IFFK 2017: A retrospective on K. P. Kumaran showcases his landmark movies
- | Thursday | 7th December, 2017
Kumaran, for he too walked these paths and contributed his mite to the history of Malayalam cinema. A rare masterpiece in Malayalam cinema, which, without wallowing in sentimentality, reminds conventional audiences that a broken body is not a broken woman. Kumaran’s protagonists which seems to have a curious resonance for Malayalam cinema today. Kumaran, a director who burst on to the Kerala cine scene in 1974 with Athithi, today considered as one of the landmark films of Malayalam cinema. Modernist experimentationsFour of his films, Athithi, Rugmini, Thottam and Akashagopuram, are included in what promises to be a highly elucidative retrospective on the auteur.
From being the co-author of the screenplay of Swayamvaram (1971), Kumaran went on to make signature films that were thematically and aesthetically complex and therefore left many with a sense of bafflement on how to read them. The fleeting passions and elusive meanings of life, its moral and emotional ambiguities, all find an echo in Kumaran’s films, which make them enigmatic exercises that refuse to yield easy pleasures of viewing.
Four of his films, Athithi, Rugmini, Thottam and Akashagopuram, are included in what promises to be a highly elucidative retrospective on the auteur.
The highlight of the package would be Athithi, which remains Kumaran’s masterpiece and offers a significant entry point into many of his key motifs, formal reflections and narrative devices. With its deep investments in modernist experimentations and its curious resonances of a Beckettian existential dilemma, the film, for many new age movie buffs, might seem passé.
However, on looking back, one can see in it a fascinating preoccupation with perception and representation, which, in fact, forms the central focus of the cinematic art. In being self consciously reflective, Athithi lingers on not only what is shown by the director but also our own ways of seeing it.
As in Samuel Beckett’s phenomenal Waiting for Godot, the numerous characters in Athithi wait for a guest who holds different meanings for each one of them. Stark and elemental, it is a movie that can be subjected to multiple social, political and sexual interpretations. Our own trysts with the absurd and the existential, is definitely one possible reading that the movie strongly engenders. It is interesting to note that it is in the powerful female protagonist (enacted by Sheela) and her transgressive sexuality that the movie finally finds its climatic moment.
Thottam (2000) attempts to write into cinema a tradition of the new, where the medium harks back to an ancient age of rich oral cultures and brings alive in a contemporary context the thottam pattu of Poomatha. The film writes the resistances of both caste and gender and narrates the tale of a poor peasant girl who sacrifices herself rather than capitulating to feudal masculinity.
A cinematic testimony to age-old oppressions of caste, class and gender, the spectacular Theyyam mise-en-scène adds to a heightened effect. This film is again feminist in orientation because it attempts to revive memories of a lost pantheon of female subaltern deities as also ordinary peasant women whose powerful voices once upon a time echoed in the annals of a history.
Rugmini (1989), an adaptation of Madhavikutty’s novella Rugminikkoru Pavakutty, is a must watch for film students; a study of how the camera can still be non-voyeuristic in Malayalam cinema and therefore how the female body in its cinematic representations need not be steeped in the effects of the male gaze.
As the director and the camera gently efface themselves, the visual language of the film pulsates with a raw throbbing feminine energy that denounces the bestiality, violence and cowardice of our everyday encounters with hegemonic masculinities. Frame after frame the film broods over the agonies of women’s scarred lives, while delicately musing over their personal pain and public anguish. An elegy to girlhood innocence, adolescent ecstasies, lovelorn heroines, romantic dreams and whispered endearments, the film deftly and tenderly portrays the fragility of women’s joys.
All the while the viewer is implicated in the ethics of gazing at the child sex worker, while she boldly stares into and away from the camera, disinterested in its sexual economy, irreverent of its pseudo morality. A rare masterpiece in Malayalam cinema, which, without wallowing in sentimentality, reminds conventional audiences that a broken body is not a broken woman.
Akashagopuram (2008) is another adaptation based on Henrik Ibsen’s play The Masterbuilder. Probably as never before in his career Kumaran engages in uncharacteristic cinematic excess that transforms this movie into a moral fable on contemporary society and cinema. As builders become master builders, even their arrogance, selfishness, professional meanness and megalomania become sacrosanct.
A relentlessly unflattering critique of the artiste as an ageing patriarch, the film, while rooted in contemporary reality nevertheless succumbs to the deeply metaphoric, profoundly mythical and surrealistically symbolic depths of the subconscious mind.
As one of the pioneers of the new wave, Kumaran is one of those who made it possible for the new generation to experiment with the rules of storytelling, to rethink the conventions of film aesthetics, to subvert production norms and star casts. The newness of the new wave might be reinvented by each subsequent generation but their inspiration and energy lingers on to make newer and bolder experimentations possible. Here is a retrospective that will hopefully enable new introspections on the artistic oeuvre of K.P. Kumaran, for he too walked these paths and contributed his mite to the history of Malayalam cinema.
The writer is an academic and autho
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