Red. Purple. Black. These are the hues that I perceived when I watched Moonlight five years ago, and Moothon a year ago. For the purpose of this particular article, I decided to experience both films consecutively, and was left breathless when I saw the same colours return on those celluloid canvasses: those tenebrous shades of turbulence and brutality, woe and misery. The frames of both films appeared to amalgamate into a perfect portrayal of human strife, merely by highlighting the lives of a few characters. Apart from their alliterative names (though Moothon is internationally known as The Elder One), both films have striking similarities in terms of tones and themes, and both films transport us into the aphotic zones of the human psyche. As a Keralite, it does make me proud to draw a parallel between a winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture and this Malayalam film, but even more so as a cinephile, because these two films have, in their own ways, honoured the true purpose of cinema: by telling stories of diverse human beings (having delved into the deepest, darkest recesses of their personalities) that made the audiences sit back and think, and lie down and dream.
Geetu Mohandas’s sophomore venture, Moothon (after her 2013 debut directorial, Liar’s Dice, which was India’s official entry to the 87th Academy Awards), is the tale of Mulla, aged fourteen, from the serene landscape of Lakshadweep, who ends up in the seedy underbelly and systemic chaos of Tartarean Mumbai, in the search of their moothon (elder brother). What follows next is a series of events that weaves their fate with that of the heterogeneous population of the city, with its murky alleys and claustrophobic streets. But this is just a superficial summary of the haunting, indelible piece of art that Moothon is. Meanwhile, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight is an exposition of the trials and tribulations of a boy, Chiron, in the three stages of his life (youth, adolescence, and adulthood), as a member of a bigoted society that seeks to discriminate against him on the basis of his skin colour and his sexual identity. Violence and melancholia are present in both films, and the depiction of these phenomena in one movie is analogous to that of the other.
When we hear the term “violence”, what comes to our mind is the sight of blood. But this is because “violence” has become synonymous with “physical violence” only, which is not true. Violence manifests in much more latent forms, and it is not something that is usually committed by one person to another; a human has the capability of destroying their very self when their minds are brimming with violent thoughts. And in these two films (where the characters are, figuratively speaking, thrown into fighting pits to battle the demons within them) violence is predictable. Be it an individual getting punched in the face, or another getting molested, or another losing their mind in the midst of a drug episode, there is a certain ferity, a certain vehemence, that dominates every frame of the masterpieces. We are animals. We have evolved from animals. And we express ourselves via a certain unexplainable brutishness – not just directed at other people, but also at ourselves.
Bullying is a form of violence against a person, and it is very much present in both Moothon and Moonlight. It is carried out by insolent adolescents in the films who seek to make a point by browbeating and harassing the main characters. In Moothon, Mulla (Sanjana Dipu, portraying a role that breaks gender stereotypes) is subjected to this. The bullying rises a few notches higher in Moonlight, where Chiron’s love interest Kevin is manipulated into participating in a hazing ritual that results in Chiron getting severely beaten up. Violence also manifests in the form of organised crime, characterised by prostitution, child trafficking, and the drug trade. Cinematographer Rajeev Ravi did an impeccable job when he captured such scenes in the lanes of Mumbai in Moothon.
Homophobia is anticipated in both films; after all, it is a conventional move taken by most filmmakers to ensure that the love story is never simple (it is never simple otherwise, either). Moothon explores the societal and familial objections faced by the two lovers Akbar (a brilliant Nivin Pauly) and Ameer (Roshan Mathew, delivering a poignant performance that leaves us wanting more); after all, there was never meant to be peace in their relationship. It is the same case for Chiron and Kevin in Moonlight.
But the form of violence in Moothon (a movie that covertly explores the bestial idiosyncrasies of humans) that caught me completely off guard is the depiction of the ritual Kuthu Ratheeb. Nivin Pauly’s performance is phenomenal; he is perfect for the role of this alarming avatar who cuts himself time and again in order to feel pain, in order to feel human. He is basically lacerating his body in an ironic self-purifying ritual, and in his eyes, you see the animal within him, a caged animal, hungry for freedom. Yet, he is an animal who cannot come to terms with the good within himself. Nivin Pauly portrays that chaos of helplessness and ferocity – of a drug addict who almost appears to be possessed by the Devil – via his expressive eyes. The violence in Moothon is sickening in the sense that you cannot bear to watch the grim misfortunes of the characters. For me, Akbar’s death in the conclusion came as a shock; he had been dragged all the way into a living hell, and he deserved better.
In both Moothon and Moonlight, if one were to peel off all the layers of barbarity, darkness, and pain, one would discover the underlying themes of melancholy and pathos. The plaintiveness in both films is brought out in very specific moments that have been captured beautifully. The relationships in the films bring out this pathos, for love is something that gives us both happiness and pain. To balance the nauseating baseness of human character in Moothon, we have love on the other side of the coin. Akbar stands in front of a mirror with a smile, admiring himself (an iconic scene in the film), accepting the rush of emotions enveloping his body in that moment. Another favourite scene of mine (highlighting the bittersweet emotion of love) is when Akbar and Ameer are on the beach, bathed in moonlight (see the connection?), together in the water, sharing that soothing, lovely silence; they are two lovers of flesh, and the love can be seen in their eyes. Their intimacy is truly charming, and there are no steamy scenes to prove this fact; all that there is is the moonlight, the crepuscular skies, the Prussian-blue waters… and them. It is such a poetic, bewitching scene. Something similar is depicted in one scene in Moonlight, though it is slightly more titillating. Chiron and Kevin smoke and discuss their ambitions, and towards the end, they share a kiss, and Kevin gives Chiron a hand-job. When they reunite in the film’s conclusion, Chiron breaks down and confesses that he had never been intimate with anyone else like that one time (a moment when he had chosen to expose his vulnerable side).
The moonlight is an allegory that crops up in both Moothon and Moonlight, symbolising a moment of change from the characters’ already dark and turbulent lives. Both films show how the characters search for their hidden identities, discover their forbidden desires, and thus, embrace their true selves. It is in the moonlight that love finds form; it is in the moonlight that the characters experience emotional intimacy. As Allen Ginsberg once said: “Follow your inner moonlight; don’t hide the madness.”
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.