Kerala filmmakers go global
Inspired by accolades earned by masters, young filmmakers in Kerala seem determined to wrest their place under the global sun, says Saibal Chatterjee.
Thanks to the consistently high-quality output of filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shaji N. Karun and the late G. Aravindan, Malayalam cinema has enjoyed an enviable international profile.
And now act two of Kerala’s continuing interface with world cinema has begun to unfold. An ambitious breed of young filmmakers in the southern state has branched out in search of new global conquests.
The scope of their ambitions separates their efforts from the achievements of the veterans. Even when Adoor, Shaji or Aravindan have collaborated with foreign producers, as in notable instances of Adoor’s Kathapurushan (funded by NHK) and Nizhalkkuthu (part produced by the French) and Shaji’s Vanaprastham, funded by a French company, they have never ventured beyond the confines of the history, politics and culture of Kerala.
In a fast globalising world cinema order, insularity is thing of the past. So, young Malayalam filmmakers are seeking to push Kerala’s image as one of the world’s most cinematically fecund regions further by making films not only with foreign actors and technicians, but also by drawing upon international themes.
The latest to join the nascent movement in Kerala’s cinema is R. Sarath, who plans to make a film in English about a German girl who arrives in India to learn classical music from a master. In the process, she discovers the country and its culture.
In 2001, Thiruvananthapuram-based cinematographer Biju Viswanath scripted and directed Déjà vu, an unconventional English-language thriller that had only two characters, both played by British actors (Paddy Fletcher and Simon Bins).
"I decided to make a film in English because I wanted to reach a wider audience," says Viswanath. "But I wasn’t interested in perpetuating the Western notion of India being "a land of exotic rituals and superstitions."
Déjà vu is about a mechanic who is stranded in a lighthouse on a remote island. As he awaits the arrival of a rescue boat, he teeters on the edge of a nervous breakdown. His unstable state of mind is aggravated by a possessed wireless set that keeps beaming out incoherent messages.
A stranger lands on the shore and he is just as uncommunicative as the wireless… The film explores loneliness, fear and guilt in a manner that is strikingly original.
Produced by editor A. Sreekar Prasad and Said Alavi, the film not only won accolades in India for its unusual lighting, sound effects and cutting, it also made waves at international film festivals like Locarno and Hawaii.
Viswanath is currently developing a script for a black comedy in Hinglish that he proposes to shoot somewhere in north India. Among the film’s gallery of wacky characters is a French woman out to prove her ability to pull off the impossible in the back of beyond.
Another promising Kerala filmmaker, Shyamaprasad, has already completed an English-language film, Bokshu, the Myth, based on Mrigantak, a celebrated Hindi novel by Gangaprasad Vimal. The film has been premiered in Bangalore and preparations are now for a simultaneous release in four countries, including the US.
The film has been produced by a Chicago-based Keralite, Dr M.P.S. Prasad, who had also funded Shyamaprasad’s critically acclaimed feature debut, Agnisakshi, three years ago.
Bokshu, shot by Danish cinematographer Torben Forseberg, revolves around two American anthropologists (played by David Milbern and US stage actress Heather Prete), who head for India in search of their lost professor (British theatre and film actor Stephen Berkoff).
In the Himalayas, they meet a mysterious priest (Irfan Khan) and his beautiful assistant (Nandana Sen). "Given the presence of three American characters in the story, Bokshu could not have been made in any other language," says Shyamaprasad.
But by no stretch of the imagination is Bokshu meant only for an NRI audience. "The film," reveals the director, "will be released all over India in October." Significantly, no part of Bokshu was shot in Shayamaprasad’s home state, Kerala.
R. Sarath’s upcoming, yet-to-be-titled film belongs to a completely different genre and yet, in spirit, it has much in common with Déjà vu and Bokshu, the Myth. It will feature classical instrumentalist Pandit Vishwa Mohan Bhatt in a pivotal role.
The film will trace the journey of the Mohan Veena, an instrument created by Bhatt, as seen through the eyes of a young European visitor, to be played by German actress Irene Maria.
Inspired no doubt by the stream of international accolades earned by the masters, an ambitious band of young filmmakers in Kerala seem determined to wrest their place under the global sun. Kerala’s film industry could not have asked for a better deal.