Wednesday, June 25, 2008


Marking a Writer and His Times

M G Sasi's Adayalangal which won several State Awards including that for the Best Film and Direction, is an honest attempt to look into the formative years of an intense writer like Nandanar. It is a tribute to a great writer whose life was torn between great lust for life on the one and luring temptations of self-destruction on the other, to the latter of which he yielded in the end. In the process the film brings to life a disturbing period – the depressing 1960's – of Kerala society; times that were bleak and miserable with war and poverty looming large in the horizon.

The story unfolds in a typical central Kerala village with scanty resources to go around and where everyone is cash-poor. In this economy that is totally cut off yet prey to a war that is happening in the outside world, everyone ekes out a living, doing odd jobs and with no hopes about the future. Sasi weaves together various characters from Nandanar's story world into this coming-of-age narrative of despairing adolescence. There is a depressing and fatal sense of claustrophobia to that remote village, where there life is at a standstill as is its economy. Everything is stagnant and regressive. Ironically, the only way to get out of this trap is the very mechanism – war - that contributed to this situation in the first place. Eventually, the adolescent protagonist Gopinathan (an impressive debut by Govind Padmasurya) has to join the army to escape that petty, narrow world.

The life of this youth is confined to the limits of the village. His only medium to understand and experience the world is the people around him. They virtually make their entry and exit into his stagnant world. It is also picturised thus, with these characters entering and exiting, or him going to them or stumbling upon them: among them are his father who is an artist with no work and is at a loss as to how to survive, the school master who takes him back to school, his uncle who is the only person concerned about him, the gay entrepreneur who offers him job in his beedi factory, his brother who has relinquishes his siblings to join the army, the traditional oracle from the lower caste who tries to help him, the junior poduval who sings to the horizon, the nambudiri landlord who is concerned only about himself etc. The female world comprises of his aunts and cousins – all poor and eking out a living out of nothing, with no hopes for exuberance of any kind; they go on bickering, cursing, and fighting. His only hope comes in the form of the teacher and Meenakshikutty, the girl who sparks erotic fantasies in him. They are the only ones who liberate him and enable him to get out of that cursed village. The film ends with his departure to the outside world to join the army. It is a move away from a closed world into the vast unknown.

Adayalangal is a quiet and probing kind of film that doesn't pretend to be anything else, and it has a kind of charming directness to it, which stands out in our films filled with idiotic sound and fury. Its simple yet rich and varied narrative format that throngs with short yet memorable appearances of several characters – some really good performances by Manikandan, TG Ravi etc – gives one a peep into Nandanar's world and times.

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Who Wants Solutions?

Malayalam film industry is at a standstill, and an entrenched battle is on between a group of directors and producers on the one side and the bulk of the association of film industry workers on the other. Troubles have been brewing for quiet a long time, and what we witness are only the symptoms of the crisis that runs much deeper and wider. At the structural level, these rifts between various professions – creative, technical, and managerial within the industry, is a reflection of the state of our film economy. It is a low level economy that has adamantly remained inward-looking and status quoist in its approach for a long time. It is neither idea-driven nor sensitive to happenings in other industries in the areas of changing market, funding, technology, treatment or themes. Moreover, it has refused to be an organized industry with its proper business plans and management systems. It is being run on an ad hoc and haphazard manner for a long time. And this works to the advantage of only the top few – the super stars, the directors who charge and get their fees, and producers if happen to get lucky despite all this.

It is not a surprise that such a thoroughly disorganized system works to the structural disadvantage of the 'workers' in the industry, which here includes cinematographers, editors and art directors to light boys, drivers and focus pullers. Let us not forget the fact that these workers are the lowest paid in the country, despite producing 60+ films every year. And the ratio between the highest and lowest wages in the industry (that is, the money that a super star charges and a light boy gets to work in the same film) is beyond imagination. So, the 'trade unionism' that the so-called 'creatives' allege and point out as 'the' hurdle, is something that has been boiling inside for a long time. Obviously the fabulous amounts that are paid to the stars and the 'creatives' come out of the sweat and blood of these workers without whom the industry itself wouldn't exist. The super stars and the fly by night speculators have nothing to lose in this game. This anti-labour attitude has been very much evident in their films also, that religiously idolizes the hero (super star) and celebrates market freedom. (For instance, films of Srinivasan and Sathyan Anthikad have consistently depicted any kind of labour union as an impediment to wellbeing).

So what has been happening till now was that the heavy expense incurred at the top was being subsidized by the workers in the industry. Now they also want their due share in it, which is what is irking the bosses. In a way, they are refusing to share the burden of the mismanagement of a star-centred, idea-starved industry.

Unions in film industry has a long history and has been there in all the industries, whether it be Hollywood, Bollywood or Kollywood. It cannot be wished away, but has to be necessarily factored into the business plan. But one also has to take into account the fact that cinema is a peculiar kind of industry unlike manufacturing or other conventional businesses. It has a creative and spontaneous side, and constantly needs new ideas, talents and technologies. If 'unionism' stands in the way of such creative freedom and endeavours it will end up as yet another trade union that is unable to look beyond the purse of the financier. There are reports that the MACTA stranglehold over workers make it impossible for an 'unregistered' artist to work in a film in Kerala, or plan a film on his/her own terms, as a result of which shoestring often become noose string.

Though there are no readymade solutions to the current imbroglio, there is an urgent need to look at the industry afresh and also learn a few lessons from other industries – in terms of ideas, fund raising, across the platform production modes, themes and marketing.

Now, like any other issue in Kerala, this 'debate' is also 'progressing' around allegations and off the cuff opinions of individuals who seem to think that the world begins and ends with them. In the process it also turns into yet another media event, where solutions and dialogue are insignificant as long as it is entertaining and transient. What gets systematically hidden from public view are the real issues – the wage structure, financial and personnel management practices in the industry, and most importantly, the utter poverty of ideas, which is also evident in the way this issue is being handled. So let us move beyond Vinayan-Siddique tiffs, and 'intelligent' taunts of Srinivasan, and talk business, plain and simple.

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