COLUMN/ CULTURE DIARIES
Jayan Cherian is a controversial figure in contemporary Malayalam cinema. Cherian came to notice in a considerable way in 2013 with the film Papilio Buddha. Using a striking visual language, and combining the threatened beauty of nature with the beastliness of humans towards humans, the film spoke angrily against the massive use of violence to intimidate the tribal community. Cherian’s film rightly came in for critical acclaim.
The US-based director’s next film, Ka Bodyscapes (2016), confirmed the promise he had shown three years earlier. The film is about the desperate struggles of three young people looking for personal happiness in a largely unhappy and difficult world. They are Haris, a gay painter in search of a space of his own; Vishnu, a kabaddi player with whom Haris is in love; and their friend Sia, a fearless activist who is sought to be subdued by her employer.
That each of them comes to an unhappy end is a validation of the dangers strewn in the path of non-conformity that they had chosen to carve out for themselves. In a starkly realist idiom, Ka Bodyscapes once again shows how society in the main is never hospitable to those committed to experiencing life in radically different ways.
That there is an activist spirit provoking Cherian to do his kind of physio-sociological cinema is clearly visible. The director admits as much, saying, “As a visual storyteller, I tell stories of people who I am familiar with. I often draw my energy from social movements and contemporary history. I am interested in exploring how identities are constructed, assigned, asserted, and performed in various social realms.”
Fortunately or unfortunately for Cherian, his film had come about at a time when ignorance, prejudice, and cruelty, holding on to each other fanatically, had a free run of society in general.
There is, of course, the occasional exception, but it cannot be denied that social obscurantism is having a field day. As a result, minorities of one kind or the other are having a tough time coping with the ceaseless flow of inimical events. Discourses relating to them are being deliberately twisted to give the impression that they are antisocial in need of being made to see the blessings of majoritarian culture, beliefs, and practices.
In a court verdict, Ka Bodyscapes was denied the censor certificate on the stated ground that the film glorifies same-sex love and is likely to cause social unrest if allowed to be screened publicly. The censor board had taken exception to shots showing gay intimacy. It had also felt that the film offended religious sensitivities.
Another document of dissidence is Dr. Biju’s Kaadu Pookkunna Neram (‘When the Woods Bloom’, 2016). The film has a dramatic story, laced with irony and deep-seated humanism. Narrated in the realistic mode, the director pits the state in the person of a policeman against a female political rebel in a cat-and-mouse contest in the depths of a dense forest.
The twists and turns in the game of wits and wisdom played out by the adversaries make for a moving study of the lengths to which human beings will go in their struggle to beat the odds. In the process, stereotypes in popular understanding of power and violence, the hunter and the hunted, man and woman, undergo change.
The possibility of both the predator and the prey being humanised in mysterious ways as a result of being placed in close proximity to each other for some time, may not appeal to those committed to dogmatic positions. But the director seems to be silently arguing that in life, even sworn enemies have been known to agree on truce for mutual survival.
In the telling of this gripping tale of burning present-day relevance, Dr. Biju took impressive advantage of the lush natural surroundings in which it is located. Such is the haunting, dangerous beauty of nature in the film, shot with great feeling by MJ Radhakrishnan, that it is easy to think of it as the third character. Nature is both a character and the background.
Dr. Biju has been drawn to the difficulties faced by marginalised communities in Kerala since the beginning of his career as a filmmaker. With his very first film, Saira (2002), the director aroused viewer expectations by virtue of his interrogative style and his humane attitude towards victims of state and other tyrannies.
These victims, be they Muslims, Dalits, tribals, women, the aged, or the poor rendered unfit to attend to their needs as a result of indifference and neglect over generations, strike the viewer of Dr. Biju’s films as human beings and not mere numbers.
Using stark images of poverty and humiliation to describe the conditions in which manual scavengers live and die, young Vidhu Vincent’s Manhole (Malayalam, 2016) won more than one important award.
The debutant director’s note emphasises her support for the exploited while critiquing the loopholes in the legal system that instead of lessening, let alone ending injustice, actually perpetuates it.
Vincent says, “In 2014, I made a documentary on the lives of manual scavengers in Kerala. My present film is based on the earlier venture. My enquiry into the relationship between caste and work is the foundation of this film. Women’s lives in such a society create multiple layers of complexity. I have tried to capture it comprehensively and aesthetically.”
Manhole is the coming-of-age story of Shalini, the determined only child of Pappathi, a housemaid, and Ayya Swami, a manual scavenger. Ayya Swami lives on paltry food, just as the rest of the family does; works with the support of alcohol to kill the stench of other people’s excreta; and dies from suffocation one fateful day while working in a manhole. But Pappathi is a person not to be easily defeated. She struggles and succeeds in giving shape to her husband’s dream of seeing Shalini in a lawyer’s robes.
Fleeting shots of Pappathi using her high-strung employer’s commode to relieve herself in the course of cleaning the latter’s toilet would cause hilarity if the implications of those shots were not so humiliating to her and her fellows.
Again, an extended passage showing Ayya Swami and his friends at work should succeed in giving innocent viewers an idea of the stomach-curdling, if not conscience-churning, horrors associated with manual scavenging.
But the palpably tense edge is also to be attributed to courtroom exchanges in the film, showing Shalini, now an argumentative advocate brimming with confidence, taking on the shifty government pleader in front of a judge who sends out contradictory signals while hearing the case of a young manhole cleaner who had choked to death.
The sparring between the two lawyers is reminiscent of the brilliant Marathi film, Court, which also deals with the plight of scavengers among other things, albeit in a deeper and more challenging film language. The judge in Manhole is perhaps more sympathetic to the cause of the scavengers than his counterpart in the Marathi film, but the restraining hand of the system pulls him back from doing his job conscientiously.
For much of its duration, Manhole is a brave and commendable effort. On view is a strong desire for visceral dissection of a society caught in age-old putrefaction. Regrettably, however, towards the end of the film, it slips into a clichéd TV-reportage mode where the director’s journalistic background appears to have got the better of her artistic judgement.
How aesthetically striking it would have been if the film had been allowed to end with the screen enveloped in darkness, intriguingly ‘lit’ by the noise of striking scavengers flinging away their working tools, on the soundtrack! Thereby, a grand moral and political gesture; a metaphor of high pedigree; a resistance peaceably executed by a section of the wretched of the earth, would have been memorably registered to the cineaste’s disturbed delight.
Instead, all that Vincent could think of at that critical moment was to write, yes write, about manual scavenging on the screen; give ‘information’ which in any case she had already done in visual terms. A case of missed opportunity, no doubt, for the director who had, however, shown glimpses of what she is capable of.
Next time she makes a film, Vincent must keep in mind that the viewer goes to the theatre not to read a book! Having said this, it needs to be added that this artistic lapse does not take away anything from the social or moral urgency of the film.
While watching Manhole, one is reminded of a film called Pee (‘Shit’ in Tamil) made years ago by the documentarist Amudhan. Scenes in Manhole showing Ayya Swami scooping bucketfuls of water in which human faeces can be seen freely floating about, cause the mind to go back to even more hurtful images in the documentary shot in the sacred shadow of the Meenakshi Temple in Madurai, which draws lakhs of pilgrims from all over.
It is questionable how many of these salvation seekers are aware that a stone’s throw away from the wealth and magnificence of the temple, a few thousand men and women of the scavenging community are employed for a pittance by the Madurai municipality to clean the streets of the temple town of elephantine mounds of excreta every morning.
Regarding the stench, from what Amudhan or Vidhu Vincent shows the viewer, one can virtually ‘smell’ it. Such is the enormity of the abomination, understandably more strongly in the case of the Madurai film because it records the truth, does not simulate it.
Swachh Bharat or no Swachh Bharat, the practice of some people carrying on their heads the bodily wastes produced by others will be in vogue for a long time to come, all to the dying shame of a shameless society. Contradiction, did you say?
(Vidyarthy Chatterjee is an eminent film critic and veteran columnist. He writes on socio-economic and socio-political issues, movies, books, art and culture.)
The column reflects the author’s opinions and not necessarily those of Empire Diaries.
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