Berlinale 2024: Kottukkaali is Intentional and Evocative

The film is showing at the 74th Berlinale.
Berlinale 2024: Kottukkaali is Intentional and Evocative
Berlinale 2024: Kottukkaali is Intentional and Evocative

PS Vinothraj’s Pebbles (Koozhangal, 2021)  established, almost immediately, his easily discernible cinematic voice — smooth, trailing long shots; hypnotic top shots; sudden rips of violence into the life-like rhythm of the narrative. A slim film, it heralded a voice that was using cinematic style confidently and recklessly, though it wasn’t always clear to what end. 

His second feature, Kottukkaali, which premiered as part of the Forum at the 74th Berlinale takes that cinematic voice and fills it with intention. 

Purpose and Love

For example, in a crowded landscape that has fetishised the length of a shot, why use a long shot? Kottukkaali begins with one. A woman washes herself and walks to the local temple — the sound is of bare feet slapping against the land, not slippered, and there are cocks crowing, the dawn crinkles of fauna waking up; the sound is also of her weeping — lights a camphor tablet, collects ash, walks back to her home, and applies it on a stoically seated Meena (Anna Ben), her daughter, the titular adamant girl. The length of this shot, entirely sheared of dialogue, allows us to enter a world, a space, at its own terms. This is how dawn feels. And we need to enter this world on its own terms, because time has a strangely languorous connotation. It isn’t tied to efficiency; things don’t need to get done, even when they feel like it. It also, strangely, allows a character to evolve into a person. Meena’s mother isn’t always weeping; she isn’t always worried, though she does weep and she is worried. This distinction is allowed by the camera dangling by her side. 

A still from Kottukkaali.
A still from Kottukkaali.

Meena is being punished for crossing a line. She is taken to the local temple, and then shaman, to exorcise her. She is possessed by love. Not just because this love is for a lower caste man, but because this love is not for her cousin, Pandi (Soori), to whom she is betrothed — by word, if not by deed, yet. 

Languorous Pacing

A whole entourage — Meena, her mother, her father, Pandi, his father, his two sisters, the son of one of his sisters, and two other men who are obliquely related, taking time off work to join them — takes off, on an auto that is flanked by two bikes, all the men on bikes. There is also a cockerel whose feet are tied, a strained and overemphasised metaphor for Meena, sometimes foregrounding Meena in the frame with its heavy-handed symbolism. 

Kottukkalli is the story of this odyssey, from their village to the temple to the shaman. It is clear, from the very beginning, that the destination is not the point of this film, this world, and so there isn't an urgency to get there even if it is verbally expressed as such.

In between omens descend — a fly that lodges into Pandi’s eyes that is extricated, evocatively, sensually, by his sister, she is rubbing her tongue against the edges of his eye; an angry bull; periods; shit. There is something bumbling and comical about this tragic situation in which Vinothraj, with his DOP Sakthivel B is able to communicate through a still camera that waits for the bike and the auto to pass through its gaze, and the wide shots. The image of a bull on one side of a frame and the whole crew on the other, looking out of fear and impatience, caused a tickle to ripple through the audience. This is what I mean when I say that with Kottakkaali, Vinothraj elevates his style with intention, a textbook example of style sublimating as substance, if you believe in that conservative but useful bifurcation of art. 

Rebellion and Clarity

Kottukkaali takes shape slowly. At first, you are not sure where they are going, or how everyone is related to each other. Conversations become spaces for not just stewing in the present but also establishing the past. This is a delicate balance which Vinothraj very cleverly handles. A bribe-taking police officer on the way becomes a stand-in for our ignorance. It is explained to him that they are on the way to exorcise Meena. The policeman softens and doesn’t fine them for riding three on a bike — reason is established. Later, when Pandi pays for the bananas, coconuts, and flimflam needed for the temple, her sister shouts at Meena’s father, asking why he isn’t paying — relationships are established. Sharp writing is required for the context to feel conversational. 

A still from Kottukkaali.
A still from Kottukkaali.

What makes the film, even at its amorphous stage, so compelling, never slackening its grip, is Anna Ben’s performance. Her face, stoned by pain, but never deferential to the powers, is a site of protest. It is unyielding. The way the inner corner of her eyes bends down, the way her gaze never falls, and the way her hair — oiled and combed, comes loose in a scene whose violence comes out of nowhere and recedes just as suddenly, into nowhere — it produces an image of resilient pain that you cannot extricate from. Soori’s soar-throated malice, the shimmers of kindness that line this malice, is, on the other hand, a portrait of riveting acid. 

To see him succumb, in the end, to the shaman, is to see this violence, this socialised expression of masculinity, crumble when faced by an incarnation of itself. It is thrilling to see this scene take shape — to see the ordeals, the sham of the shaman. It begins when they enter the shaman’s; the camera stays on the auto, while the characters all exit the frame. Entering the frame is another family, into a car — so clearly, richer — with the shell-shocked daughter’s hand held by her mother, like Meena’s mother holding hers. You can work up the ladder to more comforts, but the economic man can never shake off the socialised animal he has imbibed as fact. Nothing more needs to be said. Sometimes you wish the film had more clarity in its articulation, but clarity is flattening. The ambiguity is what makes the film, the characters — people, really — feel like there is yet more, that there is always yet more. 

Film Companion‘s coverage of Berlinale was made possible by the support of Goethe Mumbai.

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