By Giuliano Vivaldi
Geetha J’s debut feature-length film, a Malayalam film premiered at the Kolkata International Film Festival, is an Indian film that merits a wide international audience precisely for its ability to reveal multiple layers of social reality within a tightly structured and delightfully innovative form. The accomplishment of revealing huge swathes of social reality in Kerala is no doubt very much connected with her long association with producing documentary films (not least her producing the award-winning Algorithms on the world of blind chess) as well as an earlier career in journalism, yet this achievement is reinforced by juxtaposing this social realism within an intensely poetic cinematic text. Moreover, this film is particularly successful in working with and integrating many cinematic traditions – not just the woefully unrecognized tradition of Malayalam film but to many other filmic traditions (and this is surely a recognition of the historical openness of Kerala to a truly internationalist sense of culture).
The film follows the main character, Kalyani, played by Garggi Ananthan through her day, first looking after her ailing aunt in the morning, then dealing with a series of landlords, suitors and debt collectors before she walks through the streets of Trivandrum to two separate locations. One is a flat, inhabited by a single man in his fifties, Vijayan played by Ramesh Varma, who is about to retire from his government job and is pestered by friends and families to make vexatious and superfluous decisions for his future. The other is a nearby house inhabited by an extended family of elderly father and chess enthusiast, played by the legendary Madhu Sir, (an actor starring in over 300 films, including with such a global figure as Adoor Gopalakrishnan, and director of more than ten more), and his two sons and daughters in law. Within this house, Kalyani is witness to the dynamics of the two couples (one composed of a weak husband and wily wife and the other of a successful, abusive husband, Raghavan played by Manoj Menon and a scorned and abused wife, Nirmala, played by Meera Nair). The dynamic between Kalyani and Nirmala is one imbued with strong ties of female solidarity which is told more through gestures than words. Indeed, the most sympathetic characters in the film – Kalyani, Vijayan and Nirmala – all tell their stories more through gestures than they do through words (this is also the case of Kalyani’s ailing aunt, Rukmini played by Sathi Premji who has lost the power of speech altogether). The film’s optimism emerges from the ties that these characters forge with each other.
Indeed, Kalyani, is very much a conduit between Nirmala and Vijayan who have formed a romantic relationship, reinforcing it through slips of paper with lines of poetry that Kalyani carries from one home to the other (the poems cited are based on poetry from two saint poets of India, Aandal and Meera, and acknowledged global poets, Mayakovsky, Lorca and the Chinese poet Xu Zhimo). In many ways in this story regarding this trio of characters we have a retelling of the Indian story of Nala and Damayanti with Kalyani’s appropriating the role of swan. A story referenced by one of the major significant secondary characters in the film, the young man as screenwriter who lives upstairs in the rundown agraharam shared with Kalyani and her aunt. His role is as central as the poems in providing sources of the narrative structure but also as a narrator to Kalyani of fantastic stories. Kalyani listens adoringly to these stories in a way that reminds one of Neeta’s listening to her brother’s dreams and ambitions in Ritwak Ghatak’s masterpiece Meghe Dhaka Tara. Garggi Ananthan’s acting does bring to mind something of the grace and mesmerism of Supriya Devi’s (Choudury) performance in that film, while avoiding her role on screen as tragic victim. Other figures that Kalyani encounters on her daily walk through Kerala’s capital are an eccentric madman who speaks erratically on politics and literature and a young musician who plays Ravel’s Bolero with a nadaswaram (a traditional south Indian wind instrument) lending an earthiness and a more familiar street sound to the music.
The innovative pattern-like structure of this film plays much on the fact that it takes place over four days where the daily routine remains the same with minor variations meaning a slow but gradual progression in the story until the final day when events radically transform the life of the protagonist. This structure fits well into both the mythical tale of the kathakali story referenced in the film, Nala Charitham, performed over four nights as well as another story referred to by the aspiring screenwriter in the guise of Dostoyevsky’s White Nights (and of Visconti’s adaptation of this short story). And indeed, there is a rather masterful interweaving of sources both Indian and global and the cinematic resonances are often surprising and inspirational. Moreover, any citations themselves direct us to the difficult topics that the film grapples with. For example, a line by the abusive Raghavan directly refers to famous lines by actor superstar Mammootty in the critical and commercial hit Koodevide in 1983 (lines that had previously made him a darling for women who craved to expose patriarchy, although it indirectly poses questions on stardom and reception alluding to how in recent films Mammootty has become something of a symbol for misogyny as women film personalities voice their protest). Raghavan’s anger at Nirmala’s passive resistance also references the historical figure Rani Padmavathi famous for her refusal to show her face to Alauddin Khalji who was enamoured with her (this tale has a contemporary significance given Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s lavish remake of this legendary queen’s story with its own share of controversies). There are, too, various allusions to films produced or directed by Geetha J, for example, the cameo role (there are a number of cameo roles by members of the film crew) by Ian McDonald as visiting western CEO and his feigning ignorance of chess is an allusive joke by the director given that McDonald’s previous film Algorithms centred on chess, and the suitcase scene at the beginning and end of Run Kalyani cites her early film A Short Film About Nostalgia. There are also political allusions: Vijayan references the surname of Kerala’s Chief Minister and his reassurance to Kalyani that everything will sort itself out echoes the slogan of his party in the last elections.
The routines of Kalyani’s days allow us to reflect upon current social realities and it is here where the eye of the documentarist is so fully present. Central to the narrative of the film is class (a welcome return to something that has become recently a rather neglected theme) and one that here is seen as cutting across caste boundaries. Just as in Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara the main protagonist is from a once privileged caste (Brahmin in the case of Kalyani) who has become impoverished and is now working for the more successful business members of the Nair caste. Equally as important as class is, of course, gender where the topic of domestic abuse is central to the story. The female characters do not, however, share the tragic fate of Ghatak’s melodrama, and here the director shows an abused member taking control of her own life and even physically resisting her abusive husband with what may well be the first slap given by a wife to her husband on Kerala’s screens (a slap which judging from the reaction of the audience in the Kolkata premiere had the resonance of Nora’s slamming the door in Ibsen’s Doll House). This emphasis on class and gender is entwined with a sense of how Trivandrum’s public spaces are being transformed. Much is made of the transformation of housing in Kerala with references to the preference of Kerala’s upper middle classes for owning a multitude of apartments and the claustrophobia and increasing dilapidated condition of the agraharam (part of the heritage of Kerala). The changing skyline of Trivandrum- increasingly dominated by high rise flats as in many other Indian cities provides a backdrop to Kalyani’s walks through the streets. The crazed man speaking aloud in the streets points to a townscape still not yet fully purged of its eccentrics and her passing by red flags and public mural-like art seems to indicate a certain collective space in Kerala still alien to any neo liberal logic. Kalyani’s profession as cook in the two locations allows us because of her special but marginal position to observe through her point of view the minute patterns of everyday life, the conflicts and abuses within families as well as the aspirations of her wealthier employers and their work and business affairs but it also adds an immense degree of colour and sensual enjoyment to the film.
The musical interludes also intervene poetically in the texture of the film (paralleling the poetic messages between Nirmala and Vijayan). The choice of Ravel’s Bolero very much marks and symbolizes the rhythm of the film where minor effects and alterations lead to a final crescendo. Sequences in which the earthy tunes of the nadaswaram are playing with Kalyani walking along the city streets festooned with flags and street art feel very central to the poetic core of the film. The use of poetry instead of songs is an interesting and unconventional choice, highlighting something of the particularly literary and radical ethos of that part of Keralite society represented by Nirmala and Vijayan, setting them off against the claustrophobic, patriarchal small-mindedness of the haute bourgeoisie represented by other characters. Poetry has rarely taken such a central place in film – only Marlen Khutsiev’s Lenin’s Guard immediately comes to mind where poetry expresses both a personal and a civic desire or yearning (there Khutsiev’s inserts a long documentary scene of a poetry reading by some of the most well-known poets of the sixties). I could not help recalling Khutsiev’s other masterpieces July Rain at another moment where the main protagonist is also seen walking through the streets (of Moscow in this case) initially to the accompaniment of firstly Bizet’s Toreador song and then near the end of the film to strains of Bizet’s Bolero. Moreover, Yevgenia Uralova’s walks through the Moscow of the mid 1960s includes a stroll through a street of recent film posters paralleling Kalyani’s own stroll against the backdrop of street art. While there is no direct citation (just as there is no direct allusion to Meghe Dhaka Tara), there is certainly something in Garggi Ananthan’s at times mesmerizing performance and movement in the film which bring to mind these unforgettable performances and film from other periods.
Geetha J’s film about entrapment within the harsh pattern-like routines imposed through gender and class realities nonetheless leaves us with a hope of liberation from these circumstances- if you like, it is marked more by the final optimism of Khutsiev’s 1967 classic than the fatalism of Ghatak’s earlier 1960 film. Resistance and solidarity – in the guise of small acts of kindness and compassion, or eventual gestures of insubordination- are not, after all, futile. The film in this way finely balances the harshness of imprisoning realities with the struggle to emerge from them with one’s hopes and dreams intact. Not so much four days of a day dreamer (maybe the enigmatic figure of the screenwriter in the film would be more fitting of this description) than a film about a protagonist who, weighing up and confronting the realities of her life, successfully manages to elude the iron-clad bars that gender and class realities are wont to impose on her. All in all, this debut feature length fiction film by Geetha J promises to be the start of a significant career in filmmaking both for the director and the many first-time actors and an indication that Malayalam cinema (a cinema that has produced a number of truly world class directors) merits serious consideration beyond its own borders.