Punyalan Agarbatthies: Good Malayalam Film (I think?), that went completely over my head

Back 10 years ago when I first started watching Hindi movies, there was all this stuff that went completely over my head.  If I enjoyed a film, it was just in the most superficial way, because the hero was cute or the love story was sweet.  And then I learned more and more, and all of a sudden all these plot things started making sense, and I got that the reason this character says this thing here is because it is related to some huge political movement or religious metaphor or something.

And now I am trying to get into the regional films, and I feel like I am back to square one and I am missing all sorts of things!  It is very frustrating, but I know the only way to get through it is just to keep going.

I’m not completely back to square one, really, it’s more like square 4, but there are another 21 squares to get through.  I’m up to square 4 because there are some elements of Indian culture/Indian film that are shared through out the country.  Like, the basic elements of religion, how family relationships work, having song sequences as a standard part of a narrative, all of that is the same.  What it really is, I think, is that the Hindi films mostly use this sort of watered down all-India basic version of culture, because they play nationally, but then the regional films are able to get really really drilled down specific about stuff in their particular regions on top of the general All-India culture, and that is where I get totally lost.

So, this movie, for instance, is about a guy making incense out of elephant dung.  But that’s not the joke.  Or at least, it’s not treated as a big laugh out loud kind of joke, more as a wry commentary on society.  I’m thinking maybe elephants mean something a little different in Kerala than in other places?  Or something?  This is the second Malayalam film (out of only 6 total) I have seen that had a big thing about elephants.  The only Hindi film I can ever remember making elephants a major plot point, is Haathi Mere Saathi from 45 years ago.

(I love Haathi Mere Saathi, and I kind of thought it said all there was to say about human-elephant relationships)

The whole elephant dung into incense plot ends up turning into something about religion, because our hero is a Christian and the priests don’t want to give him the dung from the temple elephants I think?  And about politics, because the priests work with some political party, that I couldn’t tell if it was made up or real, which issues a national strike that disrupts his dung-collection.  And then there is a saintly older guy who goes on a hunger strike to support him, and a thing about creating a fake strike, and a bunch of different court cases, and all of this I am pretty sure is supposed to be a cynical commentary on the issues of society, but I don’t know enough about what those specific issues are, so it all went over my head.

There were some things I was able to appreciate, mostly the inter-personal relationship stuff.  Our hero is married, and his relationship with his wife is really great, and not what I am used to from Hindi films, or even American films.  Instead of being a nagging shrew, like the wives of great men and dreamers usually are in films, she supports him completely.  But she is still a strong character who can be critical of him and fight with him.  And, she works to support the family while he pursues his dream.  Which is the kind of gender-role questioning that Ki and Ka thinks it is doing, but is not (based only on the trailer.  The actual film could be very different).  It’s not a big deal that she works and gives him money and supports him, it’s just the deal they worked out, that she would support the household while he tries to get his business off the ground, and they talk openly about how they are doing this now and eventually he will be successful and she will quit her job to have a kid.  But it’s not like the characters, or the film, is making some sweeping comment about gender, it’s just what works best for this household and these characters and they aren’t hung up on what they are “supposed” or not “supposed” to do according to society.

I also really liked our hero, he was this cocky fast-talking dreamer, who was somehow both abrasive and charming.  And I liked that almost every character in the film ended up with a happy ending.  And I liked that our hero’s lawyer was a woman, but she didn’t end up being relegated to love interest or something, her main position in the film remained  “lawyer”.  But mostly, I was just really really confused.  I’m going to have to come back to this film in a few years, when hopefully I will know more, and see what I think about it then.

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10 thoughts on “Punyalan Agarbatthies: Good Malayalam Film (I think?), that went completely over my head

  1. to enjoy this film you have to understand culture and political background of kerala. More importantly, this film used thrissur accent. One clarification, it is Temple administrator who opposed him not priest. In kerala some temple administrators are appointed by ruling goverment.

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      • Jayasurya’s character is introduced as somebody who is trying to make it on his own, if i remember correctly he has tried multiple failed businesses. Making incense from elephant dung in Jayasurya’s “new” break through idea, the temple officials are ready to give him the required dung, until they hear about the his failed business attempts and hence they backoff. He sues the temple authorities and wins or atleast the court order asks Jayasurya’s character to collect the required dung on a particular date. Unfortunately for him that date is declared as Kerala Bandh(a strike all over kerala) this is Kerala peculiarity(as in we have strikes often in Kerala) due to various reason. When there is a Bandh the whole state is in a standstill(except for emergency services). Since Jayasuraya has a hard deadline, he goes ahead to collect the dung from the temple, which is a violation of Bandh because it means his going about regular business on a bundh declared day. This pisses off the political party which declared the band and snow balls in the political angle. This movie has no religious angle to it.

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        • Thank you for the clarification! So all the issues with the temple are just about government bureaucracy, not about religion? Because the government has authority over the temple administration?

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          • Temple authorities are private bodies and not government. Its not religiously motivated issues, its just that Jayasurya’s character did not have a good track record of executing his promises in past, hence they backed off from his “ground breaking idea” or converting elephant dung to incense.

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