G. Aravindan's Kummatty is the one film you need to watch this Children's Day, even Martin Scorsese recommends it

Updated on Nov 14, 2022 05:50 PM IST

Earlier this year Martin Scorsese showered praises on the newly restored Malayalam film, calling it a “must-see.”

A still from the film.
A still from the film.
BySantanu Das

Childhood is a time when there are no limits for the imagination. For a child every dawn is a new prospect, to explore everything they see and touch. There is no fear of failure, no expectation to pass. It is also the time when stories become the touchstone for understanding the ways in which reality is observed. Ghost stories, Panchatantra tales, some passed on from grandparents, it is a world far more interesting and delightful than the one we live in. Surely enough, the child thinks, what is there to be done at home? Help my mother in her errands. Then go to school and learn from a teacher. None of it is certainly as interesting as Kummatty, the old man who sings by the old tree and knows magic that can make him vanish into thin air.

It is this magic omnipresent in G. Aravindan's 1979 Malayalam film Kummatty (The Bogeyman) which makes for an immensely rewarding watch this Children's Day. It is based on a folktale from the Malabar region in Kerala, where exists a pied-piper like magician named Kummatty who can cast a spell that can transform children into animals. Unbelievable, isn't it? Once you step into the world of Kummatty, it is as if Aravindan anticipated this curiosity and suspicion. It is traced within the group of children when they treat the myth around Kummatty to tease and scare the old woman by the river. At school, the teacher introduces them to voting rights where they can vote their favourite candidate to power. Yet, when they first meet the old man singing with a long stick around his shoulder with different animal masks, their attention is quickly diverted. Kummatty is their candidate of attention, one who slowly gains power over their minds and hearts. He sings songs for them and feeds them different sweets from his small bag. One of them is Chindu, who is particularly obsessed with the songs and speeds up to his direction whenever the echoes of the wand's voice is heard. He can pluck dates from the sky, Chindu reports his friends about Kummatty's many charms.

The children cannot get enough of Kummatty. One day when he arrives midway during school hours, the children leave school to run to him, circling him as he sings his old songs over and over again. Yet, Kummatty has no family, no home. The children see him rest under the old tree where he keeps his belongings, and cooks rice over a small pot. He is some kind of a wanderer, a half-troubadour. He can stay at one place only for some time. When Kummatty plans to leave the village, the children sway around him and request him not to leave. Kummatty promises them one last magic trick, and it is there when he casts a spell on the children one by one. They change into the animal whose mask they have donned. One is a monkey, the other is a cow while someone has become an elephant. As for Chindu, he has turned into a dog. His excitement knows no bounds. He runs around and misses the mark when Kummatty turns the other animals back into their original selves, and this is where Aravindan's film transmutes into an unexpected, fascinating trajectory.

Still a dog, Chindu voluntarily faces captivity under the influence of a girl who takes him home as a pet. He is chained and tied to the ground, washed with the other pet dog of the house. He refuses to cooperate and is left. The poor dog runs back to his home where his mother recognizes him instantly. He is treated like the same way as a son, given food in the same plate like before. At last, Kummatty arrives after a year. When he sees the dog running towards him, Kummatty instantly recognises it is none other than Chindu. Kummatty breaks the spell and Chindu returns back to his human body.

The brilliance of Kummatty was noticed by American filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who recently helped restore the existing film with the association undertaken by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, a program founded in 2007 by Scorsese, along with the Film Heritage Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna, based in Italy. Sharing a still from the film on his Instagram handle, the director behind Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street called Aravindan's film, “a sweet and engaging story,” and “visually stunning,” recommending it as “a must see.”

Kummatty introduces its viewers to a world with emphasis on the rich traditions that envelop it. The reality of the small village is connected with the cinematic reality, where it can offer multiple possibilities of illusion. The film offers a close view of the reality of the village and then suspends it, through collective imagination and use of magic. It indeed works like a magic trick, and by the time it occurs, one is so accustomed with the ways of the characters and their surrounding myths, there is no way out.

Note how Kummatty, made decades ago, had none of the special effects to decorate its mythological drama. Yet, Aravindan works with an aesthetic choice that allows his viewers, children as well as adults, to partake into the suspension of disbelief. The consequences are interspersed into the narrative with such subtleties and nuance, it makes for a quiet critique of class and superstition. Aravindan's film is also for adults, marked with uncommon eye for the economic selfhood that develops with age. Yet, what Chindu learns from the experience as a child is something that he might never learn from the mundane routine of school. That everyone deserves to be free of mind and will. That more than anything else, stories have the power to change the world.

Kummatty is available to stream in Youtube.

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