Art transcends barriers. So, it should come as no surprise when a Bengali decides to make a film in Malayalam. However, for Kolkata-based filmmaker Aneek Chaudhuri — whose Malayalam film Katti Nrittam is part of the Marché du Film at the Cannes Film Festival 2020 — it’s the one question he gets asked all the time.
“Films speak a universal language,” said Chaudhuri, 28. It’s a fitting answer from someone who first forayed into cinema with silent films. A film in Malayalam then — a language he doesn’t speak himself — is a natural progression. “I believe that cinema should not have any kind of language barrier,” he said.
Katti Nrittam — a thriller about a failed Kathakali dancer who turns into a psychopathic killer — made a mark earlier too, when its script was included in OSCARS’ Margaret Herrick Library in California— regarded as one of the finest film-related libraries in the world.
In its 73rd edition, the Cannes Film Festival, which is scrapping its physical event for a series of virtual screenings on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, will launch the Marché du Film or the festival’s Film Market online to support industry professionals around the globe. Katti Nrittam is one among the many being screened during the five-day virtual event between June 22 and 26.
Chaudhuri’s previous films — The Wife’s Letter (2016), White (2018), and Cactus (2018) — were also screened at Cannes. However, it is for the first time he won’t be there in Paris to present his film.
First Malayalam film from Bengal
While Katti Nrittam, meaning the Knife Dance, is a modern-day adaptation of ‘The Mahabharata’, the film also draws inspiration from O. Henry’s short story ‘The Cactus’ (1902).
Starring Rahul Sreenivasan, Rukmini Sircar, Sabuj Bardhhan, Anuska Chakraborty and Aritra Sengupta in major roles — it’s the first Malayalam film by someone from Bengal.
“Malayalam Cinema is indeed the best form of Indian Cinema these days,” said Chaudhuri, explaining his choice of language in an email interview. “They have found a way to integrate mainstream and parallel cinema.” However, it was his trip to Kerala’s Kalamandalam in 2018 that further sparked his interest in Malayalam arts and culture.
The film, which took almost a year to finish as Chaudhuri started to work on the script in early 2019, was primarily shot in Kolkata. The only difficulty was finding locations that resemble Kerala closely. So would it not have been easier to shoot in Kerala itself then? “Yes I could have but that would mean I need to drop out a lot of technicians from Calcutta without whom I cannot work. They wait for me to make a film so that they can work in terms of creative liberty I provide them,” he said.
A modern day Mahabharata
In Katti Nrittam, Chaudhuri uses the graceful Kathakali dance of Kerala to articulate a story of violence. “When I had decided to adapt Mahabharata on-screen, I had to make the killings classy and beautiful and I thought of nothing but this dance form,” he said.
In the film, Arjuna is portrayed through a Kathakali dancer. “After studying the patterns of murderers like Ted Bundy, I believe that for them, killing was a form of art,” said Chaudhuri, “We had to beautify the process of killing.”
In his modern-day interpretation of the epic, Chaudhuri tries to do what otherwise is a taboo: highlight the darker sides of the divine. Answering if the epic — which he dubbed one-dimensional — is still relevant, he said, “Sometimes the interpretation of an epic is directly proportional to the times we are living in.”
‘People expect a change’
Winning many accolades and awards in the last couple of years, Chaudhuri’s films often put women at the centre. His last directorial work Cactus portrayed Jesus Christ as a woman and White was a poignant silent film about rape.
Katti Nrittam is no different: while the film narrates a complex tale of a quadrilateral love based on Henry’s novel, the gender roles have been reversed.
Talking about his women-centric films, the filmmaker, admitted that he is inspired “a lot” by women. “I would try to look out for feminist dimensions in every character I read or create, because women are so damn interesting,” he said, “They can do everything and that too, successfully. And I strongly believe that the world was created from a woman’s point of view that’s why we are still safe; they are the most able and organised people, I must say.”
Chaudhuri’s film has been received positively in Kerala — “But back home, people think that I am in too much of a hurry,” he said.
“In Bengal, you don’t get the space to film alternative stuff. People might be in the legacy of auteur, but most of them in the current scenario are not original and inclined toward earning rather than creating. Now, that is alarming, isn’t it?” said Chaudhuri.
However, it is in his audiences that he has hope. While Katti Nrittam is expected to have a commercial release in 2020, Chaudhuri has spent the lockdown working on a feature-length film titled The Symphony of Pansies with a Lebanese artist Stephanie Bou Chedid. “And if all goes well, something big in 2021,” he said, without divulging further details. “People expect a change.”
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