Sampath G

Watching Murakami in Malayalam

In Cinema, Humour, Uncategorized on April 22, 2013 at 2:38 pm

Many film festival regulars often have this strange competitive thing going on between them. Usually, it’s about who’s ‘caught’ the maximum number of the ‘best’ films on show. And of course, they themselves are the best judges of which are the best films. “Hey,” they’d holler from their stall in the auditorium loo, “have you watched ‘The Night of the Constipated Dead’? Dude! How could you have missed it? What superb cinematography! What brilliant sound effects, dude! See if they’ve another screening planned – it’s THE film of the festival!” and so on in that vein.

Of course, the truth might be the opposite. The fellow might have been so traumatized by the experience, so filled with rage at his own pathetic judgment, and so consumed by the desire to get even, that he’s trying to send as many gullible souls as he can to the cinematic gallows.

Screen-grab from YouTube trailer of In April The Following Year There was a Fire.
Yours truly became such a gullible soul not once, not twice, but three times in the course of a single film festival – the 12th Osian Cinefan film festival which concluded in the capital last Sunday.

The first time was with something called Ballad of Rustom, which came highly recommended by a film critic (never trust them). It was a 10pm show, and I hadn’t planned on catching a 10 pm show because the last metro home was at 11, and this was a two-hour film. Plus I hadn’t had dinner. But this critic was insistent that it was THE film to watch, and my companion (who I’d only just met at the festival, and who cunningly did not reveal, until much later, that he was a practicing sado-masochist) seconded the critic’s views about the film.

So hungry, thirsty (for some reason the security guards took away my water bottle. The festival organisers did not allow you to hydrate yourself while watching a film – isn’t that against the law or something?) and excited about catching an Indian cinematic masterpiece, me and my friend (he shall be referred to as Mr M from now on) trooped into the auditorium, and patted ourselves on the back when we saw a sizeable crowd. If we were making a mistake, at least we won’t be the only ones. (Bet that’s what lemmings say to each other when they jump off a cliff.)

Ballad Of Rustom, as I shortly discovered, is about a telephone repairman called Rustom who does three things again and again over a period of 117 minutes: 1. He cycles through beautiful landscapes; 2. He washes his face; and 3. He tinkers with bulbs and electrical wires.

Actually, that’s a gross over-simplification of a very complex, very multi-layered, very moderately pretentious film with extraordinary cinematography. But unfortunately, it was wasted on someone like me, whose cinematically under-evolved faculty was ill-equipped to see a metaphor when it saw a man splashing cold water on his face. What it saw instead, was a man splashing cold water on his face.

On more than three occasions I was tempted to walk out so I can grab myself something to eat, but Mr M – praise be upon him – forced me to stay till the bitter end. And I was glad I did, because I did not want to miss the ending. The last time I’d seen a film in which mostly nothing happened, the last 15 minutes had a rape, a murder and a suicide. I was hoping this one too would throw up something like that. I couldn’t have forgiven myself if I missed it.

And we were justly rewarded for our pains – for more than one person died at the end. One was a suicide by drowning, though I had no idea who he was or why he died, while another probably perished in a fire. But both were exquisitely shot sequences — of a corpse floating in a pond, and a burnt out office, respectively.

This obsession with pretty-looking visuals, where the camera is in love with itself, as it were, was what kept me out of the film. Either the filmmaker is king or the camera is – in Ballad of Rustom, the camera executes a silent coup. And cinematic art becomes collateral damage. The place where this film’s non-existent action takes place has no discernible connection with any particular geography or history or time, while characters with no discernible roots in history or geography or time pontificate on the state of the nation and the futility of political action.

After the film, in a post-midnight interaction with the director, one learnt that the film was ostensibly an attempt to capture a universal reality about the destruction awaiting nature and the dark clouds of predatory human development hanging over natural beauty everywhere. But lacking roots in a specific historical reality (or any reality for that matter), what we get are so many beautiful scenes searching, like orphaned souls, for a narrative body that can give them something akin to life.

But Ballad of Rustom was not my only case of having the wrong tooth pulled. The other one, which is my fault entirely, was a Thai film called In April The Following Year There was a Fire. Not many people who landed up to see this film lasted as long as its title. Unlike Ballad, however, the main character of this film, a construction worker named Nhum, is not really a character at all but a stand-in for the director in a film that suddenly turns into a semi-autobiography of the director himself – I didn’t make this up, it says so in the synopsis of the film.

Anyway, all this is very well, except that this Nhum, like Rustom, does three things over and over again: 1. He smokes; 2. He walks; 3. He sleeps. There is only so much a man can take of a man smoking and walking and sleeping, and I regret to say that I cannot really say anything more about this film because I walked out shortly after Nhum’s 17th cigarette.
But in the evening the following day, there was a film we saw that made Ballad and the Thai film with the lengthy name seem like the very pinnacle of cinematic achievement. It was a Malayalam film, officially a short one – just 15 minutes, though each minute was about 10 minutes long, effectively making it a two-and-a-half hour film.

Titled Cat People, it was an adaptation of Haruki Murakami’s short story, ‘Man-eating Cats’. Now, in the normal course of things, Murakami’s stories are not easily comprehensible. Strange things happen, people disappear for no reason, humans form intimate relationships with animals who are more than just animals. A lot is going on that is never explained and you don’t really mind that because you’re reading him more because you like the world he’s created and want to spend time with his lonely, alienated, and yet strangely self-sufficient characters.

As an old Murakami junkie, I was practically jumping up and down in joy when I discovered I was going to see one of his stories rendered on screen. But Mr M (who wouldn’t miss a Malayalam film for nothing) brought me down to earth, saying, “Buddy, this Murakami is in Malayalam. So don’t get your hopes up too high.”

And sad to say, he was proved right. The cultural distance to be traversed – from Japan to Kerala via English on a story set in Greece — seems to have overwhelmed the young director, who mixes three tea spoons of puliyattam (a tiger is a big cat, after all) with a few drops of Onam, three dead cats, a man, a woman, and a nightmare, to come up with a mélange of cinematic memes signifying nothing.

“What’s going on?” I whispered to my Mallu friend, in the hope that, being a native speaker, he would’ve caught more of the nuances of the film than I could by reading the English sub-titles.

“One day in the life of a Malayalee,” he said. “Wife goes out to work, husband stays at home and either smokes or mopes.”

“So who is this Malayalee guy?” I persisted. Save the fact that he was injured in one leg and liked to read the newspaper, I couldn’t make out much about him.

Mr M was silent for a while, watching the screen intently. And I realised then that the film had already ended – gone before I could ‘get it’. All my reading of Murakami was of little help in ‘reading’ this film.

As we were walking out, Bald Mr M explained, “Only a Mallu intellectual can understand Murakami in Malayalam. It’s not for everyone – so don’t blame the filmmaker if you didn’t get it.”

“So why don’t you tell me what that was all about?” I said.

“It’s elementary, my friend,” he said. “It’s a random film about a random woman, a random man, and a random nightmare.”

I stared at him. Of course! Now it all made sense! Even the other two – Ballad and the Thai one – were just that. Random films about – er – random stuff. So what’s wrong with that? Nothing. Does everything in life have to make sense? No, it doesn’t.

“You’re right,” I said to my friend. “These could well be the three best films of the festival. If I didn’t get them, it’s my fault.”

“You bet,” he said. “After all, two out of the three have won awards.”

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