The Malayalam director Don Palathara has made three films: Shavam (2015), Vith (2017), and 1956, Central Travancore (2019), which premiered on October 5 at the Moscow International Film Festival. All these films are experimental. All these films could be called non-narrative, as they resist conventional plot and character development. All these films are in black and white, running from an hour to an hour-and-a-half. All these films are set in Christian communities, and are laden with Christian imagery. All these films feature a number of static shots: the camera is still, locked into whatever action is taking place close or afar. In Shavam, the action is centered around the death of a young father named Thomas. The entire film takes place from the time the body is brought into the home — there's a wailing wife, a slightly dazed son — to the time the body is taken for the funeral. The philosophy behind the "action" in this time frame could be described as follows: let's be a fly on the wall and observe what happens.
A journalist comes by to write a story on Thomas, and through his enquiries, we learn that this was a good man. He helped set up the local library. The videographers arrive. A few men come by and drop off a coffin. A few more men head to the woods behind the house for a few drinks. Some others are seen doing small talk, catching up with people with trivialities like "How are your wife and kids?" and "Heard your neighbour has been unwell for a while". Occasionally, the camera (there are many hand-held shots) drifts to non-human life: ants, a spider in its web, a fly. At the end, when Thomas' body is taken away, the camera makes its first (and only) flamboyant move: it rises past the vans and gazes at distant hills. With another filmmaker, you may be tempted to affix meaning to these shots: the permanence of nature versus the impermanence of human life, or some such thing. But I don't think Don is interested in lofty statements. He just wants to capture a way of life from a neutral (some might say "distant") point of view.
Shavam got into a spot of controversy when Don accused Lijo Jose Pellissery of copying his premise, for Ee.Ma.Yau. Lijo brushed this aside, attributing the similarities to the fact that both films are based on Christian funerals. He said he had heard of Shavam but not seen it, as he didn't want to get influenced in any way. Going by just the premise, you could also point to Raam Reddy's Thithi, whose narrative, like Ee.Ma.Yau, is put in motion by the death of an eccentric old villager, whose son becomes the story's lynchpin. Still, there's no denying that Shavam and Ee.Ma.Yau make a fascinating double bill, if only to see two different approaches to similar material. Lijo's approach is more mainstream in its intent to draw the audience into its world. Don's take is "indie" in every sense of the word.
No single approach is better, of course, but the two films underline a most basic filmmaking philosophy: it's not what you make, but about how you make it. The "how" question is answered with greater assurance and individualism in Vith, which has even less happening in it than Shavam. The film opens with a train cutting across the screen, and after it has passed, we see a young man crossing the tracks. He's from the city. He has left his job and come to his father's farm. These details come to us later, slowly. First, we see the father in a static frame held for a long time. He's praying to a series of Christian saints and we hear the names of each and every one of those saints. There's zero movement. We don't even see his lips move because he has his back to us.
I'm not getting into the "whether this is slow cinema" debate, but there's little doubt that Don Palathara's cinema moves slowly. And that's because we need to feel the rhythms of the father's farm life the way the city-living son feels them. The Filipino filmmaker Lav Diaz, one of the leading auteurs associated with the Slow Cinema movement, said: "I am the son of a farmer and a teacher… I had to walk to school, ten kilometers every day, go back home another ten kilometers. Same thing in high school. I had to walk five kilometers every day. So this type of slow aesthetics is very much part of my culture. It is not just purposely done, to say I am versus this, or I am anti that. It is my culture. I am sharing this vision and this experience, this Lav Diaz experience."
Well, this is the Don Palathara experience. When reduced to a single theme — "death", or "inter-generational conflict" — his films sound like drama. But they are really observational tracts. He rarely directs our eye to action. He lets us graze around the frame like one of the father's farm animals. If the camera moves, it's a meaningful move — at least, a move that asks us to make meaning of it. When the son masturbates to porn on his mobile phone, the camera slowly moves to the switchboard on the wall, beside which is a picture of Mary, Joseph and Jesus. The images are painterly. When the son switches off the light and goes to sleep, we see a picture of the Virgin Mary in the room beyond the window, lit by a light there. Like the plants and the animals and the sky and the hills, these people become part of nature. It's just that the "nature" they are in is constructed of brick and cement and stone.
You could call these gorgeous frames "human landscapes", and 1956, Central Travancore is filled with them. Once again, when reduced to a theme, the film sounds dramatic: it's about two brothers who decide to go gaur-poaching. But the only time the beast is seen is in a static shot: it could almost be a painting. 1956, Central Travancore is dedicated "To Achachan, who told me stories", and it opens with a hell of a story. On 8 April, 1955, four friends travelled from Kottayam district to a place near Theni in Tamil Nadu to witness an unusual ritual at the start of Lent. (That's the period before Easter. There, those Christian themes again.) A man would be "groomed" for the period of the fast, and then "crucified" on Good Friday. An unseen narrator tells us this horrifying story, over a calming (static-shot) visual of reeds swaying in the wind.
Everyone in the film tells a story. An old man who wants to sell a piece of land tells a story. People who take a wounded man to the doctor lie about how he got those wounds — and what is a lie but a "story"? We hear Biblical stories, like the one about Jonah. There's a bit of a stage play (the most stunning static shot in the film), which unfolds like a chapter in a story. The most significant story is probably the one the two brothers tell the wife of a man they go in search of. She lives in a tree house, which itself looks like something out of an Enid Blyton story. She tells them her husband has gone hunting for honey, and they begin to small-talk. One of the brothers begins to talk about a man whose wife eloped with a labourer. The man, shamed in the eyes of society, drank poison. At first, the woman in the tree house asks, "Why are you telling me all this?" The brother who narrated this story says, "Because you are from the same place [as the people I am talking about]." He thinks maybe she is not interested. He turns to leave. The woman in the tree house asks, "Did the man who drank poison survive?"
Such is the power of stories and storytelling, and — come to think of it — it is a little ironic to find this theme being handled by a filmmaker so defiantly anti-narrative, so against conventional techniques like "plot" and "resolution". Narrative features suck us in. We "lose ourselves". The rigorous formal choices in Don Palathara's cinema are distancing devices (deliberate, I think), and we are always aware of being outsiders. Shavam, Vith and 1956, Central Travancore are explorations of a theme. The latter is set in the time just before the land reforms by Kerala's communist government. It sounds like history, but the stories in the film leave us with the sense of "fiction". The theme we are left with is that the past that is handed down to us is often unreliable. The only "truth" is what we actually see.