This was a “well heck, it’s short!” movie watching decision. And it was, indeed, short. But otherwise not the kind of movie I would usually watch. Very film festival. Which is strange, because Malayalam films already are kind of film festival-y, but this is really really film festival-y.
Years ago my sister learned something in an art history class that she passed on to me. They were assigned to go to the Art Institute of Chicago and pick a picture and just stare at it. Because if it is really great art (as everything at the Art Institute is), something magical will be revealed if you concentrate and open yourself up to it. And it’s true, if you focus and get into a state somewhere between consciousness and unconsciousness, suddenly you will be drawn into the picture, your soul will somehow be refreshed.
This is my internal test for what I consider “art” movies. If I have to get into that state, that special consciousness/unconsciousness state, in order to appreciate them. There is something about the beauty of the visuals, the movements, the soundtrack, that you cannot fully understand without being in that mindset. And this film is definitely in the “art” category, not the regular category.
In a regular Indian film, what I look for is spectacle and emotion. Spectacle meaning narrative excess, things that are just there to be entertaining not to drive the story forward. Whether that is a song sequence, an action scene, or even a comedy scene. And emotion meaning something which draws me in on a pre-intellectual level, a scene, a character, a line, which somehow makes me feel what the imaginary people onscreen are feeling. In the best films, spectacle and emotion are combined, most notably in song sequences, the song is extraneous to the narrative, but it manages to convey the emotion of the film better than any diagetic scene could.
This is not a regular Indian film. It has no spectacle and no emotion. It is in that art film category of reaching me on a level that isn’t quite intellectual, but isn’t really emotional either. Some kind of never land of beauty-with-purpose.
It is beautiful. There are some lovely shots of rippling water, rustling trees, even a woman sweeping is captured in a way that puts you in a state of bliss. And this beauty is there to clear our minds, to keep us aware of what is happening as the “plot” (or what passes for it) slowly unfolds.
This is an intellectual plot. The characters are there to be observed, not loved. And it’s a well constructed intellectual plot. Little bits of information are dropped along the way, slowly the characters shift from being people to being symbols, the backdrop of an election gains increasing significance, until it all comes together in a deeply cynical final shot.
This is a good movie, but I am not necessarily going to recommend that everyone reading this review should watch it. If you read my reviews, it means you are interested in Indian film. This movie, while made in India, does not follow the tradition of Indian film, so it may not be something you enjoy. Or it may. One thing I can say, reading the SPOILERS section of this review will not affect your enjoyment one way or the other, it is a film to be experienced, not merely watched, and your experience will not change based on whether or not you know where it is going.
SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS
We open with a prologue, a very Indian style of opening. 5 friends meet in a beautiful glade of what seems to be a city park. They talk about arranging to get together for a drinking holiday on election day, when none of them have to work. And then we cut to the opening credits, over which we see an instruction sheet for the game they will play. It’s a game that I am somewhat familiar with as “murder” or “Werewolves”. There are slips of paper, each player takes a slip. One of them is the detective/wolf-hunter/whatever, the other is the werewolf/murderer/whatever, the rest are victims, or something more specific depending on the variation you are playing. And then the detective has to find the werewolf/murderer/whatever based on guesses, with penalties if he guesses wrong.
In the version explained here, there is a “police officer”, a “thief”, a “king”, and a “minister”. If the police officer accuses either the king or the minister, he will get 5 lashes. If he correctly accuses the thief, the thief gets 5 lashes.
(“Minister” and “King” meaning like here, the ancient position of “King” and “Chief Minister” which were supposed to bring a balance of power)
After the instruction sheet scrolls past, the film proper starts. The 5 friends plus a servant go to a beautiful house out in the country. Their servant has also arranged for a woman to come and cook for them. They start by visiting a beautiful pool nearby and taking baths. Then they return to the house. Two of the men attempt to flirt with the cook. The other men gather in a small room upstairs to drink, and turn on the television for coverage of the election. The servant is sent out for more alcohol and has a hard time getting it because of the election. It starts to rain. The cook tries to leave and the men at first seem like they may not pay her unless she stays longer, but finally give her money. As she leaves, one of the men follows her and molests her, she slaps him and threatens him with a knife and leaves. He returns to the room with the other men. The drinking conversation turns confrontational, the government employee friend is insulted and accused of corruption, and takes offense when The Emergency is referenced as a good thing because for once the government did its job. The government employee attempts to leave, the others follow him and convince him to come back, all of them getting soaked in the rain. He returns, the conversation turns briefly angry again when the lower cast friend accuses them of always bringing up his dark skin. Then they decide to play a game, a children’s game, the game described in the opening credits. Only, since they are 5 people not 4, they add a role of “Supreme Court” who determines the punishments.
In one long take, the game plays out. The detective accuses both the King and the Minister, but is able to pay them off to prevent punishment, with the Supreme Court looking the other way. Finally he guesses the Thief correctly, the lower caste friend. The Thief declares he does not want to play, but the other friends laugh and ignore him, jokingly pretending to tie his hands and strangle him, as the Supreme Court orders for his punishment. Somehow the joke turns serious. The camera is outside the group of friends, we see only struggling arms and confusion, and then the camera pulls back to go down a hall, down the stairs, around to the front of the house, to reveal the body hanging from the balcony, they did in fact kill their friend.
So, let’s unpack this sucker!!!!! It’s all about power corrupting, obviously. That is the story that is slowly built along the way. Going back, I am sure, to the first scene in which they decide to travel together and take this day off. I am not sensitive enough to Malayalam society to grasp the initial subtle dynamics of the group, but I remember that there was back and forth in that scene as to when they would leave, where they would go, and so on. And I am sure there was a message there in which character said what. Similarly, in the early scenes in which they were negotiating by the pool, I believe it is the Brahmin character who jumps in nude to swim, while the government employee is thrown in against his will.
(Unlike in this film, where everyone chooses for themselves whether or not to go in the water in a cheerful casteless way. Well, casteless because, as in most films, the lower castes are invisible and all our main characters are variations on the top castes)
Where the power started to become clear even to me is when they began to interact with the female cook. A woman alone with a bunch of drunk men is not a safe situation. And there is an assumption that she is in their power, that they have a right to bother her, to ask her questions. They sing a song together of beating your wife and getting a new one, giving us a background of violence against women. Later the conversation begins to turn around their interactions with her, there is an argument that it is all right to whistle at her, to compliment her, so long as she has the right of refusal. But the director complicates this argument by having a character’s wife be brought in to the discussion, which all the men recognize as a different situation, a man’s wife cannot even be mentioned in public. And yet a servant woman is acceptable to talk to, to look at, to discuss as a sexual object.
It is once the woman leaves that the characters begin to really turn on each other. A group of men with one woman, the victim will be the woman. A group of men without a woman, someone among them must be chosen as the victim, the weakest one, the one to be hurt.
A bad film would make the metaphor obvious to us, would start with the message and build the characters around it. This film isn’t like that. It is more a matter of saying “people who have a certain set of life experiences will act in a certain way in a particular situation.” And then it sets about building that situation.
(This film, for instance, which is more interested in making some poetic statement on Kashmir than on its characters acting like reasonable people)
An election day, when the society is already feeling a bit divisive, a bit confused. 5 men who are friends in a day to day way but do not have as much in common in terms of family background. A day of drinking. A claustrophobic room, cut off from the rest of society, even from nature (they make a choice to drink inside rather than outside). A woman who excites feelings of dominance within them, and then is removed. All of this is a recipe for the ugliness inside to come out. This is in fact the exact recipe for (in India) communal violence or (in the US) racial violence or (anywhere) gender violence. This is what gives birth to gang rapes, lynchings, all kinds of ugliness.
And that ugliness in the end, it comes when the rest of their personalities have been stripped away and they have been brought back to their basic social positions. This “game” they are playing, it doesn’t exactly feel like a narrative device. It feels more like the final step in giving them an excuse to retreat to their social positions. Especially since our Brahmin character takes his role as “Supreme Court” not at random, but before the others have even drawn their lots. Our wealthy man, the one who tried to force himself on the cook, so sure was he of his power, he naturally becomes the “King”. Our government bureaucrat, he is the “Minister”. Our every man becomes the “police” and our lower caste dark skinned character, he is “thief”.
The game was rigged. The Brahmin was judge, and he agreed to let our every man pay off the minister and the king to avoid punishment, but the “thief” was not offered the same option, he was instead grabbed and forced to compliance immediately. And he immediately declared that he “did not want to play”, rather than going along with the rules of the game. The lower caste man, he was always going to lose somehow. Everyone else could buy their way out with the judge looking the other way. But once the lower caste man was identified as “bad”, punishment was swift and gleefully carried out. Even playing the game meant he would lose, his only option was to try to leave it entirely. But the forces of society were too strong for him and he was inevitably pulled back and killed.
(by the way, I see that the director has ties to right wing extremist groups. If there is a message here that I have missed related to that, or any level I have missed, please let me know)
That was depressing! Let’s watch a totally silly and “spectacle” kind of song as a nice brain refresher.