Directed by: Midhun Murali
Cast: Midhun Murali, Jicky Paul, Greeshma Ramachandran
This January, Malayalam cinema saw the convergence of its two extremes. A big-budget drama featuring a male superstar who wields unassailable influence over the local audience was released in theatres on the 25th, jolting the film ecosystem out of its lull. Coincidentally, Kiss Wagon, an experimental feature film directed by Midhun Murali, premiered in IFFR’s (International Film Festival of Rotterdam) coveted Tiger Competition section, where it won two prizes– the FIPRESCI award and the first Special Jury Award.
The silence around Kiss Wagon in the local media isn’t surprising; rather, it neatly places the film within the tradition of avant-garde cinema which often finds little recognition on home turf. Emerging from the realm of digital culture that stretches out infinitely to encompass a variety of media forms, Kiss Wagon is a delightful intermedial assemblage that resists easy definitions and descriptions. A DIY filmmaker, Midhun throws caution to the wind, making things up as they proceed, with no concern for the conventional order and polish demanded by the mainstream animation film industry. Faceless shadow figures wander in a vibrant world unconstrained by camera-based realism, where walls, floors, water and the many skies look like they were plucked from the insides of PlayStation and a toddler’s sketchbook.
Kiss Wagon follows Isla, a mysterious transwoman living in an authoritarian state, entrusted with delivering a strange parcel – a kiss. Subverting the traditional shot, scene and sequence, the narrative moves back, forth and sideways, building a web of little tales. That the film does this with a generous sprinkling of a kind of humour found in vernacular daily life lends the film a curious unassuming quality, unafraid to confront banality head-on. And at the heart of the film, Midhun plants a critique of the state, family and church – institutions that wield the highest power in a society – and heteronormativity.
Running close to three hours, Kiss Wagon bears the unmistakable hallmark of an idiosyncratic work meant to be fully decoded only by its creator. From the screenplay to the quirky sound design, Midhun closely controls every aspect of the film. Despite its persistent and freewheeling formalism, it is not entirely an obscure film that takes pleasure in alienating the viewer; rather, its playful irreverence and wild yet consistent inner rhythm could keep even the most tenderfoot members of the audience hooked. Midhun tosses in several references, ranging from the mythological Garden of Eden to the (pop)cultural venues of the church and cinema hall, evoking a warm sense of familiarity. Isla’s journey mirrors that of a classical hero – shrouded in mystery yet destined for greatness. There is no cynicism either. The film is a personal meditation on love and yearning, civilisation and violence, religion and rationality, and more importantly, the generative power of cinema itself. Cinema and its infrastructure recur throughout the film, not in their typical form, but as a gateway for the narrative to take a detour.
It was not too long ago Malayalam cinema began witnessing the emergence of a new strand of art cinema within its fold – films that boldly embrace new digital aesthetics severed from existing formal and narrative norms. Their lack of interest in documenting the real world with photographic accuracy marks a radical shift from the tradition of Malayalam cinema that insists on depicting space with a quasi-authenticity that is sanitised and conforming, not to mention distorted.
In the absence of any markers for space and time, Kiss Wagon finds a rare liberty to narrate a story that encompasses everything and nothing all at once. As the narrative alludes to state-sanctioned violence and curtailment of individual freedom, it nudges the viewer to recollect. The film is not ‘set’ in a place, it continuously generates its own setting – a crazy, abstract space that seems to flow out of the filmmaker’s stream of consciousness. The kiss floats through the film’s multi-layered surface, like a poem or a nimbus cloud above a beaten landscape.
Kiss Wagon essentially delves into the subjectivity inherent in the idea of reality. Isla's thoughts, memory, and imagination lie intertwined with her physical world, like the simulated trees on a GPS route descending into an actual road. The film features some excellent transitions, such as the shift from sights outside a moving train to the interior of a church, eventually leading to a slice of Isla's memories. This fluidity, in a way, also extends to the audience's subjectivity – Kiss Wagon leaves no clear-cut conclusion and does not demand univocal attention from its viewers. While it comes dangerously close to turning into a gimmick, the pleasures it offers are many. Beyond its multi-stranded narrative and ingenius formal aspects, the film presents a shining example of guerrilla filmmaking in a cultural landscape where independent artistry faces greater challenges than ever before.