The sweet smell of secession storytelling

The storylines of three recent Malayalam films go all the way to Delhi, where all the good gobar and nonsense of our time come from

Only some melodramatic person whose imagination must have been formed and shaped in the improbable gallis that lie between Jayamahal and Frejjer Tavun could have gone to Europe and lovingly coined the most exciting name I’ve ever come across in art history. To wit, the Vienna Secession. It takes monsoonal chills, and the answering warmth of nalli soup at Coles Park to be able to come up with a name like that. Not some stuffy capital of world culture.

Look it up. No maps were massacred, or were treaties travestied; no borders broke from a boiling over of waters, and indeed nobody bled, or were any bodies buried in retaliation. All that happened was that some bearded and probably myopic artists decided that they needed to break with the commonsense from another time which seemed to drive the art of their own time.

Now that everything has been sorted out, and the great men in Delhi have made sure that Kashmir can’t go anywhere, just in case it was planning to, let us think about the one thing they don’t want us to think about. In the prison that is the present, no frisson frisses, alas, quite like secession. What makes me want to put my paws up and howl to the heavens in wonder is not that there are so many cute doggies practising how to crawl while simultaneously wagging their tails, but that there is a barking, defiant dog in one somewhat improbable corner of commercial cinema.

I say improbable, because you know well, dear reader, that the secessions of Malayalam cinema are unfailingly parallel, and confined to films by Shaji N Karun, Adoor Gopalkrishnan and G Aravindan, and not to be expected of cinema that seeks merely to make money. Maybe it seems improbable because we haven’t paid enough attention to cinema from that corner of the world. It may also be that my own surprise comes from carefully preserved snapshots of cousins from another culture who were uniformly CBSE-loving and happy-to-Hindi and lived for the rapture of being taken away by some mysterious hand for transplantation into the unending but transferable paddies of Central Government employment.
Anyway, here I am, rubbing my eyes in uninformed disbelief because I have come across in quick succession, film after Malayalam film that seems to offer criticism in many voices and registers of the centralised commonsense of our times.

I noticed it first in ‘Virus’. This Aashiq Abu account of the Nipah virus that caused multiple panics across Kerala, and a season of mangoes to go ignored, is an adroit repositioning of Hollywood’s epidemic genre. The repositioning it offers is the effort of dozens of ordinary people that becomes a wall of social resistance that the disease is unable to breach.
Somewhere in the middle of that rewriting, a discordant narrative begins to emerge, from the mouths of officials and functionaries from Delhi. They go in little bunny jumps from the fact that the family in which the first deaths occur is Muslim, to the idea that all this is bio-terror, imported from elsewhere. One truly gripping part of the film is how a painstaking attention to detail discredits this easy spin. At this point, the caviller will have us admit that this is fiction, and that life is rather different.  The only detail we shouldn’t forget is that the bio-terror theory seems to have received some air before eventually arriving at deflation and rest.

We shall turn our eyes next to first-timer John Manthrickal’s ‘Janamaithri’, a serio-comic treasure I would have missed but for the urgent recommendations of a faraway student. The untranslatable title is a masterpiece of compression, for it brings together the suggestion of clunky PR language gone crazy, and the idea of earning public goodwill.
An order from a remote and faraway above eventually penetrates a police station in a hill district in Kerala, and they must immediately find a documentable initiative for winning public trust. The man in charge decides that the best possible idea is stopping people travelling overnight and plying them with tea to ensure that they don’t fall asleep at the wheel. Enter Saiju Kurup, and this initiative to seize hearts and minds goes in an unintended direction in that it gets him by the bowels as well. This unfortunate is one of those for whom drinking tea at odd hours has one unpleasant consequence. He now has to take a dump, and he throws himself at the mercy of the photo-opping local carabinerie who must continue to be good PR muffins instead of telling him to buzz off as they might on other days.

What follows is a delightful romp, where local politics and Kerala’s love for Bengalis gets its trip taken most unsparingly. The real target, however, is an idea of governance that focuses on gesture rather than substance, and the reach of the film goes all the way back to Delhi where all the good gobar and nonsense of our time come from.

The third film that seems to approach this theme is the euphoniously named ‘Unda’, which we could translate as sphere, or ball, and is sometimes a rude answer to an irritating question, but for official purposes is a term meaning bullet, or rounds, or some similarly arcane piece of loveliness. An ensemble cast, including a very non-superstarry Mammootty, plays the role of a band of Kerala policeman drafted into election duty in the heart of Maoist territory. They are assigned ten rounds each, and when some passing militant yanks their chain with gunfire they fire away in all directions, hit nothing, and realise that they have only eight bullets left in the world, and an election to run two days later.

Appeals are made, and by a process too complicated to explain, fresh bullets are sent under escort all the way from Kerala. These never reach, because the cops ferrying the trunk are easily distracted. In the mean time, our resolutely unheroic characters get patronised by better cops, get impossible orders, meet the locals, and have enough time to wonder long and hard about who gets called a Maoist.

When the moment of reckoning arrives, it has them realise that the enemy is within. Their polling station is attacked by local right-wingers, their bullets run out, and their last charge is made with lathis and riot shields. Mammooty who freezes when he has to fire, and is generally out of all the action, finds his moment in sympathy with the adivasi local who must fear government and Naxal equally.

None of this is particularly special. It is the fact that conventional films open out into completely ordinary questions that uncoil and travel towards viewers at great speed in such times as ours that nevertheless sticks in the head. One swallow, they say, doesn’t make a summer. Maybe three is a sign.  

(The writer is professor of English literature at St Joseph’s College of Arts and Science)

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