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.
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.
Cheriyachan (Adoor Bhasi), a benign yet God fearing landlord in Kuttand, Kerala is unable to comprehend the systemic political changes taking place around him. The peasant workers and farmers have had enough of a feudal power structure that exploits them while enabling landlords like Cheriyachan to rule with impunity, a historical practice that has gone unchallenged for hundreds of years. An orthodox social, economic, political, historical and cultural order is disintegrating before the very eyes of Cheriyachan and he simply does not know how to react to such changes other than retreat into a kind of anxious stupor that gradually consumes him.
Director John Abraham’s political satire, teeming with lyricism, is one of his most underseen works (briefly released in 1981) and reminds us of the significance of satire as a mode of address that was popular with many Parallel Cinema filmmakers, a rich sub-genre that led to some of the most corrosive deconstructions of hegemonic power structures such as caste, colonialism and patriarchy. This sub-genre includes films like Bhuvan Shome (1969), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) to name a few. Abraham’s third feature feature is part of a loose trilogy of political fables, beginning in 1977 with Agratharathil Kazhuthai and culminating in his masterpiece Amma Ariyan in 1987.
Essentially a study of guilt that hinges on Bhasi’s droll and virtually silent performance as Cheriyachan, Abraham’s satire dispenses with narrative inclinations and is shaped as an elliptical stream of consciousness. Cheriyachan’s increasingly anxious view of the world is visualised through a series of dream sequences that relates a nightmarish guilt ridden fear of the peasant worker rising up in a perpetual and relentless chorus of insurrection. The alignment between the petit bourgeoise and the capitalists is just one aspect of resistance to political revolution Abraham deals with, suggesting how the ruling elite like Cheriyachan legitimise this union in their inability to sympathise with the plight of the oppressed workers.
Choosing to deal with peasant insurgency through the eyes of a landlord complicates the revolutionary politics at stake since the unexpected humanization creates a tension in the viewer. Moreover, reducing Cheriyachan to a child gives the work an absurdist, even nonsensical quality. As Cheriyachan’s wife becomes increasingly concerned by her husband’s erratic behaviour, his brief departure to get medical treatment is short lived and suggests that any kind of intervention including religion cannot overcome and stop the forces of historical change. In this respect, Abraham’s approach to feudalism is a novel one since converging on the psychological rather than the political makes for a work that is cerebral, allegorical and burlesque at times. The psychological disintegration of Cheriyachan with the roving hand-held camerawork pushing up against faces, distorting the frame and resorting to nightmarish inserts evokes the work of Polanski 1960’s work expressly Repulsion.
The politics of Naxalism is ever present throughout, reminding us of Naxalism’s widespread impact outside of West Bengal. Montages detail the peasant farmers mobilizing to tear down feudalism while the atrocities of workers who are killed during the harvest and their bodies thrown into the sea come back to haunt Cheriyachan, resurrected in his dreams. In one explicit reference to Naxalism, Cheriyachan listens to workers read out a news story that tells of a landlord who was killed by peasant farmers in act of insurrection, with direct mention of the act being instigated by Naxalites. It only seems logical that Abraham resorts to yet more satire in the Cheriyachan’s literal fall from grace when he ascends a coconut tree and refuses to come down as the village looks on in astonishment, completing a totalizing public humiliation of the figure of the landlord, a constant motif and archetype in Indian cinema who comes to symbolise the fulcrum of a colonial feudal system that was continually under attack in the critical vestiges of Parallel Cinema.
Rangula Kala, released in 1983, was the directorial debut of Rao and is an accomplished work, exploring the role of the artist in society. It would make a brilliant triple bill alongside Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaaz Ke Phool since all three deal with the value of the artist in the marketplace which is in turn contested through differing perspectives on the significance of art and its relationship with the broader social, economic and political landscape of India.
Rao essays the leading role of Ravi, a bearded beatnik painter, who is tormented by the ‘emotional conflict inside him’ and trying desperately to make a living while developing his distinctive style as a painter. Although Ravi is not concerned that his work is derivative of existing forms, what really matters to him is the connection he continually tries to forge with the real world, an existential search that is manifested in a series of tangible dream sequences that finds Ravi lost in a consciousness clouded by guilt, doubt and truth. Many of Ravi’s closest friends including a Marxist journalist (Narayana Rao) and Ramesh, a successful painter (Saichand), actively encourage Ravi to pander to the whims of the audience and the market but he defies this way of making art because it is based on compromise, a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ravi values the work for what it is and represents not what it is worth in the marketplace and what price it will fetch for the pontificating and pretentious upper classes. An exhibition of his work (much of it resembling a modern style) fails to strike a chord with art promoters and is labelled a flop, leaving him in despair both emotionally and economically. As a result, in one sequence, Ravi is forced to visit Mrs Ramarnath, a faux high society figure, and sell one of his paintings simply because he needs the money to survive. Later, Ravi tells Sarala, his girlfriend, that people like Mrs Ramarnath have very little regard for artists and treat art as a commodity that sits alongside their other possessions as part of a twisted capitalist logic.
Rao is also critical of the hypocrisy that circulates amongst fellow artists and Ramesh, the hypocritical snob, who has literally sold out to the marketplace, misleads Ravi and goes to great lengths to mask over his precarious position as a social climber: ‘I’m an artist not a trader’, he exclaims in a radio interview. Ravi’s search for his role as an artist comes to fruition when Suraya, a trade union leader, invites him to attend May Day celebrations for workers. Here Rao uses the first of two political songs of working class resistance by Gaddar, a revolutionary Telugu poet and Naxal activist, that articulates a rising tide of anger in Ravi’s shifting mindset. Later, Suraya, instructs Ravi that he can use his art for a far greater ideological cause, to serve the people and be part of a political mobilisation, an idea that he responds to immediately and eventually embraces. What follows after Ravi’s realisation is the remarkable insert of another resolutely angry protest song by Gaddar, this time criticising the tyranny of the capitalist system and how it has enslaved the poor. The link between a cultural front and political movements has often been a significant one in helping to narrate and express an unofficial story, that of the workers on the front line. Exhibiting his work on the streets forges an authentic connection with the people and his paintings come closer to capturing a reality that he has been searching for. Critical acclaim follows and his journalist friend extols Ravi for finally developing a distinctive style, academic praises that Ravi humbly accepts.
While Ravi continually experiments with the aesthetics of painting, Suraya’s murder at the hands of the state at a peaceful demonstration, galvanises Ravi’s political awakening. Sympathising with the plight of the workers, Ravi finally pushes himself to make the transition to a state of alertness and ideological mobilisation. Imposing upon himself a state of imprisonment, Ravi re-thinks his role as an artist, his monochrome and starkly abstract paintings now embodying the figurative images of the workers and the repressive state apparatus expressly the police. In the closing moments, the extreme zoom in on Ravi’s eyes seething with rage followed by a fade to red unmasks a violence yet to come, and extenuates a revolutionary fervour that echoes films like Padatik and Ankur.