In Family, Don Palathara Makes A Brilliant Blueprint Of A Close-Knit Community

In Family, which is set to premiere at the International Film Festival Rotterdam, Don Palathara returns to Idukki to explore the pastoral life he has been dissecting with the stubbornness and precision of a scientist
In Family, Don Palathara Makes A Brilliant Blueprint Of A Close-Knit Community

Director: Don Palathara

Writers: Don Palathara, Sherin Catherine (Screenplay)

Cast: Vinay Forrt, Mathew Thomas, Divya Prabha, Nilja K Baby, Abhija Sivakala

Family is an odd horror story that unfolds on an ordinary fabric. A poster of the film features a family huddled around a priest, bearing candles, hymn books and the bible, their head bowed in perfect piety, photographed in the middle of a prayer ceremony. Notwithstanding the familiarity it evokes, this is an unsettling image. A bluish shadow fills the space above the characters, and from the crowd, a pair of eyes breach the film’s world to stare at the onlooker. 

Over the years, Don Palathara has created a fine oeuvre of films that closely observe human beings in private and public, and draw the most stunning and, at times, the wittiest observations. Beneath the static shots, he sets up a stream of tension that exhales into the film’s surface. In Family, he returns to Idukki, his native district, which served as the location of Vith and 1956 Central Travancore, into the pastoral life he has been dissecting with the stubbornness and precision of a scientist. 

The church occupies the centre stage of the film. It is a patriarchal figure overlooking an Idukki hamlet, its imagery subtly scattered throughout the narrative. The villagers go about daily life under the watchful eyes of Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. The houses are dimly lit, prim and proper, like the creaseless attire of a nun. It is in repression the pastoral paradise thrives. The members are not allowed to possess individuality, but belong unconditionally to the community. This fundamental code of living is demonstrated in an early scene, of a ceremony on the night before a traditional Christian wedding. The groom is seated on a stage, facing the crowd. A barber acting as the master of the ceremony seeks the audience’s permission to “beautify” the groom — a ritual performance sincerely played by the community.

You see traces of ‘performance’ everywhere in the villagers’ daily life. The adults willfully blind themselves to the perpetration of violence happening around them against the meek and the vulnerable and uphold the moral hypocrisy that powers their Christian way of living. Any voice or presence that upsets the idyll is shrewdly silenced. In a scene that unfolds superbly, Rani (an excellent Divya Prabha), the daughter-in-law, is admonished by an aunt, a nun, for an error she committed – she dared to look where she was not supposed to. The latter, in a tone so dour, explains to the young woman the complexity of the familial institution and the charades one must perform to keep it running. This quality of community life mirrors Don’s composition of scenes. The one where a foreign-returned daughter opens her suitcase to show and hand over the assorted gifts she has bought for her family members resembles a tableau piece. An image pulled out of a personal memory. 

Don has a fascinating way of storytelling. He starts from the roots, the seemingly inconsequential encounter, a gesture or a movement from where it all began. If he had to narrate the history of the locomotive, he might start with a description of a virgin forest, the official deliberation that led to the laying of the first railway track, the cutting down of the first tree... He does not change his tone or make dramatic pauses, yet, at some point, the audience finds themselves hit by a wave of intensity they had not seen coming. In 1956 Central Travancore, a man travelling through a forest meets a woman in a treehouse. Out of the blue, he starts to narrate a story. It appears absurd and random until he reaches the tail end when boundless possibilities start crawling out of the account. Suddenly, the storyteller seems taller than before, thanks to the dangerous secrets he holds. 

In Family, the filmmaker is the proverbial storyteller, the possessor of the dark secrets. He notes down every minor tremor that slowly gathers momentum over the narrative. His camera – a fly on the wall – quietly watches the central character, Sony (Vinay Forrt), a young teacher and the community’s favourite do-gooder, sneak into families, quietly pick his prey, and make the smoothest exit. His victims do not complain or even fathom what they underwent because the violence in Family is slow-building, one that might manifest in the long term in different, catastrophic forms. 

Don does not delve into why the violence happens but turns his attention to diagnosing the conditions that allow it to flourish. Instead of giving the viewers a full view of the proceedings, he plays with the aspects of disappearance or absence. A leopard is on the prowl in the village, and the film marks the beast using the signs it leaves behind – a circle of clotted blood where a dog went to sleep the previous night. In a scene set inside a lower-middle-class household, the camera pretends to focus on the foreground – a father watching television in the living room – while slyly directing the viewer’s attention to the background, into the room seen through a doorway, where Sony is tutoring the family’s teenage daughter. When he gets up quietly and disappears, the viewers must feel a chill down their spine. Their apprehensions about what might happen outside the frame upset the stillness inside the static shot. 

The film's gaze is not indifferent or casual but carries a quiet frothy rage. Its composure becomes an act of defiance. There is a moment when Sony is turned away bitingly by his younger sibling (Mathew Thomas). The film is less interested in the latter’s rage than in how Sony backs off – uneasily, quietly licking his wounds. He is like the clergy who cannot afford to lose a sheep from the flock he has been carefully nurturing. He reclaims his power soon. 

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Don integrates the terrain, the thick green rainforest that holds in its insides a chilly darkness, with the rigidity of religious life. The wind blows restlessly, shaking the woods, the village and the meadows, hogging the soundscape. Nature is towering and uninhibited; you hardly feel there is a path that leads you out of this space. Family does not offer the audience the comfort of a parable-like conclusion but injects into their bloodstream an uneasiness. In the end, the church grooms its favourite wolf, dresses him up in perfect sheepskin, and sends him into the closing. A powerful cinematic prompt to look around and into oneself. This time, more closely.

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