Four men gather in a lodge on their off day to get drunk and engage in mindless, vulgar chatter. On one such occasion, they play a game of police and thief which ends in the murder of one of them. Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, 39, saw a film in this powerful short story by R Unni, a fine short story writer in Malayalam, published in 2003. A decade later, Sanal has turned Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-day Game) into a terrific film, which won the Kerala state government’s award for the best feature film of 2015. The previous year, he had won the best director award film for his debut feature, Oralpokkam.
Unni’s story is just the grain for Sanal to launch on a post-mortem of contemporary Kerala society. He introduced a female character into the story and set it against a political event — a by-election. In the film, four middle-aged men journey to a forest guesthouse to drown the polling day in spirits. They spot a prey in the young woman, who comes to cook for them. The sexual tension is evident and the woman, aware of it, is guarded. Poll politics is shown as endless chatter on TV and the incessant propaganda on the streets. As the friends slouch with their glasses and the woman is a looming presence in the background, a different politics unravels. The conversation slips into innuendoes and becomes an incoherent blabber that brings out caste, class, gender and other tensions. The facade of consensus and camaraderie breaks down and the men are on the edge. They can’t respond to the quiet of the wilderness or the rain outside as they stew in their prejudices. They start a game of police and thief, as in their childhood, but now with unforeseen consequences. Ozhivudivasathe Kali becomes a parody of contemporary Kerala, much of it a male chauvinist space with deep prejudices and suppressed violence masked under the cloak of progressive rhetoric. The film is a stab at the pretentions of the Malayali male, who has no commitment to anything or anyone and whose politics, like life, is hollow.
Sanal’s cinema is, in fact, an extension of his critique of cultural production in Kerala. Malayalam cinema, like other cinemas in India, continues to be an industry controlled by the “star culture”. It is invested in the stars and refuses to see cinema as art. Sanal’s engagement with cinema is a statement against the industry. From raising capital to production and distribution of films, he is exploring alternatives to the practices of the cinema industry. He sees a clear divide between art house cinema and commercial films and believes the twain shall not meet.
Unlike the previous generation of art house cinema people who trained in films schools, Sanal is a product of the digital and social media revolution. Son of a pan-shop owner, he grew up in a village near Thiruvananthapuram and studied law. Blogs were his window to the world. Poetry was his first love, but film festivals attracted him to serious cinema. Like many Malayalis, he did a stint in the Gulf, and returned home to the world of cinema. When he realised that the industry was unlikely to support his kind of cinema, Sanal started Kazhcha Film Forum, a platform to produce independent low-budget movies through crowdfunding. After making a couple of short films, he found support to make Oralpokkam. The film received rave reviews. In 2014, he and friends started Cinema Cab, a movement to screen independent films.
The shoot for Ozhivudivasathe Kali lasted 14 days and the cast did not include any “stars”. The “untrained” actors turned out to be naturals. Filmmaking is an intuitive process for Sanal. He shot Ozhivudivasathe Kali without a written script and got the “actors” to contribute to their dialogue. This “participatory approach to filmmaking” is part of his aesthetic vision. Despite all the awards, Sanal has not managed to get a theatre release for Ozhivudivasathe Kali. He says it is easier to raise capital to make films than convince theatre owners in the merits of art house films.
The spotlight was on him after the awards, he says, but the artists and the crew need a theatre release for recognition. Cinema, Sanal says, is a medium of poetry and not narration. However, the collective that produces a film deserves wages, and recognition, for the labour.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali was screened by The Indian Express Film Club in Delhi on April 19 and will be screened in Mumbai today.