Kerala Film Awards 2022: How Aavasavyuham, Chavittu and Prapedda are expanding the scope of playing with the form

Halfway into Krishand RK’s Aavasavyuham: The Arbit Documentation of An Amphibian Hunt, you’re still wondering if it’s an environmental documentary, a fiction feature, spy thriller or sci-fi. It employs elements of all, stylistically, for its multitiered storytelling. With vérité shot on 28 mm lens, for 90 per cent of its length. Here is a group of biologists looking for a mysterious frog species in mangroves, there is a man with supernatural abilities, calling upon frogs, fish, crabs, drifting from one set of people to another, evoking astonishment, attachment, greed or fear among the locals of Puthuvype. The hunt for the frog Mysticellus joy (loosely based on Mysticellus franki that was discovered in Wayanad in 2019) turns into one for the elusive — note Krishand’s wry humour — Joy (Rahul Rajagopal), the amphibian man (inspired from Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954). The film’s title reads like a research manual and it’s structured like one too, in prologue, epilogue, chapters.

In the depths of his film are layers of contemporary history, at a remove: Section 144 is mentioned one too many times, an LPG plant is shown in long lens. Krishand draws from the present reality: the 2017 incident when Puthuvype locals protested against the LPG plant, where one accident could put the lives of thousands in peril, and were lathicharged by the police.

The trigger for Krishand was also a 2019 incident when the police killed in an “encounter” four Maoists, and arrested two students under the UAPA Act for “possessing/distributing Maoist literature”. Krishand found a crime-noir-like ready villain (the State/big corporates) for his realistic superhero movie. And satire/humour saves the day for the small-time indie film which, among mainstream heavyweights (Joji, Churuli, Naayattu, Bhoothakaalam, Minnal Murali, etc.), picked up the Best Film and Best Screenplay (Krishand) at the “well-balanced” 52nd Kerala State Film Awards, whose jury was headed by parallel-cinema great Saeed Akhtar Mirza. If the indies picked up the creative awards, the heavyweights won most of the technical awards. “The whole point of the state film awards is to encourage alternative cinema. With Mirza’s presence, the awards were able to do big justice to that. It’s heartening,” says film critic CS Venkiteswaran.

Why frogs, though? Krishand says, “I’ve been fascinated with amphibians, their population is declining the world over. There’s some fungal infection that’s going to change the world’s climate; and drifting creatures (frogs, fish) from one region are becoming endemic in another. Survival of the fittest is not just of the creatures but of nature, too. Joy is like nature, an ecosystem that looks beautiful but once it’s abused, its balance disturbed, then you’d be washed out. You try and kill the ecosystem, but it will return in another form. In Kerala every now and then, there’s discovery of new species (wildlife/nature). It is as important as losing species (the tribal people and the poor being displaced in the name of development) every day.”

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He initially wanted to set the film in the ecologically affected Munroe Island in Kollam district, which is sinking owing to global warming, but the lens shifted to Puthuvype, “one of the world’s most densely populated islands” in Kochi, the wake of the protests/lathicharge, says Krishand, whose 2018 documentary Waterbodies was on Narmada (and the Narmada Bachao Andolan).

“Development should mean having fresh air to breathe, food to eat, peaceful sleep, schools and employment. Look at Sardar Sarovar Dam, what about the tribal people who were displaced? My idea was not to measure risk versus reward, even if one person is affected, then there is risk,” he says, “Is there a scientific approach to development? What kind of research was done before the plant came up? Who decides your life/who should leave? Why isn’t the government sitting in dialogue/discussion? The system is the villain here. I wanted to bring in satire rather than pointing fingers,” he says.

A still from Aavasavyuham
Rahul Rajagopal in Aavasavyuham: The Arbit Documentation of An Amphibian Hunt

In Aavasavyuham, one light scene follows a heavy scene, the comedy genre and content change in seconds, ideas are “communicated the way social media is designed, for 20-30-year-olds who scroll Instagram/TikTok videos,” says the filmmaker, adjunct faculty at IIT Bombay, who wanted to become a comic book artist. “You make a film on a problem, it either becomes a serious film or misery tourism of the problem. I didn’t want that,” he says.

If the documentary Katiyabaaz (2014) showed how Kanpur’s power problem was dealt with humour, like specialised Marvel formats, Krishand wanted to mock the mockumentary, which otherwise becomes predictable, he wanted “to use the concept to break it. So, in the film, suddenly there are real people talking, the lines blur between the real and fiction”, like how neo-noir and sci-fi merge in Blade Runner (1982). It also takes from mainstream Malayalam-film tropes.

“A girl’s marriage is disrupted by a local landlord, the hero saves the day; and Chemmeen (1965), where a fisherman gets a lot of money and becomes selfish. I couldn’t make the characters say it, so in came the interviews,” says the filmmaker who isn’t trying to find a voice, he’s simply having fun, playing inside a genre: superhero mockumentary drama. “I wanted to make a realistic superhero film (like Unbreakable, 2000 and Chronicle, 2012), and not a Captain Planet. And I wanted to bring in very Kerala concepts. Who are the superheroes here? Joy’s look is modelled on the larger-than-life idols of Jain Tirthankaras in the state,” he says.

His sophomore is proof of Anurag Kashyap’s statement at the 26th IFFK this year: “I make movies in Hindi where we distort history while Kerala is actually chronicling the times we live in with their cinema.” And that the “best of Indian cinema comes from God’s own country.”

A still from Chavittu_!200
A still from Chavittu (Stomp)

Besides Krishand’s, Rahman Brothers Sajas and Shinos’ third film Chavittu/Stomp shared the Second Best Film award with Tara Ramanujan’s Kani Kusruti-Tanmay Dhanania-starrer migrant tale Nishiddho/Forbidden. And Krishnendu Kalesh’s feature Prapedda/Hawk’s Muffin won the Special Award for Promising Debut in Direction. “All three films move away from the commercial format, and woke generation films of political correctness. They have more nuance, experimentation, deeper politics. Aavasavyuham looks at human beings as species, at binaries. Prappeda brings back the magic of cinema. Time and space are dealt with interestingly, visuals convey war, violence, displacement. Chavittu looks like a simple film but talks of politics of caste, marginalisation, globalisation,” says Venkiteswaran.

“In Kerala,” he further adds, “there are three kinds of cinema. The mainstream that’s experimenting in a conventional way. Like Fahadh Faasil’s films that are successful in commercial format, have popular star presence, interesting themes, lighting and camerawork, but are not very radical. Second, those that have nothing inside. They are vocal and articulate politically, but only at the core level, don’t go beyond that.

For instance, The Great Indian Kitchen (2021), Freedom Fight (2022), or Puzhu (2022). Third are films like Aavasavyuham, Chavittu, Prapedda, which are difficult films. They look at life, society in a much more complex form.” Both Chavittu and Prapedda had premiered at the prestigious International Film Festival Rotterdam earlier this year in the non-competitive sections Harbour and Bright Future, respectively.

Rahman Brothers are repeat winners. Their previous film Vasanthi (2019) had won Best Film, Best Screenplay and Best Character Actress (Swasika) awards at the 2020 state awards. In Vasanthi and Chavittu (also Best Choreography and Best Sync Sound), “the use of theatre inside cinema is common,” says Shinos.

His younger brother Sajas was a theatre practitioner and Thrissur’s School of Drama alumnus. If Vasanthi (helmed by Swasika) traverses through, and bookended by, a stage play, amid a host of male domains, “in Chavittu, a musical film, imbued with folklore songs and steps, and shot between Palakkad and Kochi, there is no protagonist, rather a group with a collective singular identity, immersed in rehearsing for the play they would perform at a residential association’s auditorium (called Highness Auditorium), but the movie ends when the troupe begins the play.”

Most of the audience, in the film, has left too. The title — and songs/choreography is derived from the folk art chavittu kali (not chavittu naadakam) — “is dedicated to stomping on the face of cultural emptiness we artistes (belonging to ordinary communities, like the troupe in the film) are facing in these times, including issues with exhibiting our films and conflicts between cultural values and commercial strategies, between art and fake cultural spaces, but come what may, we’ll sing and dance for our rights,” Shinos says.

Kalesh’s sci-fi anti-war film, Prappeda is a fantasy drama set in a dystopian future, follows a fairytale format in same-time, linear narrative but abstract in form. The look of this coming-of-age Foucauldian “crisis heterotopia” is curated like an art exhibition, with theatre (pantomime), more than its sparse dialogues, imbuing life. Shot in 18 days, with about 20 people, in an estate in Kottayam district, and with Thoufeek Hussein’s compelling cinematography (with 650 shots for VFX), the film’s many layers evince the impacts of patriarchy, greed, capitalism, eco-fascism and war.

It references writer-revolutionary Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s meditations, and is peppered with visuals: nuclear mushroom-clouds, Chinook helicopters (think Vietnam War), displaced refugees, and at its centre is Ketaki Narayan’s Ruby, a symbolic prappeda/pigeon who brokers peace at a personal cost. Her land/property/house turns into a disputed territoriy and she, a rightful heir, has to out-migrate. Kalesh points at Russia-Ukraine and says, “wars are a never-ending, never-resolved human enterprise”, and dutifully pays credit to four masters: George Méliès, Andrei Tarkovsky, Hayao Miyazaki, and Guillermo del Toro.

A still from Prappeda
Ketaki Narayan and Rajesh Madhavan in Prappeda (Hawk’s Muffin)

“Every film is an experiment,” says Shinos, as Kalesh shies away from the tag, “If people won’t typecast me, I’d say my film is experimental. Every film that tries to do something new, or alter the film language, is an experimental film. Look at the bigger films, you have some daring filmmakers out here. They are setting standards that steer towards what is new. Dileesh Pothan’s Macbeth-adaptation Joji (2021) is such a good film. It has arthouse elements: lengthy shots, suspense is built through shot selection and edit pattern. Also, Premam (2015) has a unique edit pattern. To me, Sholay (1975) is experimental in its technical aspects, the train-looting action sequence in the start was a unique film language that I hadn’t seen in earlier films here,” he says.

And despite packed halls at IFFK, the filmmakers have faced criticism too, if Krishand has been told his film “is not pure cinema and that he’s used carpet music”, some audience found it difficult to understand Kalesh’s film, which requires multiple viewings for the myriad layers to make themselves apparent, and hence works for an OTT platform more than a cinema theatre. “Anybody who talks about purity is a fascist, and is becoming Brahmanical in their knowledge and approach. There are experiences which are either aesthetic or for fun, I wanted to create something in between,” says Krishand.

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