Director: Don Palathara
Cast: Sherin Catherine, Don Palathara
From the press reports, we gather that Don Palathara’s Everything Is Cinema is inspired by Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary, Calcutta. The character Don plays in the film, a filmmaker named Chris, says as much: he wants to film a “continuation” of the Malle documentary, which is now over 50 years old. So you think maybe he wants to see how the city has changed in all these years. Or maybe he wants to show how his own gaze, even though he is an Indian, is not all that different from Malle’s decidedly Western gaze: because Chris is from Kerala, and speaks no Bengali or Hindi.
And Don does replicate — either consciously, or because of their prevalence — a few images from the Malle film. Here, too, after a provocative image of a dead cow being chopped up at an abattoir (Malle did not give us this sight, though he gave us buffaloes on the road), we see men bathing by the Hooghly, and go on to see statues of goddesses being made, and a potter at his wheel, and plenty of “poverty porn” via daily-wagers. And like Malle, Don is not interested in the Calcutta that listens to Rabindra Sangeet or worships Satyajit Ray or gathers at addas or watches football. But for contrast shots (very rich folks at the golf course or at a racing track), Malle’s documentary is about a Calcutta filled with filth, the poorest of the poor. The film even ends in a leper colony.
Don’s images of the outdoors are in colour. But shortly after beginning to shoot the film, Covid-19 hits India, and Chris finds himself still in Calcutta but locked down in an apartment with his wife Anita (Sherin Catherine), who has accompanied him. And these indoor scenes are shot in black and white, much like Don Palathara’s films before Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. And in the absence of anything to do, he begins to film his wife discreetly. This, I think, is another nod to the Louis Malle documentary. In both films, an outsider trains his camera on the “most horrifying” aspects of something/someone he isn’t familiar with: for Malle, it is the city itself, while for Don, it is Anita.
So let’s now talk about Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, because it is impossible not to think of that film while watching Everything Is Cinema. (This almost feels like a continuation piece of Don’s earlier film, just like Chris said he was filming a “continuation” of the Malle documentary.) Both films unfold in a closed space: a car in Santhoshathinte, a house, here. And just like the images from the Malle documentary, there are replications from Santhoshathinte. In Santhoshathinte, Don played a filmmaker we hear only through his voice over a phone. He name-drops Bergman and Tarkovsky. Chris, here, name-drops Kieslowski. In Santhoshathinte, a journalist asks if his films are “poverty porn”. One could use that description about Chris’ (and Malle’s) depiction of Calcutta.
But the biggest similarity is that both films are about a bickering couple in a crisis. In Santhoshathinte, it was an unwanted pregnancy. Here, it is about how being locked in with your partner can change your perspective of them. Chris fancies himself an intellectual. He says things like: A camera and a computer are all I need to go on living. And also things like: Free myself and my camera from the hands of capitalism. He likes only those people who “resonate” with him, unlike Anita, who likes people he calls “random”, through her constant use of social media. He mocks that Anita is considered an intellectual in some circles because she reads Paulo Coelho. He mocks the unreal films she makes, wearing a two-inch thick foundation that hides who she really is.
The joke of the film is that Chris thinks he is exposing Anita by filming her discreetly, but he is really exposing himself — even if we never see him. (We only hear his voice, and we see his gaze through the handheld camera.) He is exposing the frustration he feels after the funding for his dream project has fallen through. And his classic male self-absorption goes to the extent of turning the screen black for a few seconds because we deserve that break after seeing Anita’s face for so long. The editing pattern is not so much cuts as fragments — and Chris even edits out a few fragments (like one of domestic abuse) that show him in an unfavourable light. You feel for Anita. She may be “shallow”, but at least she has a positive, cheerful outlook. But then, she is just an artist, while Chris is an Artist. He says cinema is like juxtaposing scenes from life and trying to make sense of it all. That’s probably Don himself speaking. He is using the medium to “make sense of it all”. He digs deep. He is an archaeologist of life and cinema, and in Everything Is Cinema, he shows how much of both can be explored in a mere 70 minutes.