Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Chemban Vinod Jose, Vinayakan, Pauly Vasan, Dileesh Pothan, Bitto Davis, Kainakary Thangaraj, Krishna Padmakumar
Watching Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee Ma Yau (R.I.P.), I was reminded of Raam Reddy’s Thithi. The narrative motors of both films are kicked into high gear by the death of an eccentric old villager, whose son, then, becomes the story’s lynchpin. And both films are about organising a funeral, when there’s very little money to go around. But there’s a more tenuous connection: Francis Ford Coppola. The director of The Godfather movies called Thithi “a joyous view on life in a village in India with unforgettable characters.” Lijo, I’m betting, would be thrilled if Coppola paid him a similar compliment — for he looks up to the great filmmaker. The memorable single-take climax of Lijo’s previous film, Angamaly Diaries, was reminiscent of The Godfather: Part II, in the way it fused a religious procession with an attempted assassination. The opening stretch of Ee Ma Yau harks back to the Sicilian funeral from Part II, and it’s a stunning piece of cinema. As though to show there’s more to him than jaw-dropping unbroken takes, Lijo goes to the other extreme. He opens Ee Ma Yau with a static camera. A funeral procession enters from one end of the screen, exits through the other. The characters move; the frame stays fixed.
The setting is the seaside, and the sound design of the scene suggests a cycle: the soft crashing of waves is invaded by raucous instruments mourning the dead, and when those noises disappear, we are left, again, with the soft crashing of waves. You could see it as the tumult of life, bookended by the serenity of birth and death. Ee Ma Yau invites these deep considerations, despite being structured as a (black) comedy of desperation, where events are ratcheted up to the point where the roof actually caves in. Lijo and his writer, PF Mathews, keep piling on the chaos, but first, they establish the themes. The funeral procession — which may be the old man’s (Vavachan, played by Kainakary Thangaraj) dream, or a premonition — hints both at death and religion. Death is everywhere. In Vavachan’s impending demise. In the fate of the duck we see in his bag. In the power cut that plunges the village into darkness. In the words of a boyfriend: “I will die if I don’t see you.” In the blue notes of a clarinet, which Vavachan says “sounds as though you are playing at a funeral.” It’s even in the passing of a way of life: the sea that was filled with fish during Vavachan’s childhood is now dry. And what about the card players by the shore? A nod, perhaps, to The Seventh Seal, where Bergman’s Death was seen playing a different game by the shore?
At first, I wasn’t sure I should be finding any of this funny — then, I realised there’s no other way to look at it
As for faith, it’s not a new concern for Lijo. (The title is an acronym for “Eeso Mariyam Yauseppe,” or Jesus Mary Joseph.) Ee Ma Yau is a variation on Lijo’s Amen (2013), where religious figureheads were suspect, almost evil in the way they demanded utter submission from the local community. If the outline of Amen was about the son of a legendary — auteurial stamp alert! — clarinetist who wanted to win a music competition, this film is about the son of a legendary mason who wants to give his father the Christian burial of his dreams. The way this plot point comes about is one of the many delightful instances of humour. Vavachan tells his son, Eesi (a spectacular Chemban Vinod Jose), that one of the highlights of his childhood was his father’s funeral, which was so grand that “even I felt like dying.”
Or maybe a scene from Angamaly Diaries provided the spark — the one involving a dead man, his wife, his wailing mistress, and the farcical manner in which his body was accommodated into the coffin. Lijo and Mathews set up a series of uproarious situations. At first, I wasn’t sure I should be finding any of this funny — then, I realised there’s no other way to look at it. My favourite stretch has Eesi and his friend Ayyappan (the superb Vinayakan) haggling with a coffin-maker, who promises he’ll throw in a beautician for free! There are many such digressions — the priest (Dileesh Pothan) who thinks he’s Hercule Poirot; the printer who keeps asking what time the funeral is; the bit about Eesi’s wife wanting to look good during the ceremony. Some work better than others, but taken together, they paint an exquisite portrait of the place and its people. Pauly Valsan almost runs away with the film as Vavachan’s wife, who just won’t stop wailing, and manages to weave taunts and barbs into her screams of sorrow. If Death indeed plays a game, she’s providing the running commentary.
The scene that introduces her is a gem. It plays out like one of Lijo’s typically male scenes. (Few others dig into this vein of cussed, short-fused, cheerfully coarse, small-town masculinity with such empathy. It isn’t surprising that Vavachan’s brother insists on being invited to the funeral in person.) The crux of this scene is a conversation — over drinks, naturally — between Vavachan and Eesi. We don’t just sense their closeness, we feel it in our bones. But it isn’t just about them. Tangential scenelets lay out other relationships: between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, between Vavachan’s daughter and her boyfriend, between Eesi and his wife. There are hints about Eesi’s inability to manage his finances (he yells at a man who owes him money) and Vavachan’s frequent disappearances, which eventually yields comic gold. There’s also the shot (Shyju Khalid’s cinematography is wonderfully unflashy) from between a tree’s branches, which sees Vavachan gazing up (at the tree? Or really at the heavens?) in wonder — it will find a satisfying father-son echo towards the end. I’ve rarely seen this density of information packed into this compact a stretch in this casual a manner. The scene is a masterclass.
The closing portions are a sigh against the futility of the things we do while we are alive
Underneath the humour, there’s a wealth of observational detail and tossed-off character studies — what might become the theme of another film is handled in a mere line here. Take the bit where a nurse is asked to verify Vavachan’s death. The way she is slut-shamed is terrible, but this misogyny stays with the characters and never seeps into the film. There’s always the danger that characters can become too colourful — but that’s taken care of by making Eesi and Ayyappan the straight guys. We feel Eesi slowly breaking down under the strain of the circus that surrounds him, and Ayyappan is the kind of friend we all wish for in such situations. Their outbursts are much-needed vents of steam, and the segues from tragedy to comedy to drama to surrealism are marvellously calibrated.
Yes, surrealism. The closing portions are a sigh against the futility of the things we do while we are alive. Because at the end, everyone’s equal — the person who goes into the grave, and the person who digs the grave (he had a dream, or premonition, too); the skilled mason who built an altar with a single piece of wood, and the unskilled gravedigger who shovels out sand and makes a hole; the man buried with church rites, and the man who isn’t; the body that is shielded from the rain, and the body that’s abandoned in a downpour; the bird that meant little more than a meal, and the dog that was a faithful companion. The music is by Prashant Pillai. Or maybe we should say non-music. There’s practically no nudging from the score till the end, when we get a booming choir from the heavens. In Lijo’s eyes, life doesn’t deserve the soundtrack that death does.