernity and change devours all that stands in its path. P. J. Anthony is remarkable in the main lead of the village oracle. Nirmalayam is a rich and subversive work.
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.
You know me, Mother, don’t you.
You know everything about me.
I will keep you informed about everything that I come across,
until the end of the journey.
Just see for yourself,
my paths; the sights that have been waiting me on my way…
Lives have been sacrificed all through this deserted path of mine.
I am currently in the throes of research for my PhD project on Indian Parallel Cinema and have started to view films that I may potentially use for my thesis. Amma Ariyan holds somewhat of a Holy Grail status for me. I had always wanted to see this final film by Malayalam director John Abraham but whenever I stumbled upon copies they were always unwatchable. I really can’t believe I have waited such a long time to see Amma Ariyan, and what a film it is. Undoubtedly a masterpiece, Amma Ariyan is located amongst the second wave of Malayalam cinema and John Abraham’s emergence coincided with the international success of Adoor Gopalakrishnan as a leading light of the movement. I am declaring it a masterpiece because I don’t think there is anything quite like it in the canon of regional parallel cinema, Indian art cinema or more broadly speaking in the field of Indian cinema.
While some contend Hindi cinema entered one of its worst periods in the 1980s, although I am not persuaded by such an argument especially when you reason Parallel Cinema was at its peak, in Malayalam Cinema there was a ‘qualitative growth’ brought on by ‘Film Cooperatives, the harbinger of which was the Chitralekha cooperative which commissioned a full fledged production complex for struggling filmmakers on the outskirts of Trivandrum’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). Furthermore, the collective reach of a new generation of filmmakers who opted for low budgets and location shooting helped Malayalam Cinema break away from the Madras film industry and ‘establish its own identity in Kerala’ (Shankaranarayanan, 1998: 8). The more I look at Malayalam Cinema in the 1970s and beyond it is clear there was an ideological engagement with politics on a didactic level that led to some very polemical works. The willingness to engage with political themes of the day articulates the political literacy and politicization of life in Kerala itself.
John Abraham only made four films before he suddenly passed away in 1987. He hailed from a middle class orthodox family, although his father ‘used to be associated with an underground political movement’, and he started watching films at the age of 15 which ignited an interest in cinema. Joining the Pune Film Institute in 1965 John Abraham worked as an assistant for Mani Kaul on Uski Roti, a film that he later admitted was a formalist exercise, accusing Kaul of having ‘drained out the sentimentalism’ from the story. Strangely enough the temporal-spatial disjuncture of Kaul is present in the elliptical frissions of Amma Ariyan. It was the Bengali triptych of Ray, Ghatak and Sen who had a major influence on his approach to cinema and one can witness such influences in Amma Ariyan’s hybridity, discordantly mixing tradition, radicalism and morality into a loose, episodic stream of consciousness. The international influences are just as discernable especially in the astonishing handheld, deep focus camerawork that recalls both Third Cinema (this could be regarded as a film about the process of decolonization) and Cuban Cinema including Kalatozov’s Soy Cuba/I am Cuba (1964). Abraham’s major achievement was not his films but the ‘Odessa Movies’ collective, which he helped to form in 1984 as a way of working in parallel to the mainstream and offering alternate distribution-exhibition provision. It also meant Odessa were able to screen alternate Indian films in schools and other public places in the context of film education: ‘Once we screened Potemkin in a bus stand. Around 1500 people came to watch it’, recollects John Abraham. In fact, financing for Amma Ariyan was raised through the 16mm films that Odessa distributed, collecting Rs 10 from viewers. This was grassroots cinema indeed and in some respects Amma Ariyan does feel close to Third Cinema especially in terms of its staunchly Marxist address. Here is John Abraham on the rationale behind making Amma Ariyan:
‘Despite all theories and philosophies, our culture teaches us that the destruction of the woman/the mother results in the destruction of humanity. This was the idea behind Amma Ariyan. I believe that mothers should be told about the problems that we face in our lives as men. Their responses to them might offer solutions to a lot of them. In other words, without awakening our mothers, it is impossible to achieve our goals. All our epics tell us the same. The materialistic world modern seems to have forgotten this’.
The story of Amma Ariyan is set against the backdrop of Kerala in which the Naxalite movement had petered out and the cost of political extremism was being measured and reflected upon especially by a directionless youth. One such youth is Purushan (Joy Mathew), a bearded, introspective cipher. He is on his way to Delhi when he sees the dead body of Hari, a percussionist (tabla player) and political Naxalite activist. At first Purushan is unable to identify the body, as he is not entirely sure if it is Hari. As he begins his journey to inform Hari’s mother of her son’s death he calls upon Hari’s friends who not only confirm the dead body is that of Hari but also unite with him in marching to Cochin to deliver the news. John Abraham says the ‘the film is structured as chapters in the form of reports’, which are typically delivered from the perspective of a character that segues into a flashback detailing their own memories of political histories and of Hari. Abraham embues the film with mysticism, using elisions in the editing, through the flashbacks, inserts, juxtapositions of nature, digressions into monologues, creating an organic rhythm. Purushan’s determination to inform Hari’s mother raises a collective that works as a breathless political image: their animated presence punctuating the rural landscapes in what becomes a road movie narrative. The reports come together as a record of dissent, resistance and injustice, but it is always dissent that Abraham celebrates in many of the reports such as the recollection of workers taking back rice and sugar from the capitalist merchants and redistributing at a fair price.
In what is one of the great endings I have come across to an Indian film, the group of young men who have marched to Cochin to deliver the terrible news of Hari’s death, most probably at the hands of the police, culminates in Abraham’s realisation of ‘awakening’ matriarchy by having Hari’s mother turn to the camera with the men crowded behind her, metonymically speaking the sons of Mother India, removing her spectacles to wipe away the tears. As she does so, Abraham cuts to a cinema screen replaying the same moment to what appears to be an audience of spectators. Cinema, reality, politics, coalesce, shattering to reveal an empty void, a terrifying silence, but an illusion, far out of our grasp, and its like Abraham seems to be laughing at us, for having thought that any semblance of optimism might exist is simply obfuscated by drawing on the cruelty of a self reflexive gesture. Like Ghatak and Shahani before him, John Abraham most pertinently draws on the epic form. In fact, this is a cinema about ‘walking’, an action that Abraham embues with a blatant political value. I have merely touched the surface of what is an extraordinary work, a complex one that demands further analysis, distribution and canonization.