8/24/10

Out There, Among the Transgressors

Neelakkuyil (The Blue Cuckoo) - 1954

Try to imagine, if you will, Malayalam cinema produced and viewed in the years preceding 1954 and the release of Neelakkuyil.

Cinema audiences in Kerala were treated to stilted film adaptations of epics, the dubbed or remade versions of Tamil and Hindi film hits and the occasional home-grown melodrama. This was a land that had not yet fully earned its statehood in a nation that was still young.

And then came Neelakkuyil. My maternal grandparents were among those who flooded the theatres that year to see a movie that pulled Malayalam cinema out of its high eyrie and down, firmly weighted, to the corrupt earth. They went from their little village in Malappuram, walking by the Bharathapuzha to take the chugging train to Calicut where they sat with more than a hundred others in the Coronation to watch a film that obliterated the memories of every other movie that came before it. The two young men who directed it, P. Bhaskaran and Ramu Kariat, hauled Malayalam cinema into a new age.

The story of Neelakkuyil is simple: a tale of forbidden love and the disastrous consequences of its consummation. Neeli (Miss Kumari), a young field hand from a lower caste, takes shelter in the house of Sreedharan Nair (Satyan), the village schoolmaster, during a summer storm in the beginning of the film. Storms and rain bookend the film and act as metaphors throughout - during the coupling between Sreedharan Nair and Neeli and in the denouement when one man’s appeal for humanity transforms another.

Neeli and Sreedharan Nair carry on their relationship in secret until she discovers she is pregnant and appeals to the schoolmaster to marry her. He refuses - he cannot countenance marrying a woman of a lower caste. Neeli, heartbroken, is thrown out of her home for transgressing caste lines and for her illicit pregnancy. The schoolmaster marries the daughter of the impoverished local Nair family. In one of the ironies that thread their way through the narrative of the film, Sreedharan Nair’s wife is the illegitimate daughter of the temple priest and a Nair woman. The schoolmaster is troubled by his conscience especially when he crosses the fields and encounters Neeli, now homeless, living out in the open where once he and she cavorted. She eventually dies giving birth near a railway track and the child is adopted by the village postman, Sankaran Nair (P. Bhaskaran), and the film’s conscience. Sankaran Nair is upbraided for his transgression in taking the child, born of a lower caste. He, in turn, condemns the inhumanity of the villagers and the cowardice of the man who impregnated Neeli and abandoned her.

The child grows up, becoming a truant who’s taunted by fellow classmates for his illegitimate birth. His desire for maternal love torments him, and his increasing indiscipline and behavioural problems frustrates his foster father, who nevertheless gives the boy unconditional love. Meanwhile, Sridharan Nair, in a childless marriage, is tormented by guilt and his refusal to declare himself as the boy’s true father. He tries to be a father figure to the child but the boy spurns him. It takes another storm - natural, emotional, societal - for the story to conclude.

It’s hard not to be impressed by Neelakkuyil. And I am not talking of the condescending appreciation one might bestow on a work that was produced in another, less technological and less sophisticated era. Its courage in tackling the themes of inter-caste relationships, the psychological effects of the lack of maternal love on a young child, the degradation of the once-powerful upper caste family through alcohol and venality, is portrayed with courage and sympathy. It does not preach to the viewer or beat them about the head with a hammer, demanding that they be better human beings. So much of recent Indian films that touch on social issues (all those issue-specific Madhur Bhandarkar films come to mind here) annoy with their heavy moralistic high-mindedness. Neelakkuyil’s moral consciousness is knitted into its filmic DNA. Much of the credit for the power of the film goes to five men: Kariat and Bhaskaran who directed it, Uroob, the Malayalam novelist who wrote the story, A. Vincent who did the cinematography and K. Raghavan who composed the music. There is still a retrospective thrill to be had in watching the coming together of these nascent talents, all of whom, except Uroob, were still to establish themselves. Vincent would go on to direct such classics as Gandharva Kshetram and Bhargavi Nilayam, Kariat would make another landmark Malayalam movie, Chemmeen, and Bhaskaran would have a long and acclaimed career as an actor, director and lyricist.

Neelakkuyil was made just as the Italian Neorealism film movement was dying out, having inspired filmmakers around the globe to train their cameras on their own societies. From the very first frames - that of rain-laden clouds gathering, the farmers tilling the fields and seeds being planted, it announces its earthiness and concerns with the immediate, the tangible and the perishable. Watching it, one remembers too that it was made just a few years after a Dalit took the leading role in framing the Indian constitution. When the temple priest tells Sankaran Nair that Neeli had the nerve to not get out his way as he waddled around the village, Nair chides him: “You can no longer talk in that manner. Things have changed.”

Talk is one thing, action quite another. In Neelakkuyil it’s not the enlightened schoolmaster who is the hero but the postman, played with unswerving conviction by Bhaskaran. He maybe short-sighted in the physical sense, peering out from behind thick spectacles, but he’s the truest exponent of the ideals espoused by those who fought for an independent nation.

Neelakkuyil’s only faults would probably be its episodic narrative, the slackening and quickening of pace, the jumps in time. But these faults (minor, minor ones) don’t really take away from the magnitude of its achievements.

And then, of course, there are those songs that almost every Malayali hums, some not knowing where they came from or how, but that they just were, playing in crowded halls, on radio stations during late night drives and sung by contestants on TV talent shows. Of all the songs, it is Kayalarikathu..., composed in the Mappila song style, that the state collectively fell for, and used, one imagines, as the soundtrack to all serendipitous loves.

8/19/10

Mulberries

I am watching the mulberries purple on a shrub we'd planted in April and given up for dead when it seemed to have withered in the hot yellow heat of that month. We forgot it, the cutting we'd planted, taken from my uncle's sandy garden near Chavakkad. It escaped our minds in the electric thunderstorms of May because we were mourning the loss of the rose-apple tree that had burst with fruit in the first few months of this year. What made the tree such a good conductor of electricity that it had to catch a fork of lightning, slowly brown and die?

And in our depths of sorrow over the loss of that tree - a pretty, dainty, pink and green thing - the weak cutting we'd ignored was somehow growing stronger. The electricity of the pre-monsoon showers had kindled something in it. It was greening, nodules appeared on the now plump stems. It had come alive. The man who'd come to clean out the weeds showed it to my mother: It's alive, it's growing.

Now, the first fruit are ripening, just a few, not the hundreds that the rose-apple had sprouted before performing its operatic death. As the first fruit purples, my mother and I think we can make preserves out of them some day. And she tells me how, in Muscat, in that house by the Corniche, birds would come and sit on our windowsills, their beaks stained from eating mulberries from a courtyard garden nearby. Stains they'd paint onto our walls and windows as they rubbed their beaks and dripped berry juices. A whole year passed before the purple streaks on our walls and our windows faded. Faded to a dirty brown that reminded us that somewhere, sometime, one of our neighbours had a mulberry bush.