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Saturday, May 28, 2011



G Aravindan (1935 – 1991) – Auteur par excellence

C S Venkiteswaran




Aravindan films invite us to return to them time and again for their haunting visual quality and open-ended narratives; they constantly transgress all kinds of boundaries – that of the cinematic medium, form, aesthetics and sensibility. Their symbiotic links with music, painting and spirituality - Aravindan was passionate about all these - animate them with a sort of meditative energy.

If one closely looks at his oeuvre that spanned one and a half decades (1974 – 1990), one can see at least three Aravindans. The creator of Uttharayanam, his first film, was an extension of the cartoonist of the celebrated ‘Cheriya Manushyarum Valiya Lokavum’ (Little People, Big World) which he did for Mathrubhumi Weekly in the 1960’s. Working with various contrasts - black and white, past and present, idealism and degeneration, memories and experience – this film portrayed the disillusioned youth of the 70’s – an outsider and a rebel who is caught between the past of idealism and the degeneration of the present, a present where power has overcome ‘movement’ – in the external/political as well as internal/spiritual realms. The film ends up with the protagonist setting on fire his mask and disappearing into the forest (wilderness?). It is definitely a gesture of transcendence, an attempt to go beyond the stultifying polemics that life, and sometimes art, gets trapped in. Thampu, one of the most lyrical of Aravindan films, is about the arrival of a circus troupe in a sleepy village, and the ripples it creates there. It is all about the here and now, the transient thrills and excitements that arise out of the interface between the little worlds inside and outside the circus tent. It brings into subtle contrast the incessant journeys of the circus troupe as against the idiotic rootedness of the village, the evanescent ‘society’ that a troupe is vis a vis the permanent ‘showmen’ going through their motions at the village, andthe yearning for the beyond as against the exigencies of the mundane. It is a break from this stagnation that the local youth makes as he joins the troupe when they leave his village.

The second Aravindan explored the ‘beyond’ in film. In Kanchanaseetha, Kummatti, Esthappan and Pokkuveyil one finds Aravindan at the peak of his imaginative abilities. Thematically diverse, all of them are intensely poetic and painterly overtures into the beyond, always stretching the cinematic medium and its aesthetic possibilities. Kanchanaseetha is a contemplative film that strips the timeless story of Ramayana to its bare essentials. Based on C N Sreekantan Nair play, it sets the epic narrative amidst the Ramachenchu tribe of Andhra Pradesh, who considers themselves as descendants of lord Rama. Here the godly Rama is a simple tribal chieftain in the midst of his all-too human desires, conflicts, follies and sorrows. The ethical conflicts of the masculine Rama, embodiment of the Law, runs parallel to that of Sita, embodied in nature and the feminine principle whose justice finds no place in his kingdom. Kummatty is an exploration into the imaginary world of childhood fantasy. One of the most charming of children’s films, Kummatty is about a village bogeyman who inadvertently forgets to transform a local boy back into a human being after turning him into a dog. For the dog-boy, it leads him to a rediscovery of life. His next film Esthappan is about the stuff legends are made of, about how we, transcend the everydayness of our lives by weaving tales out of memories, dreams and imagination. It is about Esthappan, who turns into a mythical figure in the minds of the local Christian fisher folk, and weaves into itself local myths and legends, folk play and songs. Pokkuveyil is a haunting film that rises to the level of music, a jugalbandi of images and sound where the visuals, in long, meditative shots, try to transform themselves into a sort of accompaniment to the haunting Subhapantuvarali in the background (Hariprasad Chaurasia on flute and Rajeev Tharanath on Sarod).



In the third Aravindan one witnesses a growing concern with the linear narrative. In Chidambaram, Oridathu and Vastuhara one finds him grappling with narratives about people in the throes of history, socio-economic changes and also basic instincts. Chidambaram is a wrenching portrayal of a man and a woman who commit adultery and the traumatic events it triggers in their lives and of those around. The original sin or act of breach of trust has fatal consequences: it destroys people’s lives, and throws the man and the woman into an abyss of guilt and into an endless pursuit for redemption. Chidambaram dramatises the eternal conflict between basic human instincts and the institutions of belief, morals and ethics that envelop us. Oridathu is about the arrival of electricity in a village and is imbued with a deep sense of apprehension about the idea of ‘progress’. The narrative strings together little anecdotes and incidents triggered by the arrival of this alien technology, and culminates in a cataclysmic vision. In the final sequence, we see a human-like figure afloat in the sky, having lost all connections with the earth and humanity. Vastuhara, his last film, is about the human yet inexorable forces of history and the havoc it wreaks on human lives and relationships. Based on C V Sreeraman’s story, the narrative is set between two traumatic dispossessions in Indian history - the exodus of people from East to West Bengal following partition of the country in 1947, and the 1971 exodus from Bangladesh to West Bengal following the war and the formation of Bangladesh. It is also a rare film on partition and refugee-hood made from a Malayalee perspective, and it weaves the subtext of malayalee diaspora into its ‘national’ narrative.



Being himself a painter, singer and theatre person, it is not a coincidence that films of Aravindan, in one way or other, draw upon and work with other art forms like classical and folk performance art forms and music, drawing, painting and dance etc. In in Pokkuveyil Aravindan explored synergy of cinema with music, in Esthappan with chavittunatakam and folk songs, in Kummatty with folk art and storytelling, in Kanchanasita with epic literature and theatre, in Uttarayanam and Oridathu with cartooning. In Marattam this synergy reaches a crescendo: kathakali, folk music and dance, mixing with fiction and reality. Here, fluid camera movements combine with the body movements of performers to create a rare cinematic experience. Based on the work of noted Malayalam playwright Kavalam Narayana Pannikar, Marattam deals with the various dimensions involved in the process of performance and spectating, where the actor identifies and plays out a role, and the audience ‘falls’ for the character through the medium of the performer. Various folk-music forms of Kerala like Thampuran Pattu, Pulluvan Pattu and Ayappan Pattu etc are used to accompany the various narratives threads within the story.

Aravindan’s films follow an minimalist aesthetics, where ‘excess’ and exuberance is created within the mind of the spectator, like when contemplating a painting or feeling the laya of music. Each Aravindan film is like a raga-vistara of a particular mood, sensation or emotion – if it is wonderment in Kummati and Esthapan, it is guilt in Chidambaram, disillusionment in Utharayanam and Pokkuveyil and movement against stasis in Oridathu and Thampu. With regard to their spatial dynamics, Aravindan’s images try to capture or evoke reflectiveness and also demand it from the viewer, always inviting participation to unfold their intensity.



Filmography:

Uttarayanam -(Throne of Capricorn) 1974
Kanchana Seeta - (The golden substitute) 1977
Thampu –- (The Circus Tent) 1978
Kummatty - (The Bogeyman) 1979
Estheppan – (Stephen) 1979
Pokkuveyil - (Twilight) 1981
Chidambaram – (Chidambaram) 1985
Oridathu - (At a Place) 1986
Marattam - (Interchange) 1988
Vasthuhara - (The Dispossessed) 1990

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