Two bloodshot eyes glint in the darkness. Lone cries of night birds and occasional nocturnal growls plunge the screen into an eerie soundscape. A rifle shot rings through the air, a bird falls dead, and from atop a tree a creature half man/ half animal swoops down to clutch at his prey. He is Maruthu, the hero of Bharathan's enigmatic film Aaravam, performed with a mind blowing energy and vibrancy by Nedumudi Venu.
Aaravam (1978) continues to hold me spellbound even after all these decades of leaps and bounds Malayalam cinema has taken. Written, directed and art-directed by Bharathan (as the credits make sure to point out), the film has a zany script which doesn’t flesh itself out through a coherent plot line. After the initial moments of silent vigil, the narrative breaks into the rhythmic beats of a song which sweeps up the man, the river, the mountains and the cascading waterfall into one single cosmic dance. Kavaalam Narayana Panicker's lyrics 'Mukkutti Thiruthaali Kaadum padalum parichu ketti tha' were on the lips of one and all in those days. The song invoked the natural bounties of a place which is fast turning into an ecological disaster zone today. Lyrics of this films' songs steer clear of the usual romantic flourishes. Folk beats and idiom lend an earthy color and rustic gusto. The song beginning 'Ezhu nilayulla chaayakkada' mystified me as a kid and later amazed me more with its stylized visualization using mirrors and distorted images.
The characters of Maruthu and Kaveri work on us with their raw appeal. Pramila, as the feisty owner of Eeswaravilasam tea shop, is a rare blend of sensuality and power of an unbeatable village woman. Idiosyncrasies of a rural community life offer a richly varied palette where everyone stands out for a delicious eccentricity. Men and women come alive in all their elemental passions which burst out even through the sartorial garb of a polished city bred.
Seeing the film today may turn you wistful about how we have lost the distinctive flavors of our villages in our race toward development. Musical scores are composed and used in such a way as to accentuate the experiences of cultural alienation. Folksy tunes are subtly contrasted with the emerging cosmopolitan tastes tinged with Hollywood and Bollywood. Apparently a crazy narrative, the film is a deep political engagement with the cultural and demographic shifts.
From the beginning, a primal energy pervades every frame, soaking the vignettes of a typical Kerala village in bold sensuality, weird passions and energy of a land beyond the trappings of modernity. Life and its primeval longings are in excess of the sanitized urban existence. The film addresses eroticism squarely and leashed desires are knit into the very texture of the narrative, as each frame seethes with spoken and unspoken longings. A rich carnality is contrasted with the stark poverty and deprivation of the village. But the resilience and fighting spirit of a picturesque hamlet as it reels under the shock waves of its encounter with a nomadic circus company and the pseudo, anglicized culture it represents make the film a compelling commentary on the social transitions. Irony and a sense of the tragic feed each other in the searing debut performance of Prathap Pothan as a village idiot without a name or with a ridiculous name like 'Kokkarako.' Bahadur as the ring master speaking broken English is pathetically funny and brings out the comic weight of the colonial legacy.
The narrative walks the tightrope between solemnity and hilarity, and Bharathan, with a compassionate humor and an endearing sensitivity, delves into the pettiness, nastiness and short-lived pleasures of villages. His camera, at once scathing and gentle, explores the full potential of the slapstick and the bizarre. One haunting visual is that of a young and winsome Ouseppachan fiddling away in the background with a disturbingly angelic look amidst all the confusion. Hollywood music, the fiddle and the liberal sprinkling of English are pieces of a broken colonial ensemble we have inherited. Through the untamed Maruthu, with the police hot on his heels, Bharathan's eye plumbs the wilderness within us which has been tamed and shriveled by the so-called civilization. Venu's brilliance sparkles in every move he makes, and his unwashed filthy appearance hits a new high as he appears at Kaveri’s door in her underskirt, thus halting the overtures of his rival forever. What is equally engaging is the candid portrayal of women as passionate, shrewd, vicious and vindictive, even resorting to physical violence in defense of their loves without demonizing or idealizing them. Today's viewers, who are much taken up by the fisticuffs between Rani and Padmini in the recent Ashiq Abu flick, must take a look at the sequence where Kaveri and the female circus artist pummel each other to pieces.
As the most experimental of his films, I have always felt Aaravam to be the best of the Bharathan repertoire. And when Kerala life and Malayalam cinema are geared more and more toward the cityscape and the rural/urban divide gets thinner day by day, the film nestles in our cultural memory as a precious trace of a rare cinematic journey.
(This is the first of a series to remind our readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.)