It is a windswept countryside where the green fields and village waterways sway in the heady breeze bearing the touch of an impending storm. A typical decrepit local library shivers in the rain laden wind, doors slam all around deepening the furtive silence, a ubiquitous black cat sneaks out. You've entered a land of endless waiting. A waiting in love, in fear, in horror and in a hope that may run out any time. The film is Piravi (1988), easily Shaji N. Karun’s best to me because it will always be a film for all seasons. And particularly these days, as spectres of youth ending their lives on campuses, failing to walk the long way from shadows to stars, languishing in jails on uneasy charges, and a polity swinging between despair and weak optimism become the order of things. We should be watching this film all over again in these bewildering times.
Lest we forget a chant that echoed down the length and breadth of Kerala. A chant, a question, a cry that stared at us as graffiti on the roadside walls, muttered in hushed whispers, a scream that made terror a style statement. ‘Evide Rajan’ was a mantra that intrigued me as a ten-year old during the chill and heat of Emergency. It had scarred a generation, and Kerala could never live down those dark days. Filmmakers saw in Rajan’s disappearance a piercing comment on the atrophied system and sensed in a father’s struggle to retrieve his son the epic scale of a human tragedy. It was the dance of power in all its obscenity and a redemption song in the aching innocence of waiting. Patience, hope and pain spoke eloquently through the gestures, wrinkles, smiles and looks of a tired old father. Endurance and perseverance glimmered with a rare intensity in the eyes of Premji, and Shaji had immortalised Eecharavarrier for ever.
Set in a typical traditional upper caste household of the seventies or eighties, steeped in equally typical poverty, Sunny Joseph’s camera explores shadowed lives through a tremulous play of light and darkness. G.Aravindan’s music suggests a myriad psychic states in a harrowing state of living. S. Jayachandran Nair’s story visualized by Shaji plumbs the depths of our political memory to etch the terrible beauty of a time forever. A story that has become a part of our political folklore. A disappearance that still sends tremors through our hearts. Because it could be any one of us. Lest we forget!
Raghu, the missing young man comes alive in the film through his sister’s memories, through the boatman’s remembrances in the form of vacant spaces on his boat. His boyhood, his youthful curiosities, intelligence and imagination, all unspooled through a sister’s fondness and anxiety. A placid, alluring countryside soaked in rain contrasts in sharp irony with the dark interiors and the inner turmoil of a bewildered people. You are piecing together the missing links of a young man's narrative, of a possibility cut short. Waves of sadness wash over you as you watch a father stumble into an empty last bus muttering his son’s name fitfully, wrapping himself around an iron bar with a desperate ferocity. It is the timeless tale of pursuit of a father, a father who is at once a legend and an archetype. His encounter with the authorities did and does assume Kafkaesque dimensions, and don’t we hear the echoes of that encounter even today as some fathers recently spoke of their shattered lives when their sons were hounded, hunted and locked up? And is it just coincidence that Raghu’s sister in the film mirrors the anguish of many a sister pleading for many a brother’s liberation in our land today?
Shaji N. Karun
Shot in the monsoon light, the narrative is woven around a fascinating soundscape of incessant rain in its many moods, bird calls from the dense trees, the feel of the overcast sky, playful puddles dotting the rural roads and the dampness casting a pall over everything. Skies do break open in a thunderous storm toward the end and a father breaks down under the sheer weight of waiting. But wait he must; for as he explodes to his daughter, "Shouldn’t we wait? Why else am I his father? Devaki his mother? And you his sister?" Archana as the sister tears at your innards, as she pushes the limits of controlled acting to more challenging heights. And come to think of it, we've been waiting ever since then; Rajan/Raghu is missing still. Allusions are obvious, but evidences are still eluding us.
Certain films transport you to bygone times. And certain times prompt you to remember certain films. And in these trying times, Piravi cries out to be viewed again in a deep and compassionate silence. Lest we forget!
(This is the second in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.)