Thursday, November 19, 2009

Nostalgia Beckons: Part 1

Nostalgia is an integral part of our culture in Kerala, which passes on from generation to generation and becomes a major cause of pain as well as joy in our lives. A few days back, Sanju and I saw Jayaraj’s Loudspeaker where Sashi Kumar and Mammooty go to Sashi Kumar’s tharavadu and visit his past – a life he had run away from to a distant place, away from the memories of the location. Just like him, don’t we have our own memories that we want to get back to?

Para is a small village in Palakkad, a name that has been derived from the Malayalam word ‘para’ which means rock. It is a small, laidback place with greater proximity to Pollachi and parts of Tamil Nadu than Kerala – which gave it a part Tam-part Mal feeling. To reach our house from the main road, we had to do a small 5-10 minutes ‘para’ trek and there majestically stood our house Krishna Vihar.

It seems we were once upon a time the landlords of the area and there was very little else there, which did not belong to us. And then, the familiar story of the EMS-initiated communist land reforms robbed us of most of the property till we had a very truncated area of our own. Truncated still meant more than 10 acres of forest land, agricultural land, a pond (kolam) and cattle and so much more which was sold off at regular intervals till finally, the entire place-lock, stock and barrel was sold off a year back (more about that in another post).

Like many well-educated Malayalees, my parents found their calling outside Kerala – in Hyderabad and for the past 35 years that has been our home but the heart still remains somewhere in God's Own Country . Every year, during the summer vacation months of April and May, we (parents and brother) found ourselves trooping all the way to Palakkad, in a long 30+ hour long journey. Now, thanks to the Sabari Express, you have a direct train connecting Hyderabad and Palakkad but then during these days, we had to take a train to Chennai and after a few hours, there would be a connecting train (I remember travelling by the West Coast Express distinctly).

After me and brother joined college, I don’t think that we ever travelled together – the memories of travelling together as a family and spending 24-30 hours together in the confines of a compartment with the rest of the Mallu diaspora (even if this is within India) was something to cherish. And for those who remember those were the days before IRCTC came into existence and railway ticket booking had to be done only at the counters. So, 90 days before, Achchan and I would stand in front of the Secunderabad booking office gate at about 6.30-7 AM, waiting for the gates to open and the moment it did, we would all rush in to grab the nearest booking counter (with so many Mallus outside Kerala, it is still a struggle to get tickets if not 90 days in advance, especially in summer).

The trip to Kerala meant lots of planning for all of us. Achchan would buy us a book each to read during our train journey and that would be usually books like The Hardy Boys or The Three Investigators (Nancy Drew always seemed so girlish!!!) and by the time we were in Palakkad, both of us would have completed one book each. The other main investment involved buying a game that all of us could play during the vacations – so you had board games like Ludo, Trade (a domestic version of Monopoly), Indoor Cricket (we played a cricket World Cup with each of us representing a couple of teams) and Scotland Yard (a fancy detective game whose ads we had seen in TV, don’t know if kids nowadays still play this).

There would be one major suitcase and many other small bags to be carried and also a food basket (we used to call it food kotta – a queer old red bag in which the food was kept that we used to carry in every visit). Amma would cook idli, lemon rice or chapatti and even carry curd and pack it for the travel and the only thing we bough outside would be sambharam or tea (It’s been a long time since I ever had home food in trains). The return journey was obviously melancholic and we always had additional luggage, including one sack full of coconuts and chips of all types.

After about 20 hours of travel, Kerala arrives in the form of greenery - so much in contrast to the rest of the journey. But I still remember, that the first scenes that I notice generally once the train enters Walayar are 2 notice boards - Welcome to Kerala and Toddy Bar. It did surprise me then but now, I have reconciled to the fact that alcohol is thicker than blood in Kerala and drinking and reminiscing is an integral part of our culture.

The Para house was meant to be a congregation of all cousins in summer and so there were about 4-5 of us staying for the entire period, with regular visitors through the period. Going to Malayalam movies meant usually the entire family watching a new Malayalam release, preferably a Mohan Lal one (in those days, when he still remained one of us, the middle class hero) in the town – usually Priya or Priyadarshini theatre. These theatres still remain and the highest ticket rate is 40 Rs, which makes it a visual fiscal delight, untouched by the speed of Internet booking and Credit Card terminals.

Mind you, I am still talking about the best theatre in Palakkad – our regular theatre visits were to the theatres near our house, Thara and Jagadambika (ticket prices ranging from 10-20 Rs with wooden chairs and thatched roofs). Curiously, Thara theatre screened mostly Tamil movies, with a sprinkling of Malayalam movies – only Mallu super hit movies could displace the Tamil influence there and we had no Raj Thackerays agitating against the cultural invasion of the Pandis (But then Palakkad has this anomaly – Malayalam movies do only half as successful as Tamil ones).

Being a Kerala expatriate had its advantages – people there back in the village looked at us in a certain awe (or maybe I felt it that way) and we were the foreigners who descended on the place once a year, speaking Malayalam in an unknown accent and masquerading as sons of the soil. But then every family had some body or the other in Gulf, so we were the wannabes, the local foreigners – the guys who fled the shores of Kerala but still lived in India.

I did have my own share of a cultural identity crisis – felt like a Mallu when in Hyderabad and when in Palakkad, I was a Keralite but what was I; someone who used to speak Malayalam with a flawed accent, used to think and speak in English but was more at ease watching Hindi films and listening to Hindi music (especially, the Rafi and Kishore types). This identity confusion has been there for a long time and though I am a member of every group, I am still an outsider in every group………..

Image: Courtesy -

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

Kerala Cafe - A Review

In the midst of these struggling times of Malayalam cinema, auteur Ranjith and friends, inspired by the French movie Paris Je t'aime, go bold and attempt to experiment with their craft by weaving 10 tales into a single film. On the common theme of journeys, each filmmaker presents his cinematic impression of contemporary times in Kerala, which integrates at Kerala Cafe – a railway cafetaria.

Cafe brings 10 new generation directors together as they combine to form these plots, which culminate in the Cafe. Malayalam cinema has seen multiple directors acting together for a single movie like in the climax of Manichitrathazhu and multiple stories in one movie like in Adoor’s movies like Naalu Pennangal and Oru Pennum Randaanum but this is a new idea. Interestingly, Ranjith opted out of directing any story in it as he felt that being a director of any one story would reduce his involvement with the entire concept.

The first story is Nostalgia, a 10 minute film, based on R. Venugopal's poem Naatuvazhikal. It is about an NRI who is nostalgic about his native land and his childhood, but once back home finds it difficult to cope with the situations. When abroad, he waxes eloquently about Dasettan, the lakes, ponds, fishes and all but when on vacation to India, he rants against the government, the potholes on the road, the bureaucracy and the people. He eventually signs a deal to sell off his ancestral mansion and flies back to Dubai, to commence his nostalgic laments all over again. He is a money minded person who uses nostalgia merely as a ruse.

Shankar Ramakrishnan's The Island Express commences with Prithiviraj talking about his 3 idols in life - Jesus, Frankenstein and Mangalassery Neelakantan. He speeds off to Kerala with his girl friend to show her something. There are other characters like an old woman (Sukumari) an army officer (Jayasurya), a depressed school teacher (Maniyanpillai Raju) and an ex-Ranji cricketer (Rahman) all of who, along with Prithviraj, converge at a single point – the site of a train accident, to which they are all connected (based on the Perumon train tragedy in 1988). The narrative is kind of confounding and the tragedy did not quite get to me. It seemed there were too many fleeting characters who are connected by the tragedy but the technique seems to mar the feel.

Shaji Kailas decides to do away with his penchant for guns and approaches marital infidelity in his story LalithamHiranmayam. Ramesh (Suresh Gopi) is caught between his wife Lalitha (Jyothirmayi) and mistress Mayi (Dhanya) and is unable to proceed. He goes through this turmoil which culminates in an accident and then death, leaving his wife and kid and pregnant mistress. The 2 women eventually find company in each other helping them to sustain their lives. The story is simple but over indulgent in style (the constant rain and close ups and all that), which kind of undermines the emotional undertones of the story but nevertheless, it showcases a different Shaji Kalias.

Uday Ananthan's Mrityunjayam is a horror flick which is as puzzling to the moviegoers as it is to the spook investigators in the film. The plot has an inquisitive journalist (Fahd Fazil – Fazil’s son is still there somewhere folks!!!) who goes to Ottapalam to cover a story on olden day rituals, beliefs and some facts behind a haunted house which is owned by a great scholar played by Thilakan. There is also a spooky girl (Rima Kallingal) who adds a mysterious seductive touch to the proceedings – adding to the horror cliche. We are not quite sure what happens except that the journalist perishes and the entire thing goes outside our realm of understanding.

Anjali Menon’s Happy Journey is a hilarious script which deals with the interaction between a flirtatious insurance surveyor (Jagathy) and a pretty girl (Nithya Menon) who is the subject of his advances in a bus, as they journey from Kochi to Kozhikode. The story is an interesting psychological combat between the 2 protagonists and by the time the journey ends, the power equations turn an entire 180 degree. Happy Journey observes very closely what makes the male and female psyche and also skillfully weaves in the theme of terrorism into this 14 minute tale.

B.Unnikrishnan’s Aviramam addresses itself to the contemporary social milieu and deals with the life of a couple who struggles to go on as recession takes a toll on their lives. Ravi’s (Siddique) business is sinking and he is reeling under a set of debts and the recession has cut off most of his avenues. He, however, pretends that things are improving and tries to shield his family from the news of his actual state of affairs. He sends his family on a short vacation of three days and heads back home to give it all up. Aviramam has a simple, honest structure and is easiest to relate to and ends with a sense of hope; it works primarily due to the warmth of the characters but per se does not offer anything new.

Surprisingly, the only so-called comedy film comes from Shyamaprasad in Off Season. It deals with Kunjappai (Suraj Venjarammoodu) who pulls out all stops to attract a Portuguese couple on an off season in Kovalam. His hopes of earning some quick money are however dashed when he learns that they are totally broke and have come all the way from Lisbon looking for work. There is not much of a story here to mention and comes off as a funny ad film with a few quirky dialogues here and there. I do not have an issue with the idea but with Shyamaprasad at the helm, you would be looking for something more concrete. It looks like one of biggies of Kerala parallel cinema is overshadowed by the Young Turks.

My favourite story in this collection is Bridge by Anwar Rasheed and is probably the crowd favourite too, going by the applause that it received in the theatre when the story came to an end. There are 2 parallel tracks here- one dealing with the mother-son relationship between Salim Kumar and Santhadevi and the other between a young boy separated from his kitten – and the tracks intersect at the end and in the process creating an unforgettable drama with pathos. The sense of loss and isolation is conveyed so vividly in such a short span of time, making it an unforgettable piece of cinema.

Makal by Revathy is a straight-forward narrative dealing with the issue of child trafficking. Sona Nair and Sreenath play a couple who adopt a girl child from a remote village only to sell her off. The pay-off happens in the Cafe and makes it the only story which uses the Kerala Cafe as more than an intersection point of the stories. The story is realistic and touches on the danger of unregulated adoption among the poor. Initially, I though the story dealt with adoption or young maid harassment but the sudden twist at the end was indeed shocking. At the end, when Sona Nair touches upon her lip stick, you realize where this is headed but couldn’t Revathy have avoided this clich├ęd shot? Makal is a bit melodramatic but is still a pertinent and shocking tale.

The film signs off with Lal Jose’s Puram Kazhchakal based on a short story by C V Sreeraman. The movie begins with Sreenivasan making a trip recollecting his own memories of a doomed love affair and intermittently peeps into the ongoings in the bus. Time is of least relevance to the passengers (a group even takes a minute off from the bus to capture the waterfalls) except to a nameless character (Mammooty) who is angry and impatient at its speed and quarrels with everyone. His character is a sense of ridicule and irritation to everyone till the sudden twist in the tale; this last scene has an almost O Henry touch in its tragic twist and leaves us thinking on how we judge people.

Kerala Cafe is definitely an experiment worth the effort of all the directors who have came together to create this concept. Though the movie theme is Yatra, the journey is only incidental in many of the stories and each of them is unrelated to the other. Ranjith has succeeded in bringing an interesting blend of young directors, with a mix of commercial and parallel cinema and presenting a concept which is new and will hopefully inspire more such attempts. Each story is different and clearly will not be liked by everyone but it is heartening to see an attempt to break free from conventional methods and create a grammar, well within the boundaries of commercial cinema. Such an effort requires all our support.