Films & Feni: Elephants and Eternal Life

Posted on December 3, 2009


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DEC 3, 2009 – FILMMAKERS HAVE LONG ENDEAVORED to dispense bitter medicine in the form of sugar-coated pills, but in doing so, they seldom manage the trick of getting past the audience’s gag reflex. Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukhtankar, with their Ek Cup Chya (the title is a euphemism for greasing the palm), succeed, to a large extent, in this regard – the bitter medicine of their choice being the Right to Information Act, which they seek to educate the audience about. Yes, there are the inevitable ungainly stretches where exposition comes in the way of entertainment, but this story of a hapless bus conductor hit by a whopping electricity bill is serviced by an excellent cast and empathetic writing, leading these people right into our hearts. Even the toughest of cynics will find it hard to resist the tug of such warm-spirited optimism.

I HAVE NO HESITATION DECLARING that Tomas Villum Jensen’s At World’s End is the strangest foreign film I saw here – and not just because an early scene features a snaking turd in an unflushed toilet. You walk into a Danish film and you expect the austerities of Carl Dreyer, not the adventures in some sort of Nordic Indiana Jones. But as this isn’t quite Hollywood, the hero isn’t all that heroic, the editing not all that breakneck, and the humour not all that expected. But yes, there is a damsel in distress – and she’s blonde. It’s all about a 129-year-old man kept alive by a plant that grants eternal life, and it’s easily the most rollicking festival film ever.

AIJAZ KHAN’S THE WHITE ELEPHANT is a sweet, simple fable about a village drunk (Prroshanth Narayannan) who’s forced to house and care for a locally revered pachyderm. The film is set in Kerala, and it took me a while to get used to the sound of chaste Hindi, filled with colloquial colour, dripping from the mouths of men in mundus and women with sandal paste on their foreheads. (Was it not possible to get financing for the film in Malayalam?) But as the story got going, with evil powers out to possess the holy elephant, these apparent contradictions receded into the background. The story goes on a bit too long for its own good, but there’s a sleepy sweetness to it that’s damn-near irresistible. In the long-ago days of Doordarshan, The White Elephant would have been the perfect Sunday-noon watch.

FOR A FILM SET IN KERALA but where the characters actually speak Malayalam, I had to head towards Shaji N Karun’s awkwardly titled Kutty Srank: The Sailor of Hearts. (Sounds like a cheesy romance, no?) Mammooty plays the eponymous boatman who is revealed to us through the eyes of three women. The film begins with a burst of testosterone, all blood and macho swagger, and gradually softens with the arrival of the heroines – after a point Kutty Srank is no longer the actor but the acted upon. This is not an easy film to watch, and some of the supporting cast (along with the production values) could have used a radical overhaul. But it’s ultimately a very rewarding narrative, with multiple viewpoints and layers converging to form a man who always remains a mystery.

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