During a period of COVID-induced self-isolation this year, I watched Malayalam movies. They were like a balm. The backwaters are beautiful, as in ad films; the people are engagingly real. The stories are intensely local, set on the blurred boundaries between rural and urban that is so peculiar to Kerala. One plot unfolds in Kumbalangi, another in Angamaly, and a third in Idukki; the settings are richly specific to the narratives. In another film, after their inter-caste marriage, a couple leave southern Kerala to start a new life in Kasaragod in the north.
These are ensemble stories, perhaps because Kerala is in some ways more egalitarian than many other places; also because that’s how communities live. There are awkward brothers, inquisitive grandmothers, and a teenager who plays football, cooks dinner and yearns for his mum. I love that a person called Baby can be a woman or a man, diminutive or large in size, Hindu or Muslim or Christian by faith. A character can drive an auto, be a friend, and have a hobby, all at once. Identity doesn’t feel rigidly fixed. People can change. Can it be that people are complex?
The characters resist easy categorisation. A photographer learns from his elderly father how to see. Three people find themselves in a Rashomon-like plot set inside a police station. After the death of a Tamil man at a roadside ironing stand, his Malayali employer silently befriends his employee’s widow. It is just that: Friendship. Indeed, one of the best things about Malayalam cinema is how it depicts friendship between people of different backgrounds not just as possible, but also light, natural and valuable. It shows what brings people together.
But film is also a powerful way to explore what divides people, such as misogyny, toxic masculinity, and lasting enmities between people in a society that continues to be riven with feudal and hierarchical elements. And that is the theme of Lijo Jose Pellissery’s cinema. His Angamaly Diaries (2017) shows that man’s inclination for violence runs deep. Ee Ma Yau (2018) shows that it runs deeper than the depth of a grave. In the first film, a religious procession becomes the site of a fight; in the other, a man’s grave itself becomes an embattled space.
The most powerful depiction of toxic masculinity and violence is in Pellissery’s latest work, Jallikattu (2019) — selected as India’s official entry for the Academy Awards. Jallikattu is based on a short story by the Malayalam writer S Hareesh.
Like the landscape of Kerala, S Hareesh’s writing contains breathtakingly beautiful sentences. They are dense and textured, with rich detail — the dip and swirl of birds against the bright green fields, the movement of long-oars gliding through the canal, the flitting of pied paddy skimmers over the pond — when suddenly, one word can stop us short, such as: Hunger.
I think of the opening scene of Hareesh’s award-winning novel, Moustache (Meesha in Malayalam). Paviyan, who lives on the embankment of the Chozhiyappara fields, is walking home one night in the month of Karkitakam. After going to “those with overfilled grain chests and stores of paddy” seeking a bit of rice, he is returning empty-handed. On the way home, he sees an eenampechi, or pangolin. “He picked it up thinking it would amuse his children, make them forget their hunger for a while.”
Even in God’s own country, just beneath the surface, one encounters hunger, inequality and deep fissures that are never quite forgotten. A starving child. A boy digging the earth for roots. The ghost of a man who has starved to death, still asking for kanji water. A scrawny migrant worker; a well-fed priest. “Caste is still the primary signifier of worth, dignity, and position of people in Kerala,” writes Hareesh in the foreword to Moustache.
About Hareesh’s fiction, I have to say this: There are sentences in his prose that, when they end, I have to go back and read them again from start to finish, because they are so magically crafted. It is the same with Pellissery’s film sequences.
Such as the opening moments of Jallikattu: Before dawn, a clock ticking, and people’s eyes snapping open, one by one. Among the first words spoken in the film: “Hold the rope tight.” A knife being sharpened; a sudden lunge; and blood spreading darkly on the ground.
Inside a house, a man hits a woman: “Rice-cake again for breakfast?”
While the men gather into a mob, the women continue to cook tapioca, check the salt, pet the dog, and wash the clothes.
Jallikattu is about an ancient violence, one that is deeply linked to land and jungle. “This land was all a dense forest,” says one character. “My dad usurped it and gave it to the church.”
The film is about conflict between man and beast; man and man; and man and woman. It is about the seething brutality that lies just beneath the surface of everyday life.
This article first appeared in the print edition on December 8, 2020 under the title ‘Trouble in cinema paradiso’. The writer is in the Indian Administrative Service, and based in Bengaluru