The games city people play

Posted on July 16, 2016


The recent Malayalam drama ‘Ozhivudivasathe Kali’ is the latest in a line of films that involve game-playing in the wilderness.

I caught Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-day Game), Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s acclaimed Malayalam drama, when it was released in Chennai last week. The story is set during an election day, a dry day, and it’s about five urbanites who just want to go somewhere and drink in peace. What better place than a forest where “even God wouldn’t know if someone was murdered here”? I was a little dismayed that I wasn’t responding to the film the way I thought I would, given the ecstatic reviews. Was it due to my reliance on the subtitles that are proficient, but also perfunctory? (The dialogues in Malayalam are said to be hilarious.) Or maybe it was my distance from the “Malayali ethos,” which makes itself felt in every conversation between these men – for instance, the specifics of the state’s engagement with Communism even as its citizenry kneels before the capitalism embodied by the Gulf.

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Shorn of these insights, the film plays out like a series of simple-minded messages. Men can be pigs with women who aren’t their wives. We are all corrupt. We still discriminate on the basis of caste, class, skin colour. And so forth. The ending is terribly contrived (even when seen as allegory), and the thesis points are bludgeoned home. The sole woman in the film says, “What do votes mean to us? It’s all a game by you men.” A dark-skinned man, rather improbably, recites “When I born, I black,” the poem that became an Internet sensation a decade ago. And all of this is underscored by the heavy (and heavy-handed) irony of the election analysis on TV. The more things change…

But stylistically, I found the film very interesting. Despite an over-reliance on static shots, some of the compositions are beautiful, and the post-interval portion is breathtakingly staged as one uninterrupted shot. My favourite stretch: the long scene of a fight and the eventual reconciliation, an absolute stunner. What a miracle this digital era is. When Hitchcock made Rope in 1948, he wanted to present the entire film in one unbroken take, but because the camera could only hold so much film, he had to “cheat” every time the film roll needed to be changed. He’d zoom into the back of a character’s jacket, say, and then zoom out from the same spot after replacing the film roll – different shots, but they “look” like the same shot. You can kill a lot of time imagining the kind of shots Hitchcock would have pulled off in his films with a digital camera.

But the reason we are discussing Ozhivudivasathe Kali is the game that becomes the centrepiece of the second half. On the surface, it’s a children’s game. The players pick a small piece of paper which names the part they are to play: cop, robber, king or minister.  The person who ends up cop has to guess who the robber is, and so on. Sounds like fun, but it’s anything but. The game, ultimately, ends up revealing the ugliness inside these men, inside us. There is punishment (and we note the glee with which it is dispensed). There are bribes to escape this punishment (socially relevant point alert: this is possible only for the privileged). There’s even murder.

Something about urban folk heading into the wilderness makes filmmakers reach for games. One of the most celebrated sequences in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) – again, a story about four men from a city motoring away from the moorings of civilisation – shows the men meeting up with two women in the forest, and playing a “memory game.” The first player names a famous person (say, Rabindranath), the second player has to append the name of another famous person (Rabindranath, Karl Marx), the third one continues (Rabindranath, Karl Marx, Cleopatra)… The name uttered by each player functions like the personality-revealing responses in Jung’s word-association tests. As with Ozhivudivasathe Kali, the game isn’t just something that people play. It’s who they are.

Then we have John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), which plays out like an adult version of The Hunger Games. Four suburbanites from Atlanta – Lewis, Ed, Bobby, Drew – set out on a canoeing trip in “just about the last, wild, untamed, unpolluted, un-f****ed-up river in the South.”  In other words, another journey by city folk into the heart of darkness. During the drive to their destination, one of them says, “I’m gonna have you back in your little suburban house in time to see the football game on Sunday afternoon.” At this stage, the notion of a game is still harmless, something contained in a television set. But slowly, the term acquires an edge. It alludes to the games Lewis plays with the “hillbillies” who run a gas-filling station. It embodies Lewis’s macho philosophy of life. “Machines are gonna fail. And the system’s gonna fail. Then… survival. Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game: survive.”

A little later, Ed and Bobby stumble upon a couple of hillbillies literally out to play games. They tie Ed up to a tree and one of them sodomises Bobby, but not before sitting on him, riding him like a horse, and demanding that he squeal like a pig. Were it not for the rape, it could be a child’s game, like the one in Ozhivudivasathe Kali. Simple rules, shocking consequences. A few scenes later, Lewis, the self-appointed leader of the group, is immobilised by an injury. Ed asks, “What the hell do we do now?” Gasping for breath, Lewis says, “Now you get to play the game.” Finally, a nod to the 1997 David Fincher thriller called… The Game, in which a city dweller is forced to deal with his inner savage when plunged into a metaphorical wilderness, when the comforts of his ultra-civilised life are slowly stripped away. It’s yet another spin on the premise of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, that the line between civilisation and savagery is a thin one that gets thinner the more man heads into the wild.

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