The all-seeing eye of director Shaji Karun

The all-seeing eye of director Shaji Karun

He mostly explored grieving people. Now featured in a BIFFes retrospective, his work is melancholic as a result

‘Piravi’, Karun’s directorial debut, explored the story of an ageing father searching for his missing son.

Shaji Neelakantan Karunakaran is one among the few giants of Malayalam cinema of a time when the art of filmmaking saw its zenith in the southern state. Films then were deeply reflective of a society plagued by poverty, unemployment, existential angst and political uncertainty.

At the time - especially in the 70s and the 80s - cinema of Kerala was a regular fixture at film festivals, often lauded and critically acclaimed for its realism.

Looking back now, perhaps, it was indeed the golden period of Malayalam film. Karun was an irreplaceable link in a group of writer-directors who transformed the way the maker and the viewer approached cinema.

Films that were made in the 70s and 80s Kerala cannot be seen outside the prevalent socio-cultural milieu in the state then. In a society coming of age after years of socialist reform, breaking away from the shackles of a caste-ridden past, cinema helped the masses to look at life, culture, tradition, social mores and their complexities through an entirely different lens.

Karun’s camera would tell those stories - stories from small villages and towns that was Kerala.

Karun, a highly regarded cinematographer by then, a gold medallist from The Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, had the once-in-a-life-time opportunity to associate with some of the all-time greats of Malayalam cinema -- among them, the sensual romanticist, Padmarajan, the ace dramatist, K G George, and especially the legendary lyrical master, G Aravindan.

Karun would be Aravindan’s all seeing eye in filming classics like Kanchana Sita (1977), Pokkuveyil (1981), Chidambaram (1985) -- films that proclaimed the arrival of Malayalam cinema. These were films that would leave an indelible mark on Kerala’s collective conscience.

Karun’s work with Aravindan could be arguably one of the best director-photographer collaborations ever on cellluloid. Without Karun, Aravindan films now seem simply unimaginable. The duo created a magic world of their own.

Back then in Kerala, cinema wasn’t so detached from the social discourse, as it is today. It often reflected the ardently serious and meticulous effort of the maker in helping social advancement challenging conventions.

Bold themes like that of Kanchana Sita, where the entire Ramayana is enacted by a tribespeople, the tragic Chidambaram, starring Smita Patil in one of her finest roles and Pokkuveyil with a young Balachandran Chullikkad, a symbol of Kerala’s youth riddled with existential agony, would not have been possible without Karun’s camera.

Karun as director

Piravi (1989), Karun’s directorial debut is loosely based on a true story. Though the film assumed great political significance, Karun would explore the grief of an ageing father in search of his son who mysteriously disappears. One would realise cinema was also about ever-changing moods, recurring silences and awe-inspiring settings -- all made possible through Karun’s pioneering camera. How sensory an experience cinema is brought to the fore through Karun’s frames.

Piravi would garner global acclaim bringing home the famed Caméra d’Or from Cannes, and winning the national awards here for best director, film and actor.
It wasn’t a globalised society, nor there was technology or social platforms like today. Despite all that, to reflect on society, that too, so successfully in film wasn’t an easy task.

Karun would embark to film Vanaprastham (1999) starring Mohanlal further on. The story of Kunhikuttan, a Kathakali artist, Vanaprashtham dwells deep into the emotional throes of the man who is unable to shed his often loathed identity despite being a great performer. Kunhikuttan is only loved for what he is on stage, not for the individual he is. An Indo-French-German production Vanaprastham, would win national awards for best film, and best actor for Mohanlal.

Kutty Srank (2010), starring Mammootty, Karun’s comparatively recent work, reveals a different side of the cinematographer-turned-director. Kutty Srank is the dark tale of a boatman from central Kerala narrated after his death by three women who knew him in three different avatars. Kutty Srank won the national award for best feature film.

As a director, Karun explored grieving individuals through out his work. In a way, most of his films were melancholy as a result. Be it the grieving father played by Premji in Piravi or Mohanlal’s estranged Kunhikuttan of Vanaprastham or Mammootty’s Kutty Srank who transits three different worlds in search of meaning. The prominent theme was always human grief for Karun. And his mastery over camera did celebrate grief on screen in its various shades, drawing praise from filmmakers all over the world.

In the retrospective at BIFFes -- one may also watch Karun’s recent films, Swapaanam (2013) and Olu (2018). Karun in the only filmmaker from India in the past 25 years or so to have presented his works at the prestigious Cannes festival. Karun’s three films -- Piravi, Swaham and Vanaprastham -- were screened at Cannes, a rare feat for any filmmaker, more so for Karun given the fact that he has just made seven feature films.