Director: Jeeva KJ
Cast: Murugan Martin, Ashok Kumar Peringode, Arun Michael, Kripa Daniel, Biny
An earthquake or some sort of disaster is perhaps what comes to mind when you hear the title Richter Scale 7.6. Actually, this Malayalam film is a father-son story unlike any you’ve seen before. The title perhaps refers to the seismic shifts in their relationship. The masterful last shot is a chilling portrait of environmental disaster. Debutant director Jeeva KJ isn’t interested in spelling out intentions with a sledgehammer. Richter Scale 7.6 works like a visual poem, hinting, suggesting, shifting seamlessly between reality, memories and dreams.
The film is almost entirely contained in a ramshackle hut where father and son, Ramankunju and Suku live in abject poverty. Suku believes that his father Ramankunju, who was once a folk dancer, is mentally unstable. Suku can’t afford a hospital so when he leaves home, he chains his father to the bed. He leaves a plate of porridge by his side. Ramankunju’s ankle has a black ring around it from being chained daily. But he isn’t enveloped in the furious rage that Suku is.
Suku, who works in a quarry, seems consistently on the verge of an explosion. Through snatches of conversation, we gather that the family was offered compensation to leave but Ramankunju refused. Suku likes a girl but can’t bring her home because of his father’s condition. He drinks alone, seated away from his father, almost as if he can’t bear another minute in his company. But Ramankunju has none of this angst. He’s formed a friendship with a child whose face we don’t see, who gets him betel leaves. He finds solace in memories of a former life when he went fishing. Ramakunju seems to be completely in sync with the natural world. Even when a snake slithers in through their window, he addresses it with cheerful surprise, like he might address an unexpected guest.
Through the film’s run time of 110 minutes, we see the father and son negotiate the limited spaces in their home. Jeeva and DOP Sujithlal imbue the film with stillness. The framing consistently reaffirms the lines between Ramankunju and Suku. In several shots, father and son sit apart, divided by the makeshift partitions of the house. Their actions are choreographed to underline the tension between them. There are stretches of silence, almost as though words have been rendered irrelevant. But then, something happens that changes the relationship and Suku begins to understand the innate wisdom and compassion of his father.
We see other characters fleetingly but the weight of the film rests on the shoulders of Murugan Martin who plays Suku and Ashok Kumar Peringode who plays Ramankunju. I don’t think there is a frame in the film without one of these actors in it. Both do a remarkable job of becoming one with the hut, which is almost the third member of this threadbare family. It feels like they’ve lived there all their lives. Ashok has a few flamboyant moments but he never oversteps.
Richter Scale 7.6 is about visuals rather than words. The film operates with long silences, which can make it challenging for some viewers. Non-Malayalam speakers will also take longer to find their bearings. Richter Scale 7.6 opens with titles on a black screen. The famous Kerala folk artist CJ Kuttappan is singing but bewilderingly, there are no subtitles for the song. His voice is haunting in its pain and yearning. The key lines, helpfully translated by Film Companion’s Malayalam reviewer Anakha Anupama, allude to the necessity for Dalit voices to tell their own stories. Their song is their protest. The lines are: If we don’t sing our own songs in the coming times, the spine of our land will break and we will die. Dear Thevi, please sing, if for no other reason than to die after singing this.
The film ends with a shot that captures this broken spine with breathtaking elegance. Suddenly, all the pieces fit. Richter Scale 7.6 heralds the arrival of a distinctive voice.
You can see the film on several OTT platforms – Roots Video, Koode.in and firstshows.com.