Monday, December 14, 2009

Paleri Manikyam: Oru Pathira Kolapathakathinte Katha

It is 1957 – the year the World’s first democratically elected Communist government, under the leadership of EMS Namboodiripad, is about to take over the governmental reins from the Congress. It is also the year when the first rape case is registered in Kerala – Manikyam, a poor low caste girl, is brutally raped and murdered in a small village called Paleri in North Kerala. The investigation into this crime, 52 years later, forms the crux of this intricately executed movie, directed by Renjith, based on T P Rajeevan’s novel of the same name. This is Renjith’s most ambitious and mature work so far and is undoubtedly among the best movies of the year.

Manikyam (Mythili) was the bride of the village idiot Pokkan, the son of one of Paleri’s once-most desired women, Cheeru (Shwetha Menon). The morning after the whole village leaves to see a new drama in the town and Pokkan leaves along with a magician to perform some rituals, Manikyam is found dead in Cheeru’s house.

There is a police investigation but the accused are let off scot-free by a local court, even though the public by and large thinks that the rich landlord Murikkumkunnath Ahmed Haji (Mammootty again) is behind the murder. A private detective Haridas (Mammooty), accompanied by a crime analyst Sarayu (Gowri Munjal), land in Paleri after 52 years to investigate this case but the intent of the team to get involved with this case after so many years is indeed puzzling till we reach mid-stream, when the story introduces a personal angle (a deviation from the novel).

But Paleri Manikyam is not an investigative thriller in the true sense and if you are expecting a CBI Dairy story or even something like Pavithran’s Utharam, you would be grossly mistaken. There is a scene in the movie when a veteran Communist worker asks Haridas the relevance of such an investigation after 50 long years when none of the main players of the drama are alive and Haridas says that this could be an investigation either out of curiosity or possibly a look at the conditions of the period in Malabar when such a story happened and learning from it. (In an interesting conversation when his companion Sarayu says that this is somebody’s life and not a story, Hari replies that after death, everyone’s life is just a story – so relevant to our times). The intent is clearly not a who-dun-it mystery but a slow and steady permeation into the event and it definitely satisfies the viewer who is willing to wait and watch as the story unravels.

The movie follows a complex narrative where the story moves back and forth through the eyes of its various characters. Haridas narrates most of the events and moves along with the various characters in the movie which gives it a quasi-documentary feel at times. A scene which truly conveys the beauty of the narrative is when on one side of the frame we see Manikyam along with her husband coming to the village on a boat after her marriage, on the other side we see her corpse being taken away in a boat, with the narrator standing on the shore in the middle, and making a comment! There is an almost Rashomon like effect we witness as each character presents his own version of the story and we are left wondering where the truth lies. Such narration techniques have not been attempted in mainstream Malayalam cinema and Renjith pulls it off with aplomb.

Paleri Manikyam is set in rural North Kerala in the late 1950s and Renjith, along with Manoj Pillai (the cinematographer), takes us into this world and it is a fascinating effort. Capturing Kerala on canvas is a cake walk for any cinematographer but Renjith uses the backdrop itself acts as a character in the plot, with a mixture of colours which add to the intrigue surrounding the town. The music by Sarath and Bijbal also does not vie too much attention and percolates the background surely but certainly.

The political upheavals of the period also necessitate the role of petty politics in the drama. Barber Keshavan (Srinivasan) is a grassroots communist worker (the conscience of the village as Haridas refers to him) who believes in class struggle and refuses to work on the day EMS is sworn in but he is eventually dismayed to see the party succumbing to the elite, against whom they had battled. In his own words, he is neither a believer nor a communist – just a mere hairdresser. It is his disillusionment with the Party which leads him to provide the valuable inputs that help in piecing together the story.

K P Hamsa (veteran screenwriter T Damodaran), on the other hand, is a pragmatic Communist leader who realizes that the movement needs the support of the rich and is willing to compromise a few things for what he believes is the greater good. While the movie points a finger at the party for its rule in the cover up, you also realize that there was no personal benefit that was intended and was purely for the growth of the party (a rarity by today’s standards). He knows that a classless society is utopia and that the oppressed needs the oppressor to sustain the movement, so the marriage between the bourgeoisie and the Party to suppress the death of a poor girl, who nobody cares for her.

The police investigation in the late 50s was clearly more primitive when compared to today, which meant that the importance of circumstantial evidence and testimony was much higher, in the absence of technological support. Manikyam’s body is carried in jute mats across the river by boat on an overnight journey to Vadakara for post-mortem which exposed the body to further deterioration and could possibly endanger the evidence. The judiciary had to also contend with the fact that this was the first such case before them but we do not know whether the complexity of a rape case was understood at that time.

One weak link in the story is the relevance of the sub-plot involving Haridas and his girlfriend. Sarayu has a broken relationship with her husband, while Haridas has a faithful unsuspecting wife and a pleasant family life, but still he desires his colleague (he interestingly draws a parallel with Ahmed Haji for a similar failing) but this thread is not developed enough for us to draw any form of parallel with the main track.

Maybe if the film moved along interspersed with a few subtle hints regarding their relationship or his family troubles, it could have had a greater impact; otherwise, Haridas simply doing the investigation himself would also have sufficed, unless the lady character added something extra in the plot. Of course, the fact that the actress playing Sarayu also seemed a bit lost at times does not help the cause.

The other area which could possibly have a greater flourish would be the climax - it could have been more underplayed possibly or maybe even skipped because it did seem a tad artificial (especially by the movie's standards). The novel merely mentions Ahmed Haji’s son but the film goes further and builds a climax on the basis of this man, who makes a late entry. I do not want to add any spoilers here but it would be sufficient to say that even without this contrivance, the movie would have worked.

The movie boasts of an interesting cast – a lot of non-professionals were selected by Renjith to play various important roles in the movie after conducting an extensive workshop. This actually helps in giving it a more authentic feel and ensuring that we are not swayed by their usual appearances. The S K Pallipuram character who is the architect of the drama on the night of the rape is a small but interesting character; he also provides Haridas with a missing official report which helps in linking a few vital cogs. He represents the liberal who lies in his drunken arrogant stupor, who wields a great deal of influence by virtue of the might of his words but is too lost in his own world, under the influence of alcohol, to make a difference to the society – eventually becoming a mere pawn in the hands of the powerful.

While most of the actors are adequate (except Gowri Munjal), the pick of the cast are Mammooty and Shwetha Menon. Shwetha is at ease while exuding oomph as well as pathos as the older forsaken mistress of the Haji and is slowly emerging as an actress to watch for in the Kerala film horizon. Mammooty’s performance as Ahmed Haji is stellar and though the character is one-dimensional, it is played to perfection and is definitely a memorable performance (Kamal’s take on this role would be another caricature with more emphasis on the physical self).

My last four movies have been Bhramaram, Kerala Cafe, Loud Speaker and now Paleri Manikyam and if this is any evidence of Malayalam cinema slowly emerging out of its worst phase, then we are definitely in for exciting times. Renjith has once again shown (after Thirakatha and Kaiyoppu) that he is an exciting talent and the new generation (with the likes of Lal Jose, Renjith Shankar and others) is ready to revive the lost art called Malayalam cinema.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

A Journey to the Dhauladhars

One of the more immediate challenges after marriage is to organize the honeymoon. The pressures are high – it’s the first time you are organizing something and wifey is looking to you to pull it off without any hiccups. After a lot of creative inputs from anyone and everyone who’s trying to help, we decide to go on a trip to Himachal Pradesh. There are 2 couples – me and Sangeetha and Anil and Divya and we agree on an approximate budget of about 30-35 K for the entire trip.

The whole of Himachal has been divided by HPTDC in four circuits: Tribal, which mainly includes the Lahaul Spiti region, Sutlej, which is the region around Simla, Naldhera, Kufri, Beas, which is the Kullu Manali and surrounding region, and the Dhauladhar circuit, which covers Dalhousie, Chamba valley, Dharamsala, etc. HP, for all practical purposes, generally refers to Shimla, Kullu and Manali. Based on friendly advice, we decide to go for the seemingly less untrodden (by HP standards) Dhauladhar circuit. So the final plan is put on paper – 2 nights in Palampur, a night in McLeodganj and the last 2 nights in Dalhousie.

The journey begins on Nov 22nd when we board an Air India flight from Mumbai to New Delhi. Sangeetha and I do not get adjacent seats and so I request the gentlemen around me if they could adjust but sadly, none of them is willing to compromise. It is her maiden flight trip and I am slightly apprehensive of sitting apart but we manage, despite the rather inhospitable behaviour of the grumpy folk who sit around us in the plane.

Anil and wife join us (from Jamnagar) at the Old Delhi Railway Station (DLI in IRCTC) as we catch the Jammu Mail on a 10 hour journey to go to Pathankot, the nearest station to reach Palampur. We make the mistake of booking a second class ticket and the conditions are pretty cold; wiser counsel would suggest travelling by AC where the temperature is controlled and blankets are available. Thankfully, we are well-equipped to meet the cold and bring in a pair of sweaters, thermal wear, woollen gloves and socks and monkey caps to protect the ears but the cold is biting and we need to protect ourselves well enough.

Day-1 brings us to Pathankot, an hour and half behind schedule at about 8.30 in the morning. If you reach early, you could use the Kangra Valley train to go to Palampur (these trains have to be booked on arrival and are not available in IRCTC); this is called a Toy Train and is a major attraction for tourists as they travel across the beautiful valleys at such heights. Our stay is planned at Country Cottage, a family-run home stay type setup run by the Sarins. A pre-arranged cab picks us up from Pathankot Station and we travel for over 3 hours before we reach Palampur, a small town better known for its tea estates and the charm is the quiet British type plantations.

The Sarins had bought the place from the British about a century back and have been running their cottage for the past 20+ odd years. The place has 5 cottages and can house only as many families at any point of time. The hospitality is excellent (a tad pretentious possibly at times) and a special mention needs to be given for the food, though it is quite expensive. The cook serves you food hot and ensures that the eating experience there is truly a memorable one. The Country Cottage Stay is a leisure stay and not a typical tourist one – you can spend time primarily taking a walk across to the river, trekking along the hills and enjoying the solitude. The cottages are quite comfortable, but the heating facilities – water and room- were not upto the mark but I assume that this is to be only a temporary issue. There is an Adivasi temple about 4 km from the cottage, which is a nice and wonderful 3 hour trek – the temple has nothing to recommend but the walk is worth it.

On Day-2, we do the trek to the temple in the morning and return to visit 2 tourist spots suggested to us in the afternoon– the Baijnath temple and the Sherbaling Monastery. The Baijnath Temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva and was built in the 13th Century. But it’s kind of disappointing because to a Keralite, the temple would appear a rather small one, shorn of much tradition or culture. You can visit but we don’t recommend this; it is a small temple and has nothing much to offer.

Sherbaling Monastery is situated much higher and can be a more interesting place but without any form of guidance, it wouldn’t mean much. Our driver drops us in front of the Monastery and we are not sure how to proceed inside. There is a mediation class going on when we reach the place and the hall is out of bounds for us. The reverberations of the chanting reach us which has an impact but otherwise as tourists, we are lost inside, especially with no one to guide (but as Anil suggested maybe, they do not intend to treat it as a tourist place and do not refuse us only out of a sense of gratitude). Also, we do not intend to rake up an issue by straying into an unknown place and touching something which could be sensitive.

On Day-3 morning, we check out of the Country Cottage and head towards McLeodganj (Upper Dharamshala), located about 2000m above sea level. The drive from Palampur to McLeodganj is relatively short and takes about 1.5-2 hours (time taken is primarily due to the height that we travel here). We are put up at 8 Auspicious Him View Hotel, a small unpretentious 8 room hotel located at walking distance from the main temple. Each of the 8 rooms is decorated according to one of the 8 auspicious symbols of Buddhism; the hotel is comfortable, cheap and well-located. Special mention needs to be given to Mr Tsering Dorjee, who manages the hotel – a pleasant young man, who is very helpful and well-mannered. Mr Dorjee provides us a map of the place and explains to us the main places to visit and volunteers to help us show around the place, if required.

Armed with a map in hand, we trace our steps to the main temple where His Holiness The 14th Dalai Lama is addressing a group of Russians; unfortunately, the police do not allow us in and ask us to return after 4 pm to see the place. Since we have just a night to stay, we decide to leave the Main Temple and visit the Bhagsu Nag temple and Waterfalls, about 2 km from our hotel. The temple and waterfalls are also no great shakes (though the waterfall could be a delight when in good flow) but are ok if you are looking for a walk up the hills. Mr Dorjee also recommends the Naddi Village and the Norbulingka (a Tibetan Institute started by the Tibetans to ensure that traditional Tibetan art and culture would not die down) but one night would be enough to cover all these places. Nevertheless, for such a trip, we don’t fancy travelling more in McLeodganj.

Our Hotel serves only Tibetan food and so we settle down for some vegetarian momos (a form of Tibetan dumpling),Thukpa soup (a Tibetan noodle soup) and herbal tea. Can’t say we enjoyed it much but then doesn’t being a tourist require one to even try out the local cuisine. McLeodganj is famous for the Dalai Lama and I guess that’s the only thing I can think of – the entire place is littered with Tibetan markets and restaurants and inundated with foreigners, pouring in from all corners. If you are looking for a quiet place, McLeodganj is definitely not where you should be headed – looks more like a place where Tibetans run small markets and white men come in large numbers, in searching of mystic solutions to life.

Day-4 does not start exactly on a great note as there is a power cut in most of McLeodganj, meaning no hot water to bathe, except whatever is stored in the geyser!!! We manage to wash our way through and proceed towards our last halt – Dalhousie. Built around five hills, Dalhousie is located on the western edge of the Dhauladhar mountain range, at a height of about 2200 m above sea level and named after Lord Dalhousie who was the British viceroy in India at that time.

A 150 km long cab travel takes us to Hotel Grand View, an old British style hotel establishes in 1895. Grand View, true to its name, opens to a breath taking view of snow capped mountains and provides a wonderful and most comfortable stay. It has a rather spacious dining room with an attached imperial looking bar (called Viceroy Lounge Bar!!!), big rooms and very helpful staff, which make the stay a real delight. We retire to the night’s chillness after a brief walk, cut short by the constant and scary movement of vehicles at dizzy heights.

For Day-5, we decide to explore around Dalhousie and book a cab to visit Khajiar and Chamba town. The travel to Khajiar (24 km from Dalhousie) is beautiful with its pine and deodar trees and flakes of snow (from a snowfall of an earlier week). Khajjiar known as “Mini Switzerland” was officially baptized by the Swiss Ambassador on July 7, 1992 and as per records, a stone was taken here and forms part of the stone sculpture erected in Berne, capital of Switzerland. It is no longer as peaceful and serene as it used to be and we have vendors constantly rushing around to take your photos, give you a horse ride etc. but it still remains a beautiful patch of landscape in the entire area.

After a couple or more hours in Khajjiar, we proceed to Chamba town, where our driver first takes us to Bhuri Singh Museum (strictly for followers of history) and the Laxmi Narayan Temple. This temple houses 7 main temples dedicated to Shiva and Krishna and a few other smaller temples around it (do we have an English equivalent word for Upa devata???) and is atleast worth a visit after the 2-3 not so inspiring temples that we came across in the visit. On our way back, our driver halts at a couple of vantage points for us – one on the banks of River Ravi where the river bed was dry and we can see the magnificent flow of the river and secondly, at a point where we can see the Dam being constructed across this river (this is now being harnessed for hydro-electric power).

After all this travel, on Day-6, we hire a cab to go to Pathankot railway station. All Pathankot trains to Delhi are in the noon or night, so you’d have to plan accordingly on how to plan this day. Since most hotels have a check out time of 12 Noon, the evening 4.30 Muri Express is a comfortable one to catch. We had planned to have our lunch at the station but funnily, the only food available at the station is the quintessential burger at the IRCTC food stall – burgers in Pathankot!!! We get into the train only to realize that the seat numbering in the train is all goofed up, primarily because Laloo’s brainwave of 4 seats in the main berths and 3 in the side berth had been implemented and then revoked but the numbering had not changed. So, you had a situation of multiple seat numbers at the same seat and massive confusion everywhere. Anyway, with all this conundrum (including being woken up at 1 AM by a passenger claiming that I was sleeping in his berth), we manage to reach Old Delhi by 5 AM.

At the entrance of the Old Delhi Railway Station (next to the car park on the west exit), you can find a 24-hr Food Joint called ComeSum, from where we buy our breakfast before we catch our respective flights. Pre-paid cabs are not available at the station (the cops at the pre-paid counter ask us to talk to the taxi driver directly) and so we settle down for an auto to the Airport. The early morning ride in November in the auto is chilling but free of traffic and we reach the place in about half an hour before we catch a 10 AM flight to return to Mumbai and close our journey while Anil and Divya catch a 12 Noon flight to Ernakulam.

The trip was a memorable one and there were a few things that we learnt. Going alone is not necessarily the best idea; travelling with a friends’ group (especially couples) is a rewarding experience. The place gets pretty dark by 5.30 in the evening in winter and it’s a great idea to sit around a fire place and spend time together as a group. Off season travel helps in a great deal of cost-cutting and ensures that you face lesser crowds. Most hotels arrange cab pickups as and when you require so you do not have to worry about the travel at all. Travelling in winter (kind of autumn in our case) means that you need to be well-prepared in terms of clothing. When you travel by train to cold places in winter, book seats in AC and not in 2nd Class – this ensures a much higher degree of comfort.

Every journey has its high and low points - as long as the high outscore the low ones, you have done a good job. Be open-minded and nice to people and travelling becomes an experience that you can cherish for a long time...