Run Kalyani At New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF): J Geetha’s Malayalam Drama Transforms The Unremarkable Life Of A Cook Into Everyday Poetry

The music is like a bolero, where a theme is endlessly repeated. The tiny variations in each repetition mirror the tiny variations in each day Kalyani wakes up to face.
Run Kalyani At New York Indian Film Festival (NYIFF): J Geetha’s Malayalam Drama Transforms The  Unremarkable  Life Of A Cook Into Everyday Poetry

In the morning, before leaving for work, Kalyani (Garggi Ananthan) tends to her aged, bedridden aunt. This isn't a "chore". There's deep love, on both sides. It's evident from the way they look at each other. But other things hang in the air, unstated. For instance, there's a box below the bed that contains the bells a dancer straps to her ankles. The aunt was probably that dancer, which must make it twice as hard for her to deal with her immobility. But this is something some of us may feel: that's all. There's no line that fills in this bit of character background. Or take the instance of the security guard who's seen apologising profusely over the phone. What happened? We aren't told, we aren't shown. But the next day, we see a new guard has taken his place. That's the delicate sensibility at work in Run Kalyani.

A good portion of the film is slowly paced: it might have been titled Walk Kalyani. But this pace is intentional. We need to feel the monotony that surrounds the protagonist. You know that T-shirt slogan, "Same shit, different day"? That's Kalyani's life. She's a cook who works in high-rise apartments. (At home, though, the highest she gets is up a flight of stairs, to her tiny room in some sort of attic space.) She wakes up, leaves home, cooks for Employer No. 1 (it's the same monotonous salad for him), goes to Employer No. 2 (it's the same monotonous fried stuff over there)…

This happens on Day 1. This happens on Day 2. This happens on Day 3. The screenplay, thus, is carefully designed as what the music world would call "variations on a theme". Indeed, Sreevalsan J Menon's exquisite music is a key part of the narrative. A lot of the film is silent (we hear the towel brushing against skin, as Kalyani wipes down her aunt), but at the end of Kalyani's day, we get something that sounds like a bolero. This is, after all, a composition in which a theme is endlessly repeated. It's the "same shit, different day" of music. The tiny variations in each repetition mirror the tiny variations in each day Kalyani wakes up to face.

Here's an example. Take the people who appear at her doorstep on the mornings of Day 1, Day 2 and Day 3. First, it's the landlord. Second, it's a father with a son he wants to marry off. Third, it's a bunch of thugs demanding the repayment of a loan. Technically, each circumstance, each episode is different — yet, they are all part of a "repetition", a plot point that says "a male figure confronts Kalyani at home".

Writer-director Geetha J and editor B Ajithkumar get a beautiful rhythm going. It could not have been easy to keep showing a bunch of "boring" things, and yet, ensure that the film itself is not "boring". There's a strong emotional undertow that builds and builds with each iteration, each day, as the characters fall into place and their relationships to one another become clearer.

Employer No. 1 is a middle-aged gazetted officer (Ramesh Varma), in love with a married woman (the poet Meera Nair) who lives across the street. He writes emotionally charged, almost poem-like letters to her and she responds in kind, with erotically charged lines. (She reads writers like Kamala Das.) Madhu Neelakandan trains the camera on the page as these letters are being composed: we see the ink dry before our eyes as word after word is written down. It's exquisitely erotic. The pressing of pen on paper, the emission of ink and the transformation of this liquid into a love note, which is passed on through Kalyani, who works in both houses — it's as sensual as a "long-distance" relationship can get. It's almost mythical.

Indeed, someone brings up the story of Nala and Damayanti, whose love messages were couriered to each other through a swan. What if we watched that legendary romance unfold through the eyes (and viewpoint) of the swan — or, in this case, Kalyani? That's how we see everyone in Run Kalyani: through the protagonist. We meet an old chess player (the yesteryear star, Madhu). We meet an abusive husband. We meet his sister-in-law who prefers to look away when he beats his wife. We meet a chauffeur, a nadaswaram player, a roadside slogan-chanter. There's a storyteller who lulls Kalyani to sleep, every night, with the most fantastical tales.

Day 4 of Kalyani's life turns out to be equally fantastical. The numbing routine is finally shattered. I won't tell you what happens — but I'll admit I felt too much happens, all at once. A near-plotless movie begins to sag with themes of hope and redemption and liberation. But you stick with it because these themes don't congeal into an ugly "message". What we take away from the end of the film is as "unstated" as the rest of it. More importantly, it's hard to resist this closure because of how invested you've become in Kalyani. Garggi Ananthan is superb. She finds endlessly creative (and minimalistic) ways to say "Same shit, different day". She does, essentially, what the movie does. It could not have been easy to keep enacting a bunch of "boring" things, and yet, ensure that the performance itself is the farthest thing from "boring".

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