Close Up

4 - 17 February 2017: Esthappan


G. Aravindan
1979 | 94 min | Colour | Digital

Esthappan (Kakkanadan) is a strange and mysterious figure, allegedly immortal, in a Christian fishing village in Kerala. Although a more earthly version of Kummatty (the subject of his previous film), all manner of virtues and magical powers are ascribed to the Christ-like worker of miracles (including printing his own money and drinking whisky without getting drunk). The director says it was made as a rejoinder to the criticism levelled against him and his scenarist Panicker for the emphasis on folk ritual in their theatre. An extra dimension is given to the central character, adapted from stories about religious mystics of all stripes, by casting Kakkanadan, a Malayalam tantric-modernist painter, in the role. The final sequence of the miracle play alludes to the Chavittu Natakam, a form derived from Portuguese passion-plays on the west coast. However, contrary to the director’s stated intention sympathetically to explore religious mysticism, the film can be seen as celebrating confusion, jumbling together religious iconography, pop music, tourism and garish calendar-art colours and artistic creativity. This cultural levelling out is further heightened by more than one 'version' of Estheppan’s activities, each bidding for plausibility but also undercutting whatever conviction the plot might have. The fragmented narrative helps to convey a critique of the conventions of psychological realism prevalent in ‘quality’ cinema by refusing to present an individual as a complex but ultimately coherent and knowable character. However, by also refusing to show the individual as a historically formed figure, an option chosen by Ghatak, Shahani and Abraham, Aravindan ends up relativising his characters completely, dissolving them either into creatures of gossip, as in the movie, or into the timeless and eternally unknowable flow of nature.

Part of our season on Govindan Arivindan