Director: Balaji Vembu Chelli
Cast: Rajeev Anand
Nilanadukkam! An earthquake! How sensational the term sounds! What a scoop it could be for a journalist who happens to be in the vicinity! It’s the kind of premise that makes you want to end every statement with an exclamation mark! But from the first scene, writer-director Balaji Vembu Chelli sets out to strip this story of all its exclamation marks. A phone rings early in the morning. A journalist (Rajeev Anand) is awakened by the sound. It’s probably his editor. He gets the brief about the earthquake. (It’s in Kodaikanal, which is a little drive away.) He doesn’t race out of his hotel room. He walks out. And as he goes down the stairs, the stationary camera gazes at the empty corridor for a few extra seconds. There are no exclamation points in the staging, either.
The journalist remains unnamed. He is an Everyman seeking his big break, and Nilanadukkam is an Everystory about what happens when Everyday events are transformed into Richter-shattering “scoops” by the media. The earthquake of the title is thus a metaphor as well as an actual calamity. It could feed the news cycle for the next few days, says the journalist. Another mediaperson is overheard on his phone, telling his boss that he was the first on the scene to cover the quake. He sounds like he won an Olympic medal. (Category: The race for ratings.) An entire village destroyed! Many people dead! Gold!
But what if you went in search of a story and there was… no story? Would you manufacture one, imagine one, project yourself into one? What if the village was deserted for other reasons? What if the locals fed you myths and lore instead of “facts”? What if someone was trying to cover up the “fact” that an earthquake did indeed occur, for selfish reasons? What if? What if? What if? Maarten Visser’s score is superb, ranging from flute snatches to jazz-ified riffs on Peer Gynt to a strange noise that made me imagine crickets walking on ground glass. This eerie music syncs up perfectly with the eerie, hallucinatory narrative. The journalist goes around in circles, a man lost in the misty wilderness. Another metaphor? Why not? Even at a mere 70-odd minutes, the abstract storytelling begs to be read into.
Vedaraman Sankaran’s cinematography has a delicate texture we don’t usually find in micro-budgeted indie features. You can almost touch the mist that swirls around our journalist. You can feel the emptiness that surrounds him for the most part. As we follow him searching for his “scoop”, we see him missing the actual stories unfolding right in front of his eyes. Why not do a report on the houses whose walls are painted with “two leaves” symbols, and yet, the government ends up doing little for these remote villages? But who will watch? And if you report a story that no one tuned into, did that story really happen? Nilanadukkam is part media satire, part media horror movie, and an all-out original.