“ Entheda nee cherayunnathu?’’
This question in the Malayalam language has long been a mystery to me.
Mystery would be wrong word; it is more – I know what it is but I find it hard to comprehend why it exists, several thousand years into the human species. In colloquial Malayalam, especially as spoken in southern Kerala where I grew up, the act indicates looking but not simply looking; it is looking at somebody in a manner that betrays sizing up an opponent. There is a hint of: I will show you who I am or don’t mess with me. Sometimes it establishes superiority and ends potential tussle right there. At other times, the look is challenged and the ensuing series of challenges leads to inevitable tussle for superiority. To be fair, it isn’t exclusively a Kerala phenomenon. It is there in all cultures, a sad reminder that civilization notwithstanding we are fundamentally predators.
For a long time, I avoided such predicaments because the capacity to challenge physically or counter a challenge was absent in me. Sometime in college, after my introduction to Desmond Morris and contests among humans got explained in easy to understand anthropological terms, the resultant social grid felt like a depressing jail. The rules of life seemed cast in stone. Then as the age of satellite television and Internet set in and documentaries on wildlife were easily accessed, the macho traits of human beings and its parallels in the animal world became not just clearer; they seemed amusing, even comical. Yet human society, which still respects the inherited, cares little for new insight gained by observing the world. The machismo and domination continue unquestioned as primer to cement one’s rank. Life resembles high drama. That’s why the following two Malayalam films engaged my attention.
Released in September 2019, Jallikattu is a creative tour de force. Its idiom is unforgiving in that it makes no effort to tell a story as dialogue and narrative. Its language is rooted in cinema – a procession of visuals and sounds with characters, dialogues and background score playing second fiddle to it. Threaded together they depict (rather than narrate) reflectively, the goings on when a buffalo meant for slaughter breaks free and runs amok. The beauty of this film is the shades of reflection on human behavior, it offers. Keralites, who have known for long that there is well entrenched patriarchy and mischievous matriarchy below the outer layer of modernity gracing their society, quickly grasp the scenes flashing by and the reflections embedded in them. But the real courage in Jallikattu has to be the film maker’s. Releasing a film cast in said idiom to the market is a major call. Herein, I refer not to the subject of the movie – toxic masculinity – but how it is structured. It is so unlike the regular Indian and Malayalam movie. And yet, you watch it, end to end. Sometimes, we don’t need to be told dialogue by dialogue. We just need to be reminded; shown life as it is. We get it. It is brevity Malayalam films have been consistently getting good at.
Roughly five months later, in February 2020, the film Ayyappanum Koshiyum was released. Here, pretty much the same subject as was seen in Jallikattu – toxic masculinity, gets analyzed in a more viewer friendly manner with story, clear characters and good acting. It tells its story by pitting against each other two generic entities well known in Kerala for their machismo-worship – the rich, feudal, land owning patriarch (and his progeny) and the state’s traditional warrior class. But this opting for easily identifiable characters is only a vehicle for narration. The core content is compulsive masculinity (often deteriorating to toxic), the battles it spawns and the specter of bluster and buffoonery it inspires when viewed through contemporary lens. You also see women; those blended into this traditional patriarchy and those confronting it. As viewing experience, the film is imbalanced; after a relatively taut first half, the second half meanders into the known and typical, the ending being quite so.
Both films have a shared quality. They have characters who roar, seek an eye for an eye; they have scenes filled with action, scenes begging for action. They also never fail to put the machismo in context by rising above the immediate and gazing at it from the larger. Doing so, the endlessness of that aggression, the abject clownishness of it; all, surface. Not to mention, very unusually for Indian movies around dominant males, here, you smell the insecurity underlying the aggression. It is portrait of a male trap.
Films like these make lab monkeys of us.
Watching us from the outside, we begin to see.
(The author, Shyam G Menon, is a freelance journalist based in Mumbai.)