K. P. Kumaran made his first film, Athithi (b/w, 35 mm., 112 mins.) in 1974. I was able to catch up with it in 2017, thanks to a retrospective devoted to the veteran director at the 22nd edition of the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Athithi is a tense family drama that unfolds, for the most part, within the ghostly confines of an isolated house gradually going to seed. The inmates of the house are all adults, each obsessed with his or her own demons – part imagined, part of their own making. What prevents the house from becoming a home is the absence of a child, combined with an abundance of recriminations that the adults fling at each other from time to time with great vengeance.

Kumaran structures his film like a suspense thriller, not like a whodunit but more like a play of guesswork and expectations shrouded in mystery. Practically everyone in the family is looking forward to the arrival of a guest who means different things to different members of the dramatis personae – Ramani (played by Sheela), her husband, Karunan (P. J. Anthony), her father (Kottarakkara Sridharan Nair), her younger sister, Latha (Sandhya), and Raghavan (Balan Nair), who loves Latha. Each is shown being drawn into the tight coils of the drama that slowly builds up.

Despite their problems, which are sometimes monetary in nature, at other times romantic or marital, these often contrasting characters look forward to better times. The key to the expected change of fortune is the elusive guest, Shekharan by name. If he ultimately fails to turn up, the viewer can only conclude that the inmates of the house had for so long been groping in a labyrinth of unfulfilled desires, unrealized dreams, missed opportunities, regrets and betrayals. The absence of the guest remains unexplained and the solution, if any, is left to one’s imagination. What is visible is real, the rest is in the realm of the mirage. The style is an impressive mix of hard realism and that which ‘exists’ like in beckoning fantasies.

Everything in Athithi has a quality of tentativeness about it. The house, which may be said to be the central character, is not on solid foundation, in physical or emotional terms. People flit in and out of the house like strangers; they are pathological drifters, loners, doomed souls, seekers who know not what they are seeking. Very often, they are out to take advantage of each other, or to hurt each other with insinuations best left unsaid. Ramani and Karunan’s marriage is shaky and appears to be going nowhere, as is the romance between the coquettish Latha and Raghavan, who has sincere feelings for Latha. The father of the two firls is an incurable fixer and thinks nothing of making a little money by fooling people; self-interest is at the core of anything he says or plans to do. Practically all the relationships on view are steeped in accusations and counter-accusations, making the family resemble a wasps’ nest.

When Ramani accuses Karunan of having given her nothing – no child, no home, no comfort – all that the latter can do is to ‘retaliate’ with a pained and helpless look, or some words in self-defence that are roughly brushed aside by the woman. The once-rich man, who has squandered a fortune on drinks, women and business misadventures, can think of nothing better to regain his lost power and prestige than try his luck at the gambling table. Even here, he is insulted and prevented from playing by other small-time fortune-hunters who are shown enjoying at his sufferance. What Ramani finds particularly inexcusable in her husband is his weak nature and his propensity to give up without a fight. What finally throws her into the strong arms of Raghavan after he comes to be rejected by Latha, is her confirmed discovery that she has no future whatsoever with her husband. Meanwhile, Latha, who appears not to know what is best for her, allows herself to be seduced by thoughts of the affluent athithi.

I am told by no less an authority in the matter than the film’s director himself that Athithi bombed not just at the box-office, but also in the sense that critics hardly took any notice of it. One suspects that the failure/refusal of Malayali viewers or commentators to take to Athithi had something/everything to do with the film’s ending. Come to think of it, it must have required great courage and an imagination gone deliciously wild to show, some forty-five years ago, a married woman go into a clinch with her sister’s beloved; worse still, not like in a fling or a one-night stand, but in a relationship reeking of possibilities of permanence. The scripting of the growing relationship between the childless mature woman pining for love and sexual companionship, and the muscular, emotionally-charged, rejected suitor, is particularly astute, pregnant with the likelihood of a discourse rubbishing patriarchy in a believable way.

One can imagine how alarmed, and hence resistant, the conservative sections of the filmgoing public of the day would have been to a denouement that might have struck them as being most unsettling. The film can be argued to have ended on a note of outrage in so far as the puritan, the conservative, the conventional was concerned; and conversely, of ecstatic release for the rare iconoclast, if there was such a one. As for the director, then in his mid-thirties, it must have cost him more than one night’s sleep to decide to end the film in the way he did. When the married elder sister and the younger sister’s rebuffed suitor go into a tight embrace on, mind you, the insistence of the former, with no witnesses to this act of ‘transgression’ save the star-filled sky, the archaic elements watching the film may well have cursed the ‘upstart’ director’s attempt at subverting traditionally-accepted familial and societal ‘mores’. One can think of no other plausible explanation for the popular rejection of such a disturbingly charming film as Athithi.

I should think that Kumaran is that precious ‘anti-social’ director who invited censure and, perhaps, derision as well, by daring to depict Ramani as a woman of strong physical desires even prior to the explosive ending. The viewer’s notice may be drawn to the scene on voyeurism on the miserable Karunan’s part. The man and his woman sleep in the same room but apart from each other, the former in his bed, the latter on the floor. What else can she do, considering her failure to arouse the man in her hour of direst need? (There is a short sequence to that effect.) In any case, in the middle of one night, Karunan wakes up to find his wife missing from the room, whereupon he walks down a long corridor to find out where she has gone at such an unearthly hour. In a deliberately (‘notoriously’, the mean of spirit might say) over-exposed sequence, we see (or, do we imagine?) a hypnotical Karunan watching his wife going through the charged, liberating motions of the masturbatory act. In that visual excess, that flood of light, the keen viewer can just about make out Ramani writhing in heavenly release, like a snake casting off its skin.

Is it possible that, at that moment of making up in the best way she can for all that she was failing to get from her middle-aged, emaciated, non-performing husband, Ramani was playing in her restless imagination with the image of a young and muscular Raghavan? This writer, for one, cannot think of any Bengali film of the time giving any evidence of the kind of elevated sexual eroticism with which Kumaran so successfully experimented in his first film. Come to think of it, the middle-classes in Bengal are as fearful of consorting with taboos, as are their counterparts in other parts of the country. If their notions of what they construe to be correct sexual or moral behaviour were to be taken seriously by the artist, perhaps no film of enduring value would come to see the light of day. If Athithi did not enjoy the support of the audience, the critics, or the film establishment, one daresay, it could only have been due to the mediocrity, if not the meanness, of those ruling over society in general and the film industry in particular. “The problem with the world,” wrote the memorable ‘Beat’ poet and writer, Charles Bukowski, “is that the intelligent people are full of doubts, while the stupid ones are full of confidence.” It was Kumaran’s misfortune and, in a sense, the misfortune of modern Malayalam cinema, that when ‘the intelligent people’ should have come out in support of such a ‘new’ film as Athithi, they decided to go into hiding, thereby leaving the field open to ‘the stupid ones’ to do their worst. Perhaps, there is a lesson here for anyone wanting to go against the wind.

Nothing much happens by way of overt drama in Athithi as long as the camera is kept confined to the interior of the run-down house. However, this is not to say that the unfortunate exchanges between the couple, or between the son-in-law and the father-in-law, fail to generate tension of a superior kind. The drawing room, complete with a window at which Karunan stands and watches life go by, or a commonplace table used for gambling purposes, are fascinating in their non-descript character. Both the window and the table are of symbolic value, denoting the life of disgrace to which Karunan has been relegated. Karunan brings out the sterility of the room by taking passing notice of visual details like Karunan trying to make a cigarette for himself with a scrap of paper taken from somewhere and some tobacco. The look of his gnarled fingers straining to pick up flakes of tobacco fallen on the table-top, has a pathos and a message of helplessness that is likely to move any perceptive viewer.

Apart from the drawing room, which is a picture of mundaneness hiding fears of an explosion at  any moment, there is the kitchen blackened by soot and made heavy by sweat and toil. By its very utilitarian character, the kitchen provides for a contrasting view of the daily existence of a middle-class family doing none-too-well financially or in any other way. Again, the details here of much-used utensils, preparation of small meals, or the sudden appearance of strangers asking to taste a dish, come together easily to produce a minimalism that is difficult to ignore. The realism inherent in such passages, when fused with the febrile imaginings of the inmates of the house regarding the arrival of the guest, give birth to a personal film language carrying a strangely attractive aroma.

However, if there is no ‘drama’, in the sense of ‘action’, within the spaces of the house, there is enough of it in the garage where Raghavan is employed as a skilled mechanic. Raghavan dreams of owning a similar place some day in the near future and making Latha his own. The episodes in and around the garage constitute a compelling sub-plot in the film’s narrative. They appear to reflect Kumaran’s working-class sympathies, even whilst making it clear that he has enough knowledge of the contradictions within laboring people that a wily employer can effectively use to serve his own interests. How the garage-owner manipulates the workers and sets them up against Raghavan when the latter starts asserting himself in a way he had not known to do earlier, has a ring of authencity about it which is both cinematically impressive and politically mature. What finally transpires at the garage, namely, Raghavan getting roughed up by fellow-workers at the instigation of the employer (played with an impressive degree of chameleon-ness by P. K. Venukuttan Nair), has a spill-over effect on the final stages of the film’s overall drama showing Ramani attending to Raghavan’s wounds. It is as if the hurt upper torso of the man starts yielding under the gentle pressure of the woman’s hands. What thereafter happens under the trees outside the house is but inevitable. One wonders whether the director is hinting at the possibility of the house finally becoming a home.

Athithi is a film that, I think, is deliberately and very consciously made to ‘look’ imperfect, unsmart, so as to fit into a pattern of provocative interpretation of the lives of an assortment of empty dreamers and stark failures. There is a magical, haunting quality about the film’s ‘technical awkwardness’. Employing a unique aesthetics of the uncertain mixed with the profane, matched by a freewheeling style following no particular grammar, Athithi should have been acclaimed as an example of the challenges that a handful of important Malayalam filmmakers took up to carve a permanent place for themselves in the annals of the New Cinema that began in the late 1960s and the early 1970s. But, unfortunately, it was not to be, and the uncut, unpolished gem that is Athithi was sent for an ill-deserved hibernation. Athithi is a film made decades before its time; perhaps, that was the reason for its failure to draw the crowds. One has to be a fool or a madman to expect that the middle-classes who, after all, have the power to decide the fate of a film in commercial terms, would clasp an incendiary product like Athithi to their frail and palpitating bosom. In a very real sense, Kumaran signed the film’s death warrant with his own hands, by daring to enter visually forlorn and morally forbidden territories with the vision of a pioneer and the courage of an experimentalist.

Athithi makes me travel back to T. S. Eliot – “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” Kumaran need suffer from no private sorrow on account of the neglect, and worse, that his first film was subjected to by elements who should have known better.

***

I have been an admirer of M. P. Sukumaran Nair’s Aparahnam ever since I first saw it in a Chennai public theatre in 1991, in the midst of not film pundits but common filmgoers with a love for the ‘other’ cinema. Both the politics and the aesthetics of the film owed their significance to its meditative qualities which Sukumaran handled with great compassion.

Sukumaran’s third film, Sayanam (96 mins.,colour, 35 mm., 2000) represents a striking contrast in both style and substance to his debut film about a failed Naxalite son and a mother who fades away in disappointment and anxiety. Where the earlier film was steeped in pain and sadness but also uplifted by individual idealism in the face of collective opportunism and surrender, the later work has a celebratory mood, a tongue-in-cheek approach, with healthy skepticism for religious symbols, beliefs and practices working as a constant leitmotif. Where Aparahnam had a classical form, Sayanam is done in the experimental mode. What unites them is the radicalism of their politics, albeit expressed differently.

In Sayanam, Sukumaran entertains the viewer as much as he provokes him on the subject of the supposed infallibility of traditionally-accepted canons and conventions. In an absurdist style, more humourous than tragic, and more revelatory than accusatory, the film memorializes the doings of a surrealistic character by the name of Tommy, who frequently ‘sins’, if the biblical ten commandments are to be taken seriously, but is more often sinned against by diverse elements in the rural society where he lives. These elements make use of him whenever they feel the need to do so, but are also the first to accuse him of misdeeds and misdemeanours when it suits them. The film’s bottomline is as old as the hills; it is in the director’s hilarious use of irony to expose the chinks in societal behaviour and organized religious practice that the film’s novelty lies.

The vocal and visible Tommy, played handsomely and true to type by Babu Anthony (who essayed the role of Nandan or Nandakumar in Aparahnam with striking quietude), lives like a ‘he-man’, going by the amount of liquor he is able to consume at a single sitting, or the number of thefts he can commit without getting caught, or the ease with which he can live with more than one woman at one and the same time. Taken together, these constitute a critique of the triumph of the ‘macho’ in conventional society which, true to its contrariness, is known to celebrate such mavericks even as it castigates them.

But, like all things more evil than good, Tommy comes a cropper in the end, mourned in (premature) death by none other than two women of ‘doubtful character’ who keep vigil over the coffin in which yesterday’s impressive rake sleeps the dead man’s sleep. Sayanam, which takes its name from the sleeping man, is, thus, also about love and loyalty, both coming from an improbable source; the commitment of one or two solitary souls to not just negate the infidelity of the many, but to ensure that the dead man is not killed all over again by the curse of amnesia.

In a sense, Tommy is a scriptural figure, not like Christ but more in the nature of the flawed saints. As for the two women, they are lovely, lovable representatives of the Mary Magdalenes of the marketplace, seeking to cleanse themselves as much as the object of their devotion with their tears of remorse and remembrance. In their dogged refusal to leavethe sleeping man’s side, in sun or rain, in light or dark, they symbolize the strength of character associated, in recorded history or in popular imagination, with quintessential dissenters.

Ironically, they represent character in a world given to the tyranny of calling them ‘loose’ or ‘characterless’ women. Sayanam is one of those funny, fun-filled, sad films flirting with possibilities of spiritual readings, if only the viewer can work up the courage and extend the imagination to unspool the coils residing in his head, normally resistant to being exposed to the sun and the seas of heightened pleasure.

Perhaps, Sayanam can be said to be a ‘Christian film’, in the sense that many, if not all, the characters on view and at least some of the stories growing around them, albeit in a veiled and mysterious fashion, belong to that faith which came to the shores of Kerala at least a thousand years ago. Apart from small details showing the unique lifestyle of rural Malayali Christians, the film’s thrust is on the manner in which the priestly class exercises its authority over a largely gullible, submissive flock with no fear of man or god.

The clergy’s singular lack of concern for their lowly-placed co-religionists is good-humouredly revealed in the longish meal sequence where the bishop and his charmed circle eat and talk and give the impression of being conspirators, all the while keeping the two poor women standing, humble supplicants both, their prayers for a plot of consecrated ground for poor Tommy’s burial falling on deaf ears.

Come to think of it, this sequence reminds one of the last supper Christ had partaken with the apostles, only that breaking of bread had been an all-male affair. While the Churchmen talk, punctuated in a long while by Tommy’s women, the viewer is glued to not just the many expressions on the faces of the men or the food in front of them on the table, but also the meanings of the language they use to express their displeasure with the activities of the women – the sly hints, the innuendos, the double entrendes and, simplest of all, the open threats and insults. The women are helpless, the men triumphant; god may or may not be in his heaven – if such a realm exists – but everything is certainly not well with the world.

In such a situation, where no earth is to be had for Tommy’s resting place, what are the itinerant women to do but put the sleeping man and his coffin on a boat and row out to sea. The closing frames of Sayanam showing the boat gliding over the water towards an unknown destination are as sadly impressive as the film is almost for its entire duration.

One cannot be too sure of what Sukumaran had intended to say in a film made almost two decades ago – or maybe, one can be – but seeing the film at a time when the Church in Kerala is passing through unfortunate days, the thought struck me as to how a genuine, heartfelt work of art never really dates; its enduring nature, its sheer beauty even when enmeshed in betrayals of trust, can see it through. Perhaps, it would not be far-fetched to draw parallels between the nuns who have been suffering abuse in recent times at the hands of Church superiors, with the two women who approach the local bishop with their requests, but to no avail; and their common reproaches at being turned down without the benefit of a deserved, compassionate hearing.

Sukumaran says he grew up in a Christian neighbourhood with many friends who belonged to that community. Sayanam reflects the closeness of those relationships in a finely-etched, nuanced manner, even as it conveys many meanings about bigger things without striking grand poses. This film merits re-visiting by not just young Malayali film-lovers with a yearning for the out-of-the-ordinary, but also their counterparts in other parts of the country.

Vidyarthy Chatterjee writes on cinema,society, and politics.)


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