Director: Lijo Jose Pellissery
Cast: Chemban Vinod Jose, Vinay Forrt, Joju George
Celebrated director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Churuli begins with a myth about a namboothiri (a Brahmin) who sets out on a quest to look for a phantom in a deep dark forest. He has a basket on his head and he hopes to return home with the phantom in it, but an anteater takes its place and misdirects him into a loop that has him go around in circles till the end of time. Unlike in other movies, this animated tale isn’t really a prologue to the story we’re going to be told. Instead, it works best as a user’s manual, a guidebook to understand the parable we’re about to witness.
In the real world, two police officers in disguise take the place of this namboothiri. They assume fake identities (Chemban is Antony and Vijay Fort becomes Shajeevan) and their mission is to capture a fugitive named Joy who has been hiding in the forest for many years. At first, we too begin this journey into Churuli (the village deep inside the forest) with the optimistic naivety of these outsiders. They find the smiling villagers to be polite and humble and expect Churuli (which also means whirlpool) to be a happy commune with its citizens etching out an honest living. But we’re soon jolted out of any such romantic notions.
As Antony waits for the jeep (the only mode of transport into the village) to take them to Churuli, he jokes that it could be his ‘ride to hell’. This jeep, without a windshield or a roof, appeared to me like a moving prison cell or as the basket from the namboothiri myth. They begin their tough and twisty ride into Churuli along with a group of extremely agreeable villagers. They sit up in front of this jeep, next to its cheery driver until they have to cross a rickety log bridge. The sequence of the jeep crossing this bridge is shot from several angles, with every inch adding to the tension. It takes more than two minutes of screen-time for the jeep to fully cross over, just enough for us to realise that this is no ordinary event. Once they cross, it’s as though they’ve entered a new world. The agreeable co-passengers don’t seem so nice anymore and their language starts to prioritise expletives over punctuation. This is also where Antony and Shajeevan are made to get off and sit at the back. From sitting in the driver’s seat, they’ve now become nothing more than passengers.
At the outset, this entry point appears to be an exit point from both civilisation and civility. The two policemen no longer remain in any position of power and they’re forced to abandon the comforts of law that protect them. When looked at differently, this thin bridge also appears to be the gateway to an alternate amoral universe or a purgatory that is both hell and heaven. It is hell because Churuli is a lawless nightmare where murders are a routine activity. It is also heaven for the same reasons. If one can eat, drink, fornicate freely and even murder someone for recreation, “isn’t that the real paradise?” asks a character.
Unlike the tightrope we have to walk between what’s real and what’s unreal, the people of Churuli seem more comfortable in this oblivion. Elephants running amok at night time is as normal to them as trippy comets going from one hill to another. Like Antony and Shajeevan, no one in Churuli goes by their real identity and with all the dialects, they all sound like they’re from different places. As Antony says, they’re all criminals but we have to focus only on the one we’ve come to capture.
Their chequered pasts extend to even the priests who officiate sacred ceremonies here (Antony and Shajeevan are the only ones not dressed in white).The liquor shop doubles up as the local church and even the most pious residents of the village have a dark streak you want to avoid.
In terms of a social order, the class system here is based simply on varying degrees of evil. If the liquor shop is run by someone who has committed financial fraud, the most feared resident appears to be a man who killed two of his wives. The others? Let’s just say that it’s a motley mix of pedophiles, murderers and rapists. But under the garb of trying to fit in, Antony and Shajeevan struggle to become an insider until they themselves start to live like a resident. Shajeevan might not have any obvious vices but he seems to have a past that’s even darker than the residents. Like a character says, it’s not long before you start living like the residents here.
This already complicated universe then demands a second allegorical reading that has to do with time. Shajeevan repeats how living here has made him lose his understanding of time. Days and nights don’t matter and without phones or radio, there’s no contact with the outside world either. Like the two outsiders, we too are forced to decide if we should stay or if we have the option to leave. On first viewing, it feels like the intent of the film is to leave us inside its maze-like structure without a chance to escape. The screenplays of other films might either be circular (ending at the starting point) or a linear one taking us from point A to point B. But with Churuli, they appear to resemble the pattern of a ripple, with circular loops extending outwards. Are all the residents criminals on the run or did we also meet police officers here who had chosen to settle in?
Leaving behind several confounding questions Churuli gives you the feeling of a spider getting caught in a web. With Madhu Neelandan’s stunning visuals, we’re both in the midst of the chaos while also being removed from it. During important conversations, we get distant wide shots that give us the feeling that we’re being watched. Another chilling sequence is the shot of an old lady slowly marching towards Shajeevan with an axe. Helped by the film’s excellent sound design (the scene with each slap to Shajeevan distorting our understanding of space is a great example of this) we get an experience that will take several viewings to uncover. Like its residents, it’s not a world we can exit easily.