Kalla Nottam At New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF): Rahul Riji Nair’s Interesting, Immersive Drama Sees Only What A GoPro Camera Sees

A regular film tells us a story that has been recorded on a camera, and then edited in a way that (usually) gives the audience knowledge that the characters themselves may not have. Here, we travel only with the camera.
Kalla Nottam At New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF): Rahul Riji Nair’s Interesting, Immersive Drama Sees Only What A GoPro Camera Sees

The owner of a small provisions store — the all-in-one kind you find on street-sides, selling everything from eggs and chips to sooji and phenyl — gets a GoPro camera. It's a gift. He doesn't know what to do with it at home, so he places it on a shelf in the store. It becomes a kinda-sorta CCTV camera, though what comes under surveillance — slowly — is less the store, more the surroundings. I mean the countryside, which looks like rural Kerala. And by extension, I mean the society at large. The opening stretch says that this society is obsessed with cinema. A sixth-standard boy named Vincent (Vasudev Sajeesh Marar) has been eyeing the camera for a while. He wants to make a movie. The first opportunity he gets, he runs into the store and runs out with the camera.

At this point, I wasn't thinking about "society" and "statements". I simply thought Kalla Nottam was going to be one of those chronicles of a summer's-day childhood idyll, like Anjali Menon's Manjadikkuru. Sure enough, for a while, that's exactly what we get. Vincent rounds up his best friend, Kishore (Suryadev Sajeesh Marar) and they squabble about who gets to be the "hero". And if there's a hero, they need a "heroine". And so we meet Rosy (Ansu Maria Thomas). It's fun to see these kids act out commercial-cinema clichés. There's a hero-entry scene. There's an action scene, with a paper gun. There's a romantic scene that made me giggle: Rosy tells Kishore solemnly that her parents will never agree to this match. There's song and dance, set to Entammede jimikki kammal.

On the side, writer-director Rahul Riji Nair seems to be making a point about how absurdly easy it's become — with these light cameras — to make movies. And it's not just about the movie Vincent and Kishore and Rosy are making. Even at a professional level, at Rahul Riji Nair's level, you can turn a limitation into a "conceit". So all you have is a GoPro camera, a minimal budget, a few amateur actors? (Vinitha Koshy, who was in the director's earlier film, Ottamuri Velicham, is one of the few "known" faces.) No matter. You can have your cinematographer (Tobin Thomas) mimic the stolen GoPro camera's point of view, which means that what the audience sees is only what this camera "sees" when handled by these amateur hands. It's something like found footage. If the kids are accosted by an adult and they hide the camera in a chicken coop, then for the next few seconds, we only see hens, even as we hear dim human voices from outside.

Kalla Nottam runs just 70 minutes, but after a while, I began to wonder how the film was going to last out its running time without turning endlessly repetitive, even with these cutie-pie children and their cutie-pie "we're making a movie" antics. That's when we see the director has more on his mind. At one point, Vincent and Kishore see a man getting beaten up by the owner of the provisions store. The man is being suspected of stealing the camera. Vincent is filled with guilt. All he wanted was to "borrow" it for a day while he made his movie. The way this subplot resolves itself is beautiful. For one, there's actual physical beauty: the setting is the inside of a small, exquisitely painted church. And then, there's a lesson in mercy that I suspect Vincent will never forget.

Soon, Kishore gets a bit of knowledge, too — something he won't ever forget, either. But in his case, it's something he was probably better off not knowing (at least, not yet). This scene is a bit clumsy in the way it sets up and handles its revelations, but hereon, we're no longer watching a movie about kids making a movie. We're watching a movie where a husband blames his wife for their childlessness. We're watching a movie about moral policing, with scenes that wouldn't be out of place in a social-horror drama by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan. Unlike the silly action scene that Vincent "shot" with Kishore, we get one that unfolds in real time, and isn't slickly choreographed the way action scenes in the movies are. In other words, we're still seeing what the GoPro camera "sees": i.e., the footage being recorded. The drama is being amplified, but the conceit is intact.

Finally, we land in a police station, where we see the resolution of a situation that we didn't even know existed. Without our realising it, one action (Vincent stealing the camera) has collided with another and another, and… At the end of this stretch, a father forgives his son and daughter, who have both "sinned". It's another moment of mercy, but we're quickly reminded that we're not in a regular movie but in a simulation of "real life" being recorded by a GoPro camera. And in real life, sometimes, there are no clean endings. The daughter does something drastic… I won't spoil it for you, but again, we see only what the camera "sees".

A regular film tells us a story that has been recorded on a camera (maybe even a GoPro camera), and then edited in a way that (usually) gives the audience knowledge that the characters themselves may not have. In Kalla Nottam, we travel with the camera, and only with the camera. There's an editor credited (Appu Bhattathiri), but the way the film is structured, his work is rendered invisible. (That's a compliment.) Due to all this technique, Kalla Nottam could be called an experimental film, but I think it's probably better to label it an experiential film. It's immersive. It sucks us in. After all, we live in a world where even something as trivial as a dinner outing doesn't really "exist" unless it's captured on a phone and Instagrammed. Our lives, too, are only what the camera "sees".

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