Sunny Joseph's Bhoomiyude Uppu Is Steeped In Symbolisms

Sunny Joseph has triggered the film's narrative into a complex religio-political debate that envelops the governance of Kerala, the state which has been imagined as progressive so far
Sunny Joseph's Bhoomiyude Uppu Is Steeped In Symbolisms

Director: Sunny Joseph

Cast: Mithun Nalini, Auroshikha Dey, Gangadharan Menon, Sreenivas

At a recent screening of his debut film, Sunny Joseph declared “Once my film is completed, the work rests now in the public domain.” It requires quite some courage to indirectly announce that he is now willing to listen to any kind of comment since it belongs to the audience now. Prima facie, Bhoomiyude Uppu locates itself mostly in the conceptual/ representational level rather than elaborating the storyline through action/ reaction or provocative incidents which demand that the actors develop a well-defined character arc.

Knowing Sunny’s cinematic frame of mind, I could sum up the concept as ‘what happens when Robert Bresson’s theology meets Ingmar Bergman’s psychology at the crossroads of Kerala’s communist history!’ One felt like witnessing the devout Catholic ‘Country Priest’ (Bresson) encountering the socially tormented women of Persona (Bergman's 1966 film) amid Kerala’s ‘forever-striking’ working class in Amma Ariyan (Malayalam director John Abraham's 1986 film). However, what is important to note is the fact that Bresson and Bergman are very formal storytellers. Bresson employs deep austerity by restricting himself to one 50 mm lens; toning down his actors’ reactions to dead-pan looks and editing against conventional match cuts. Bergman works with highly trained theatre actors and works with sustained scenes and subtle choreography. Could Sunny Joseph match up with their levels of narrativisation? 

A still from Bhoomiyude Uppu
A still from Bhoomiyude Uppu

The film functions largely within archetypal frames which standardises Kerala’s Christianity and their moral rigidity as one composite whole. Could the film have worked better if we referred to Br Emmanuel and the monastery’s problems as specific to the Roman Catholic Capuchins of Kerala? Could the film have worked better if we had known more details about the research work that brought Sophy to this remote monastery? And could the film have engaged more if we actually knew the exact issues which the Communist party (which segment unknown) were protesting for?  

Probably, these may not be important paradigms if we shift our attention to the larger narrative enshrining the myth of an ethereal God’s Paradise in which Adam and Eve are unwittingly lured by a satanic snake and exiled to suffer in torment and repent for having the audacity to seek God’s sacred knowledge. This dramatic approach as elucidated brilliantly in Giorgio Agamben’s book The Kingdom and the Garden (2019) allows for a simpler optic to comprehend. Quite appropriately, the film’s monastery is located on a verdant misty green ‘paradisical’ landscape where Emmanuel and a bunch of young Capuchin men frolic, singing carols, having immersed themselves in the ‘splendour’ of God’s own country. Shot over a few years, the cinematography of the selected landscapes by Arjun, Souvik and Anil needs to be commended for truly portraying and evoking the beauty of paradise. 

Mithun Nalini, who plays Emmanuel, has truly put his heart and soul into his role. Interestingly, in Matthew's gospel, Jesus is called Immanuel. “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel," which is translated, "God with us" (Matthew 1:23).  However, the conflict starts when a TV set is brought in, much to the annoyance of Fr Thomas who cribs that the novices were now openly inviting Satan to corrupt their ‘masculine’ innocence. Equally interesting is the fact that director Sunny Joseph focuses on long video news segments about the atrocities inflicted on poor Muslims in Peshawar by West European weaponry and military strategy. After all was this is not the very extended landscape where Jesus and his comrades fraternised and preached for harmony and love among all citizens, 2000 years ago? The Capuchin brothers ask ‘Why is God doing nothing about these atrocities?’ Fr Thomas says that the doors have been opened willingly to allow Satan in. But the senior Fr. Francis asks them to think positive, focus on Love and hope that everything shall be normal for opening the gates of Paradise to every human being. 

A still from Bhoomiyude Uppu
A still from Bhoomiyude Uppu

Instead, the gates open to allow a young research scholar Sophy in to do research on why there are inadequate representations of women in Catholic theology and mythology. This entry opens a completely new narrative on gender discourse. And then, the gates also open to Emmanuel’s friend, Comrade George who is actively engaged with enlightening tea plantation workers to fight for their rights to better remunerations. The question that begs to be asked is this: ‘Which of these two could be the true antithesis to the primacy of the monastery’s satanic dilemma?’ Sophy or Comrade George? Therefore, the film challenges itself to deal with two opposites but only to end up resolving Sophy’s question in an extremely interesting synthesis.

The film enters into the zone of the paranormal psychic via the disoriented young parish at the monastery. Br Emmanuel has had a traumatic childhood, orphaned with his mother dying during childbirth, which leads to admitting him into the brotherhood to redeem his tormented soul. The arrival of a daring Sophy and Fr. Thomas’ constant invoking of Satan’s dangerous ways, provide the ground for ‘orphan’ Emmanuel (Jesus) to forcibly reconcile with Catholicism’s outdated ways of dealing with modern registers of women living in a quasi-socialist politics of Kerala/ India. 

The film now enters the controversial zone set up earlier by Nikos Kazantzakis in his brilliant novel called The Last Temptation of Christ (1952), where he enquires what could happen if Jesus had chosen to follow his innate nature to fall in love with Mary Magdalene and spread familial love. On similar lines, the film’s narration enters a rather surreal path questioning whether religious beliefs should address the real human desires to ‘love’ at a carnal/personal level or should the power of love be used sheerly at a cultural level to enhance the consciousness of fellow human beings.

Br. Emmanuel loves and imagines Sophy giving birth ‘yet again’ to Jesus as an immaculate conception, only to be placed among the various votives celebrating the ‘Adoration of Magi’ (in the form of plastic dolls) on Christmas. Emmanuel prays at the altar where baby Jesus is placed, knowing fully well that his society will ultimately have him crucified and celebrate the death of this Messiah every year, carrying giant crosses on their shoulders in a ritual of repentance. In short, God can live only if he is killed and then submit to his devotees’ wishes to be reborn, only to be crucified yet again. What could be the joy/ purpose in celebrating such an annual ritual, which in fact, can be seen played in other religions too? At a parallel level Comrade George is arrested for his campaigning against the capitalist bosses and beaten up mercilessly at a police station. Is the film alluding to the possibility of a communist activist who sacrifices his life for the betterment of his fellow beings, also as another form of Jesus, the Messiah? 

Undoubtedly, Sunny Joseph has triggered the narrative into a very complex religio-political debate that envelops the governance of Kerala, the state which has been imagined as progressive so far. Known for its cultural forwardness, Kerala is staring today into the face of strong emerging right-wing forces and hopefully realising how left-wing activists have paid very little attention to the torch-bearers of arts and culture, especially cinema. After all, are we all not part of the ‘Salt of this Earth’, the world that we were born to love?

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