The relationship between cinema and magic has been topsy-turvy, to say the least. The arrival of cinema was heralded as some sort of spectacular magic trick—a piece of technical wizardry where the cinematographed reality appeared to collide with our own. In its formative years, the films of the Lumiere brothers were considered spectacles to be experienced in the vein of exhilarating theme-park rides. The Lumiere brothers themselves might have thought of cinema in these terms, which possibly led them to exclaim that "The cinema is an invention without a future."
However, filmmakers knew that formal trickery could wear thin after a point, but a sense of wonder induced by the films would not. The camera offered multiple potentialities for world creation and re-creation, manipulation and invention, documentation and illusion, which the filmmakers of the silent era exploited to varying degrees. The association of cinema with magic, or illusion for the more rationally-oriented, is valid even today. The best filmmakers harness the power of cinema to dazzle, befuddle, and unsettle the audience, exploiting the illusory nature of the medium itself to give an impression of reality, only to distort it to suspend the audience in a state of 'unreality' in a manner not too dissimilar to that of a magician.
Of course, this isn't to say that cinema is only concerned with magic, nor is this an extension of Nabokov's literary criticism where the reality within the novel is the only reality. Cinema, like all art forms, engages with our reality and is invariably shaped by it, and vice-versa, a la Baudrillard. But in this age of simulation, where we are inundated with images and sounds, the cinematic reality is seldom perceived as a reality of its own, and the illusion conjured by its maker is dismissed, unless there is a barrage of special effects to accompany it. The collision of the two realities itself might be a blur, but this collision isn't even considered. A set of agreed-upon categorizations and classifications are imposed on films, and this is especially promulgated by our corporate overlords to firmly eradicate the illusion behind films. Even action films are marketed as "realistic", and the unreality of films is only emphasized when they satisfy some criteria, one of which is, more often than not, the future sales of merchandise. "Magic" in cinema is nearly inconceivable today without gimmicky special-effects, likening it more to a fireworks display at an extravagant New Year's party.
How does a film, especially a film from the past, instil a sense of wonder in an audience with a minimum budget and without the aid of computerized special effects? The answer for Govindan Aravindan is simple—by going back to our roots to invite the viewers to partake in an exercise of collective imagination.
Kummatty (The Bogeyman), Aravindan's "children's" film, bears quite a few similarities to his "weightier" class-conscious, religio-mystical drama, Esthappan, in the sense that both films portray their titular characters through the myths, imaginations and expectations of the villagers. However, this particular aesthetic choice manifests differently in both films. Esthappan is a village mystic, and the chronicling of his life through the myths of the villagers allows Aravindan to explore the development of religion from a Marxist perspective of sorts. Kummatty, on the other hand, is a character from children's folk tales, and when a stranger bearing some resemblance to this character enters the village, the tales are spun about him by children. The presence of adults merely offers a counterpoint to that of the children, as the burden of their work ensures that they have no time for trifles of imagination. The only person who acknowledges the presence of the mysterious stranger is an old lady, probably because these stories bore greater importance in her time than in the adults of the next generation.
This aesthetic mode of framing the narrative works remarkably well in Kummatty, it's almost as if Aravindan anticipates our scepticism associated with fantastical folk tales, while simultaneously alluding to the constructive powers of collective imagination. Aravindan simultaneously employs and subverts the common tropes associated with children's tales. As with all these stories, there is a curious child protagonist, but only a few details of his life are revealed and a sentimental family track is avoided. The protagonist, Chinda, is more of an enabler for Aravindan's ideas on imagination and the commingling of man and nature.
Chinda and his friends frequently invoke Kummatty in their daily games and rhymes, playing pranks on the villagers and other children by pretending to be Kummatty and creeping up to them. When a mysterious stranger arrives at their village, the children are naturally intrigued. They concoct various rumours about him, but aren't convinced that he is Kummatty. Only Chinda pursues his curiosity, interacts with the visitor, and draws the other children to play with this stranger. Traditionally, a series of maudlin sequences of children rubbishing the claims of the protagonist ensue, and the protagonist's sense of wonder finally prevails when the fascinating magician displays his hitherto untapped magic. Aravindan doesn't condescend to the audience with such tropes, knowing that the children's imagination itself is sufficient to draw them towards the visitor. Chinda's convincing explanation is rather mundane, piquing his friends' curiosities through the dates which the visitor offered him.
The much-awaited magic act disclosed in the plot summary, where the visitor turns these children into animals, isn't shown for a considerable length of the film, leading us to think of the visitor as a charlatan. But Aravindan, through his masterful control of form, keeps us invested in a joyous series of vignettes. A cartoonist and painter who also doubled as a filmmaker, Aravindan employs flat compositions and films the actions of the children through long shots. The camera rarely moves, and he shifts from one landscape to another through a series of edits, almost reminiscent of comic strips in the peopling of his landscapes.
When he wishes to focus on the actions of Chinda or Kummatty in particular, he does so frequently through medium shots instead of close-ups, thereby retaining some of the environment in the background. This isn't a mere transposition of the painterly or comic-strip aesthetic, nor does he distance the audience from the narrative as my description might indicate. Aravindan's concern with the surroundings doesn't seek to dwarf the figures present in them, but instead underscores the importance of the environs, especially nature, in our fashioning of myths and folk tales.
Indian folk tales and myths are replete with references to nature's role in stimulating imagination and imparting wisdom to the characters, and Aravindan gleefully draws attention to all these markers, be it the children merrily singing songs about Kummatty around a Banyan tree, the prevalence of water bodies to indicate immersions in imagination or the usage of the sun as a signifier of beginnings. The establishing shots involve an empty landscape either showing the sunrise or the surrounding water bodies. Kummatty is introduced as an astral presence in these mythical landscapes through his off-screen singing, and when he enters the village, the children register his arrival through his singing. Aravindan films the children's stomping grounds to the croons of Kummatty, inviting us to partake in the children's curiosity, the audiovisual equivalent of sprinkling fairy dust. And when the children finally spot Kummatty, Aravindan's bewitching use of scenery—the temple tank surrounded by overflowing greenery in the misty twilight of dawn, the children spying on Kummatty from dense bushes, the dewdrops falling from the leaves—imbues the film with a lyricism that immerses us in the narrative, giving the feeling of being in a fairy tale without overt displays of magic. It doesn't matter if the buildings are dilapidated or the greenery is invaded by weeds, the imperfections associated with the settings provide an ethereal blend of the mundane and the magical, emblematic of the film itself.
After basking in the lyricism of his images, Aravindan finally gives the impatient viewer the magic that was promised, where Kummatty turns all the children into animals. Chinda, now a dog, runs away from the scene before he could be turned back into a human by Kummatty. He now wanders the village as a dog, waiting for Kummatty's return to turn him back to a human.
Chinda comes across the daughter of a rich man who takes him home, and Aravindan's class consciousness comes to the fore here. As with Esthappan, the rich only speak English. The harmony between man and nature is destroyed here, as Chinda is now chained with the other dogs, and isn't used to domesticity. Naturally, all the other dogs are European and Chinda isn't, so he is eventually discarded by the rich man. Other than the oft-repeated separation from nature of the rich, this set of scenes doesn't particularly add much value to the film other than showing the contrast between them and the farmers. The union of man and nature was already well portrayed through the children's playful abandon and the adults' solemnity, and these sequences more or less belabour the point, albeit in a different garb of class consciousness which isn't as central to the narrative as it was to Esthappan.
Fortunately, Aravindan doesn't tarry too much here, and Chinda returns to his home as a dog to the affectionate embraces of his mother, saddened by his fate. The adults finally recognize Kummatty, not as a source of joy like the children, but as a tantric. Mystique and magic are treated with a religious lugubriousness by the adults, and even when they attend artistic performances concerning folk tales, the peering curiosity of the children is absent in them.
Chinda's experiences as a dog make him particularly sympathetic to his caged parrot, and this is probably what Aravindan was gunning for in the scenes involving the rich family. Though this might be a bit heavy-handed, Aravindan more than makes amends with his rapturous final sequence. Kummatty finally returns to the village and turns Chinda back to a boy, and as predicted, he frees his parrot. This is then followed by an astonishing montage of birds in flight to the tune of children singing the same folk song which Kummatty sang. The entire range of ideas and emotions is distilled into this wondrous montage sequence, which not only restores the union of man and nature, but also reminds us to suspend our beliefs through a literal flight of fancy.
A film as joyous as this was, until recently, marginalized by its forbidding "arthouse" tag, despite it employing the same structures as folk tales of yore and incorporating folk songs. Its only sins were to not employ them in the mainstream mode and condescend to the audience with an aggressive sentimentality. Kummatty was supposedly Aravindan's favourite film in his filmography, and he resisted the children's film tag. Looking at this film, it's easy to see why, as he constantly seeks to elevate the mundane through imagination. If we fixate on the notion of magic as some form of deviation from reality, then Kummatty can be perceived as a charlatan, at least initially – he smokes, his beard is fake, he sings at odd hours and even falls sick. But the children didn't need his razzle-dazzle, just his engagement with their imagination. The eventual magic was an aftertaste, but by then, the magic had already happened.