When speaking of a filmmaker as distinctive as Don Palathara, the latest work becomes a part of a continuum — even if it’s nothing like the earlier ones. Shavam, Vith And 1956, Central Travancore were experimental films, non-narrative films in the sense that they resist conventional plot and character development. All these films feature a number of static shots: the camera is still, locked into whatever action is taking place close or afar. The new film, titled Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, is a little more “mainstream”. It has something of a “plot”, revolving around a woman (Rima Kallingal as Maria) who is stressed because she may be pregnant. Her live-in boyfriend (Jitin Puthenchery as Jitin) is driving her to a clinic. We follow their journey through a single (i.e. uninterrupted) take.
But despite this “plot”, and despite these characters talking a lot (we always know what they are thinking or feeling), the aesthetic is as rigorous as in Don’s earlier work. The camera is “locked in” throughout. It’s mounted in front of the couple so that even when the vehicle is in motion, it feels as unvarying as a static shot from, say, Shavam. When Jitin has an argument with Maria, he steps out of the car and walks behind. We see him at a distance, through the rear windshield. When she leaves the car, we see him sitting alone, looking at the phone and flipping through radio stations. Physically and psychologically, they are trapped in a situation (neither of them wants a child), and (visually) we are “trapped” right in with them. We get the slightly awkward, slightly embarrassed feeling of hitching a ride with two people passionately arguing about his personal hygiene and her lack of civic sense and, most of all, their personal lives.
Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is in colour. But almost everything is green: the man’s shirt, the woman’s top, the water-bottle in the car, her ear stud! It’s so determinedly monochromatic that — again — we could be seeing an extension of the black-and-white palette of, say, Vith. As for Don’s recurring Christian imagery, we only have to look at the woman’s name, which is the most maternal of Christian names. But this Maria, a journalist, is not feeling especially Christian towards her partner. She used to call him “Jitu”. She encouraged him to “follow his passion”, even if he’s still a struggling, small-time actor. Now, she is calling him “Jitin”, and has begun to realise that his “passion” may not be able to feed a third mouth. He senses danger flags fluttering all around him.
At least from the outside, Maria is deliberately confrontational. Maybe she needs to let out all her nervous energy, which she cannot if she cools down and becomes all “practical” like Jitin. (He compares the maybe-pregnancy to the pandemic. “We learnt how to handle that. We’ll learn how to handle this, too.”) Or maybe Maria is scared that her body will have to put up with a lot more than his, and what if he leaves her! The lines are credited to the actors and director, as in the Before Sunrise installments (which this film loosely resembles). Nothing sounds like “dialogue”. Like Don’s other films, you might call this an observational tract — about this central relationship, and about other relationships we hear about (over phones) from Jitin’s friend and Maria’s friend. Even the script that Jitin reads when Maria steps out for a bit is about a relationship.
Don pokes fun at the “woke” Malayalee male (despite his wokeness, Jitin has asked Maria to cut ties off with a male friend) and even at himself. The film’s comic highlight is Maria’s interview (again, over the phone) with a Don-like director, who makes not “movies” but capital-C Cinema. (He says so himself, and the character is voiced by Don.) He asks why only his films are labelled slow and eventless when we readily hail the slow and (apparently) eventless works of Bergman and Tarkovsky. The bit where he explains why he is a feminist is priceless. It unites Jitin and Maria for a second, but then, they begin to bicker again. Perhaps the one really big difference between Don’s earlier work and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is that, for the first time, he is reliant on good performers: Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthenchery are both terrific. They juice up the director’s scenario. After this mild breakaway, it’s going to be interesting to see where Don Palathara goes next.