India / 1985 / Malayalam & Tamil

Directed by Govindan Aravindan

With Bharath Gopi, Smita Patil, Sreenivasan

Still From 'Chidambaram'A Bhojpuri folk song, sung throughout the diaspora (in Trinidad, Mauritius, Fiji, and elsewhere), relates the image of two swans in a pond, a male and a female. The pond, the lyrics go, cannot be beautiful without a lotus. Helen Myers, who documented the song for years in her brilliant ethnomusicology work, generally speaks of it as a song about family ties; the pond represents the wedding tent, and the lotus represents a sister-in-law and her importance to the ritual proceedings. But, like most folk songs, it can have other metaphors snaking away from the central image. Perhaps the swans are husband and wife, and the lotus, the growth of their environment, is the love that they must maintain to keep their house livable.

There are no lotus ponds in the film Chidambaram, but flowers abound in it, seemingly metaphors for marital connection that nonetheless hold within them a subversive line to the freedom of the wilderness. Visually the flowers recall the complexity of human relations, even while standing stock still, ready and open.

Shankaran is the overseer of a cattle farm in Munnar, a high-altitude region of Kerala that in places resembles Wiltshire or upstate New York. Tea plantations cover the hills with a smooth uniformity, and autumny trees bound the winding roads. He spends much of his time alone, drinking, or going on lone excursions into the idyllic countryside, looking at folk art and taking photos. But he also has an easygoing sociability around the few people he encounters. A cowherd named Muniyandi comes to him one day to excitedly announce his upcoming marriage. Shankaran seems genuinely happy for him, and agrees to help  finance the wedding.

The man’s new bride comes from Muniyandi’s home village in Tamil Nadu, in the area of the temple town of the film’s title. The young woman, Sivakami, is reserved and childlike, Snow White-ishly drawn to the tender calves in the stables and the great, big flowers of the garden. The first time she sees Shankaran, he is taking her picture as the wedding photographer. The next time in the film she encounters him, this time on a lonely stretch of road, he unabashedly takes out his camera again and begins assaulting her with clicks, this time without her husband in the frame.

She later comes to him asking for help writing a letter home. Seemingly without anything to do, Sivakami wanders the fields and forests. Since she is a newlywed in a foreign place, and really can’t be seen talking to another man, a sort of furtive friendship seems to develop between her and Shankaran. But it is still mitigated by so many social barriers.

Chidambaram2The few times the two share a scene together, there is a certain degree of violation happening. The caste system aside, it would be impossible for him to have a similarly uncomplicated interaction as he does with Muniyandi. Others around him, such as the caretaker, Mr. Jacob, look down on Shankaran’s apparent caste-blindness. Jacob turns up his nose at the two of them drinking together and, later in the film, shows up at Muniyandi and Sivakami’s cottage to remind them to pay him deference. While Shankaran tries to be the good manager, he perhaps unwittingly exploits his position of power by objectifying the young woman.

A few side characters emerge, notably a bartender who scolds almost everyone who tries to buy his liquor, and a doctor who repeatedly tells Shankaran that embracing religion is the best way to cure alcoholism. But essentially, this is a three-character picture. Those three characters do not remain static: Shankaran, in particular, undergoes a change in the final act, gradually joining the scraggly crowd of wandering mendicants that populate virtually all of Aravindan’s films.

Meanwhile, as Sivakami transforms from being a distant object of gaze to a real person, she becomes complicated to Shankaran and to us. While in the wedding scene, he hardly seems to notice her, she leaches into his thoughts. He never seems happy, permanently tussled. When Jacob, showing off for a visiting film crew, says something crude about Sivakami, Shankaran loses it and attacks the man. Things appear to be building, pointing somewhere, but behind the scenes, latent in the quiet trees and birdsong.

Chidambaram5While Shankaram pursues her, mainly visually, Mr. Jacob threatens her, and Muniyandi insists that she is the “Laxmi” (a goddess) of the household, and shouldn’t take a job. She sees local women working in the field (ones who actually look the part), gathering hay, and registers pangs of guilt. The film makes Sivakami an idealized lower-caste woman, held in place both by her marriage in a distant land and by the gaze of the protagonist. Like Shyam Benegal’s The Seedling (1974), the film interrogates the self-consciously “progressive” boss who claims not to notice or give credence to caste. He seems unaware of his own advantage when he pursues an exploitative relationship with a far more socially vulnerable woman.

Chidambaram reflects her oppression and his lack of awareness by revealing almost nothing. The film shows little of the central transgression that is, nominally, what it is about: a possible adulterous romance between them. We hardly see any of that unfolding, and director Aravindan seems to have little interest in showing it. The dreaminess of the film’s pace gets violently halted by the horrible outcome. But even that seems to drift in, from the visual and sonic periphery, and go. In order to live in society, to assume our respective places in it, so much must be repressed. As if to emulate this stultifying instinct, the film submerges its essential workings, with the implications and intimations seeping through it like oil does to paper.

Aruna Vasudev notes the film’s power of suggestion in her book The New Indian Cinema, writing that, “Aravindan prefers the poetry of conjecture to the unequivocal fact. It is the colors that suggest mood and ideas. Aravindan uses colour as a philosopher might.” We get the sense of multiple allusions, but they lead away into the layers of the forest, and we can’t be sure exactly where. The simple exterior is there to catalyze the viewer’s imagination, to activate something vivid and extreme.

Chidambaram7This wild growth beneath the conventional messages and concrete characterizations aligns Chidambaram with most of Aravindan’s earlier work. But there’s a level of liquidity with the other films, whose focus is able to slide off into unexpected places and pool there. This film, perhaps because of its budget, is relatively forward-moving. Seeking financing for three years, the director eventually had to produce it himself, which surely gives it a more spartan quality. Chidambaram may well be the director’s most conventional film, and not just because popular actors appear in it. By a long-shot, it’s the closest thing to melodrama or tragedy that he did, albeit radically minimalist.

In one scene Shankaran and his secretary appear to see Sivakami through the window, but rather than showing how they are seeing her, there is just a straight jump-cut to her walking on the road. Strange non-matches such as this occur throughout the film, suggesting differing viewpoints, all of them relatively neutral. It’s also the subjectivity of the protagonist’s focus; this is how he sees her in his mind’s eye, not his literal eye. The shallowness of many scenes may belie director Aravindan’s background as a cartoonist, but there is also the frequent use of extreme perspective, shooting diagonally across the precipitous hillsides and ivy-covered buildings.

If you look at films that came before it, notably The Bogeyman (1979), Aravindan doesn’t so much describe nature, as he lets it describe itself. The pacing and visual spacializing let that happen, in quiet miracles, nearly all the time. He’s continually positing that the realms of nature and culture are intimately entwined. At first, that openness with nature appears not to have made it into this film. It is as though Aravindan were finally enclosing it, neatly, into a visual vocabulary – a garden, as it were. But as things start to dissolve for Shankaran, so too does nature become unmoored from relatable visual trappings. The landscapes free up, becoming more than landscapes, and we’re brought back to the luminous swathes of color that define Golden Sita (1977) and the aforementioned The Bogeyman.

Of course, the naturalism is also affected – either drawn or drawn from the environment – the near-wordlessness of his films artificial. If reality were being filmed, people would be talking way more. While Aravindan was lauded for casting tribal people to act out a story from the Ramayana in Golden Sita, he also caught criticism for dehumanizing them, for rendering them sullen statues. But both the quiet and the slowness reflect a sort of magical thinking about reality, a faith that enacting its impressions (and reminding us of it in numerous poignant ways) will coalesce into a better sort of film, one that heightens and enriches our awareness of the organic, accidental and sublime.

In expunging acting traditions, Aravindan creates something also quite far from cohesive naturalism. What we get from his films are a succession of pensive intervals, one after the next, the forgotten-about asides normally lost to narrative economy. Chidambaram has these as well, but it is also deceptively interior in how it treats its characters and their space. It is artifice in service of a dream. When Sivakami walks slowly away from the camera, she seems to sublimate into the pink and vermilion dusk. In this image, formed in the protagonist’s memory, she becomes a ghost, leaving his betrayal and all earthly constraints. The camera holds for a while, then giving in to the almost ruinous habit of unhinging, tilting up towards the sky, to a vague spot far and away from the human world.

Smita, an icon of “parallel cinema”, here may be in the most downplayed role that one is likely to find her in. The way that, as Sivakami, she sticks her entire face into the flowers, practically pollinating them, denotes a village girl who is simpler, more wide-eyed, and yet more corrupted than any character that a mainstream actress could pull off. She seems not only to be smelling, but also tasting, feeling, and listening to the exotic pollen of the flowers, so alien to the parched land where she comes from. It’s a simple action that encapsulates the pain of her journey and her sadness.

Still From 'Chidambaram'Gopi was one of those actors who seemed to shuffle with the combined weight of past characters. Here he is akin to both the Dostoyevskian simpleton he portrayed in Gopalakrishnan’s The Ascent (1977) and his role as the meandering poet Muktibodh in Mani Kaul’s Arising From the Surface (1980), but given a flickering fragility. His menu of impassive expressions are total, not infected by anything else. He’s an antecedent to actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui – and, to a much lesser extent, Irfan Khan – who have the ability to fill a frame, a room, even (when given the leeway) an entire film with their mesmerizing understatement.

Cinematographer Shaji N. Karun (who shot all of the Aravindan’s films except for his first) seems to work the lead actor’s negative magnetism, his propensity for forcing the viewer’s gaze off of him – even at times when he dominates the frame – and onto the surrounding environment. In the team’s most astonishing work, 1978’s The Circus Tent, they insert Gopi into a partially-documentary film, and he mixes homogeneously with all the non-actors, so unaffected is his presence. In Chidambaram he does what he does best – that is, renders a paradigm of the unhappy slob with pathos and inner frustration – but better. Wrecked and disheveled, habitually smoothing his threadbare comb-over, he seems disappointed in himself even before having done anything.

It can be hard to separate Aravindan’s work from the pseudo-mystical aura that surrounds him even today. The director himself did much to cultivate this among both his acolytes and the small audience for his intensely non-commercial films, explaining imagery in terms of its connection to nature and Vedic literature. And that contrived feeling of him being not of this world (or perhaps, more of this world than any of his contemporaries) gets perpetuated by critics in a way that seems only to blur more and more with the passage of time. People want to paint him as one of the itinerant sages he so often depicts. In Karun’s short documentary about him, made nearly ten years after the director’s death at age 55, we are treated to breathless, at times somewhat puzzled evaluations from friends and colleagues. In addition, Karun adds to it Aravindan’s own writings about his films, recited at an ecclesiastical whisper, sonically reproducing the man’s obsidian-black gaze and unobtrusive charisma.

Nonetheless, even if we isolate the films entirely from the idea – generated over the years – of their creator, look at them in their own light, we’re still left with fragments of a language that is arguably distinct from that of the cinema, and yet, which takes on the form of the visual medium to find its complete articulation.

Chidambaram3When Nandanar, the dalit saint whose lyrics Muniyandi drunkenly sings at the beginning of the film, was miraculously granted access to the temple at Chidambaram, a celebrated transgression occurred. Sivakami invites Shankaran to embark on a similar disruption of his physical station, but in the opposite direction. She is subversive to image of a lower-caste temptress (even as the film’s visuals idealize her) because it is her very leaving his presence that shows her power. One scene prefigures the image of Sivakami’s red sari dissolving into the atmosphere, and that is one in which she walks away from Shankaran, out of the bungalow and into the garden. She walks among the creeping vines and flowers, and seems at that moment as free as is possible. He can see her, but cannot possess her. For her, the disruption begins there, out of reach of anyone else. Then she is a swan without a lotus, without a pond.


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