July 29, 2016 (Bengaluru), July 8, 2016 (Chennai), June 17 (Kerala)
Sanal Kumar Sashidharan
Nisthar Ahamed, Pradeep Kumar P.M., Girish Nair, Baiju Netto, Arun Nayar, R. Reju Pillai, Abhija Sivakala
Writer-director Sanal Kumar Sashidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game) is a deceptively calm film. Like the water in that brook bubbling softly beside the primary location, it appears serene from a distance. Plunge below the tranquil surface though, and what you get is a chilling saga of caste, class, colour and misogyny in our society.
The hypocrisy in that outward calm and in the simmering tension beneath that veneer of peaceful co-existence are rendered all the more poignant because the story takes place in Kerala, a state that is romanticised and mythified in the north Indian imagination due to its high literacy rate and other positive social development indicators. That said, though the film is rooted in Kerala, it mirrors social realities across India. The language may be Malayalam, but it would hold meaning in any Indian language. Its cultural specificity is complemented by the universality of its themes.
This is a seemingly simple yet intimidatingly complex film. And it is stunning.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali is about five friends gathered at a remote country house. They have an off day from work due to elections in the state, hence the title. A local woman is roped in to cook them a meal, while they drink several rounds of alcohol.
From the moment we first spot these five middle-aged men together, the film delivers a running commentary on Kerala society. Liquor is a pre-occupation. Women are trivialised. Dark skin is mocked. One of them is addressed by the group as Thirumeni (holy one); we later discover that his surname is Namboothiri (read: a member of the priestly caste). Dasan’s complexion is the subject of much discussion. His caste ranking gradually becomes evident from the unspoken assumptions made about tasks he will handle and the later repeated taunts about “his party”.
Three things flow in plenty on this off day, as on all days in Kerala: conversation, alcohol and prejudice. The friends discuss the Emergency, caste, dignity of labour and sexual violence. In one of the film’s most telling passages, they sing a cheery song about beating up their wives. That women are their playthings is evident from that drunken number, and from their attitude to the cook Geetha.
Based on a story by Unni R., Ozhivudivasathe Kali rambles along as if nothing in particular is happening, yet it is an assemblage of potential explosions. Everyone except Geetha appears to be in a light-hearted mood, yet each one harbours resentments that run deep. It is those resentments – vicious and volcanic – that culminate in the film’s unexpected, horrifying climax.
If that climax has the ability to knock the breath out of a viewer, it is primarily because Ozhivudivasathe Kali feels not like a film but like an extract from real life. DoP Indrajith S. keeps his camera invisible, the acting is natural and the speech unscripted. That last part is unsurprising: there were, in fact, no written dialogues before the shooting began.
Rather than a loud background score to needlessly heighten the drama, the film ropes in sound designer T. Krishnanunni to weave nature seamlessly into, around, through and past the men’s endless chatter. The breeze, the brook, the birds and the rain are Ozhivudivasathe Kali’s music except in the beginning and end when composer Basil Joseph unobtrusively steps in.
Interestingly, the film does not seek to canonise victims of marginalisation, as lazily written commercial cinema often does. Dasan (played by Baiju Netto) may be bristling with anger at Dalit oppression, yet he too is a purveyor of misogyny. There also emerges during their talk, a hierarchy in hate: Vinayan (Pradeep Kumar P.M.) deems it acceptable to leer at Geetha (Abhija Sivakala) but believes that an actual physical relationship requires a woman’s consent, Asokan (Arun Nayar) says there is an element of rape in all sexual intercourse between a man and woman, we can guess without being told that Dharman (Nisthar Ahamed) agrees. (Aside: Girish Nair plays Namboothiri/Thirumeni.)
Revulsion for these men is partnered by fascination. It is impossible to look away. The camera understands that and remains unrelenting in its pursuit of them. The denouement is filmed in a single shot that lasts almost 48 minutes. It is exhausting, but enthralling.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali deservedly won the FIPRESCI Award for Best Malayalam Film at the International Film Festival of Kerala 2015 and Best Film at the Kerala State Film Awards in the same year. It got a theatrical release in its home state in June, hit Chennai early last month and is now in Bangalore theatres. This is a film that needs to be seen not just by Malayalis, but by everyone, not just by adults, but by children too.
As it happens, the usually queasy, politically conservative Central Board of Film Certification has given Ozhivudivasathe Kali a UA certificate. The director lets on that the Board asked for two voice mutes but no cuts. In an ideal world, even that should not have happened, but considering that the country’s Dalit agitation has reached a flashpoint in Gujarat – a state very dear to the present Central Government – it is a miracle that the film has been released at all.
Opening shots of the election mayhem in the film shows swarms of flags bearing political party symbols: the Congress’ hand, the hammer and sickle, the BJP’s lotus. A flock of BJP supporters drive by on motorcycles shouting “Bharat Mata ki jai (Hail Mother India)”. What follows is a story about the games played by the aforesaid Mata’s favoured children: upper caste, upper class, Hindu and male.
Ozhivudivasathe Kali is a socio-politically and culturally precious cinematic gem. Kerala, Chennai and Bangalore are fortunate. If it is not released in your city, the loss is entirely yours.
Rating (out of five): ****1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ozhivudivasathe_Kali