Parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor anchored a virtual 'meet the director' discussion as part of the New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF), which opened with J Geetha's debut feature film Run Kalyani on July 24.
In events such as NYIFF, which has gone online this year, we not only get to watch the films that would otherwise be shown in major film festivals, but also get to follow the post-screening discussions and panels closely.
No wonder, some of the renowned film festivals going online due to COVID-19 is indeed viewed as a blessing in disguise by cinephiles around the world.
Geethu Mohandas's thriller Moothon (Elder Brother) will be the closing film of the festival, which ends on August 2.
Though NYIFF is an Indian film festival, Malayalam films in the opening and closing slots is indeed an honour to the state that has produced many seminal works in the past.
By picking films by women filmmakers for these slots, the festival has achieved another rarity.
Apart from these two films, Rahul Riji Nair's Kalla Nottam (The False Eye) is the other Malayalam film in the lineup will be available for viewers through the OTT platform MovieSaints.
We will discuss two of these films in this column, leaving Moothon, which was released in theatres and OTT and was widely reviewed.
Long walk to freedom
Run Kalyani is an ode to all the women who are trapped in their lives in different ways. The protagonist Kalyani – debutante Garggi Ananthan – is a working class woman who works in multiple households as a cook to support herself and her bedridden aunt – Sathi Premji.
Her chores begin, proceed and end in the same way every day. She gets up, bathes, clothes and feeds her sick aunt, walks a long way to her workplaces and returns home tired to spend time with her imaginary friend, brother or companion who tells her interesting stories that he is going to make into films.
The big city that she walks through every day does not consider her as a part of it, neither do most of the men and women who employ her.
The two souls who acknowledge her presence and consider her as a close friend are trapped in their own unique traumatic life situations.
Geetha who has been a journalist, a documentary filmmaker and filmmaking faculty, lends a strong feminist narrative to Kalyani's story through the relationships that a handful of women share.
They speak very few lines or don't speak at all, but their struggles and dilemmas are adequately expressed through their eyes, gestures and the treatment meted out to them by other characters around them.
At the heart of the women's resistance is Nirmala – Meera Nair – a doctor who has given up her career for her husband Raghavan - Manoj Menon - who mistreats and physically abuses her every day in front of the whole family, who remain mute spectators.
She puts up a passive rebellion first and then decides follow her heart. There is a neighbourhood man Vijayan – Ramesh Varma – whose loneliness is a concern for others than for himself.
They communicate through their eyes from across the balcony and through love poems written by writers ranging from Lorca to Meera, which they translate into Malayalam and send as love letters through Kalyani who work in both the houses.
Do Nirmala's selections of writing to her beloved, bhakthi poems by Andal and Meera, and Vijayan's position in the frames, in a high rise balcony visa-a-vis the highest point Nirmala climbs every day to get a glance of Vijayan – her terrace that is far lower than Vijayan's balcony – indicate a man's devotion towards the God whom he expects to save her? How does this "looking up" or "looking down" angle add up to the rest of the well-constructed feminist narrative?
Apart from these two characters who we see often on screen, there are others who play their part in registering Kalyani's existential realities, the men who visit her every day to get her married, to collect the rent or to get the money due to them.
Then there are these random characters who she passes by every day, like the local madman who delivers a speech all day about politics and literature on the road saving himself from getting hit, the driver of her employer who has a crush on her, the security guard who is too old and tired to do that job and the musician who plays nadaswaram at the time of her return from work.
The current realities of Kerala, like unemployment among the educated and skilled, too is shown repeatedly as she passes by a protest tent erected in front of the legislative assembly complex.
Even the graffiti-filled walls and the old temples on the way feed into the kaleidoscope of the Thiruvananthapuram city that the film presents and light up Kalyani's dreams after a hard day's work.
A poetic yet realistic drama about women whose dreams and desires are trapped in the mundane, Run Kalyani raises some fundamental questions about patriarchy, women's agency and caste through layered narration and subtexts. Madhu Neelakandan's brilliant cinematography, Sreevalsan J Menon's evocative BGM and B Ajitkumar's editing make this film a visual treat. Theater actor Garggi is a great find who we will hopefully see more often on screen from now on.
Life as it happens
Kalla Nottam, in the literal sense of the word, begins indeed as a harmless glance but slowly turns into an extreme form of it: voyeurism and moral policing.
In an age when the camera phone in everyone's pocket could be used as a voyeuristic tool, innocent kids who are curious to see the world through the lens and to make their own film, unknowingly ends up intruding into the privacy of adults and causes tragic consequences.
Two village kids who see a brand new GoPro camera that a local storekeeper uses as a CCTV camera, decide to steal it, make a movie using it in a day and then place the camera back in the store. One of them dons the hat of the director while the other becomes the hero. The director – curiously called Vincent – signs up their neighbour Rosy – incidentally the name of Malayalam cinema's first heroine – as their heroine through our hero isn't pleased with her beauty or acting skills.
"People come to the theatre to see me and not the heroine," he arrogantly declares wearing goggles and puffing an imaginary cigarette. The hero utters punchlines, stages shootouts and dances hysterically without giving any opportunity for the heroine to be seen on the camera.
From the playful behind-the-scenes visuals of the movie that these kids shoot, the movie shifts gear to more serious affairs. One of the kids discovers a hard reality about his own life through a conversation that the camera captures on the go, the other ends up creating tragic consequences for his family, again through the visuals that the camera, which is always on, captures when it ends up in wrong hands. At that point, the opening quote in the film "I measure the progress of a community by the degree of progress which women have achieved," by Dr. B R Ambedkar, resonates with us.
The director, cinematographer and editor of this film deserve wholesome praise for the visual treatment of the film.
Shot in point of view (POV) angle on a handheld camera from beginning to end, the film leaves no scope for shot division or any obvious editing techniques because they could hinder the narrative.
Essentially, the entire film is a continuous sequence because the kids who operate the camera know only to do one thing with it: to switch it on or off.
The only possible shot transitions, like shutting on and off and placing the camera somewhere, are put to optimum use to make the storytelling seamless. They make up for the lack of shot variety. Everything is a wide shot unless the subjects move close to the lens as part of their natural movements.
The amount of planning and eye for detail that have gone into making of this film as a visual experience despite the technical limitations inherent in the plot will amaze you. The performances of the lead cast, the three kids, and the supporting cast that includes Vinita Koshy – who had given an impressive performance in Rahul's debut film Ottamuri Velicham – are outstanding. The kids have been nominated in the best child actor award category of NYIFF. Though there were many such experiments in the past, this one gives the topic of voyeurism an innocent point of view that holds potential for a universal appeal. Kalla Nottam is an important piece of work that is going to get much attention in festivals and independent film circles and a case study on how to make quality films with a tiny fraction of budget that the industry spends on making a film.
NYIFF will be open till August 2 on MovieSaints. Do catch these wonderful films on your screens from home.
(Dress Circle is a weekly column on films. The author is a communication professional and film enthusiast. Read his past works here.)