Readers Write In #546: Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam – A Meditation on Existence

Posted on February 4, 2023


By Sudharsanan Sampath


I watched an exceptional film last week. I don’t know how to talk about this film yet, so I decided to write about it.

I watch a lot of films. Some entertain me, like the blockbusters, popcorn films that beg you to witness them on the big screen. Some, I forget as soon as I walk out of the theater. Some make a deep and lasting impact, and some …  only a rare few, earn a permanent place in my subconscious abyss. Sometimes I don’t even understand those films. Films like Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or Stalker, or Fellini’s 8½. I watched a film last week that found its way to my subconscious.  

Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, this title roughly translates to: A mid-afternoon nap or more specifically, a mid-afternoon drowsiness.  

Before talking about this film, just keep in mind that there are spoilers ahead. Not that it matters. It wouldn’t take away anything from the film.  

The film is directed by Lijo Jose Pelissery, a filmmaker who is quickly becoming one of my favorites, as he often deals with existential themes with a good dose of surrealism.  

The film stars one of my favorite actors Mamooty. At the ripe age of 70, he is choosing scripts that wouldn’t see the light of the day without a big star attached to it.  

So, what’s the story?  

A group of Malayali theater artists from Kerala, travel through rural Tamilnadu after their play. Our protagonist James, a cranky family man. There are a lot of things that he dislikes. He dislikes Tamil music, he dislikes Tamil food, he prefers old Malayalam songs. He is anxious to get back to his home. Their bus whirls past forests and fields. It’s a lazy afternoon, and everyone is asleep on the bus. Suddenly James wakes up, asks the driver to stop the bus and gets off. He just walks into the nearby field.  

James walks like he’s familiar with the place, and eventually he walks into a small village. He goes to a house, and starts speaking in Tamil, a language he previously didn’t know and disliked. He starts behaving like another man, a man called Sundaram, who disappeared from that house, and from that village, 2 years ago. He might have been dead. Not one person in the village knows what happened to Sundaram, not even his family.  

James walks, talks and acts like Sundaram, this Tamil man who is a complete stranger to James and his team. What happened? Is it a classic case of possession? Is James possessed by Sundaram’s ghost? Or is it some kind of personality disorder? The film doesn’t provide you with easy answers. What does it provide then? … Life.  

Many years ago, I was travelling on a Greyhound bus. From Toronto to somewhere in the Canadian north. It was the middle of the night. Everyone around me was sleeping. All the lights were off. I was looking out of the window into the cold winter’s night. After long stretches of darkness, the bus would pass by sleepy small towns.  

I would see distant homes, and streetlamps. Then the bus would quickly move on to empty fields and ravines. Then, another small town. I would often think about the people in those small towns. What were their lives like? They were probably sleeping in their houses. What else would one do at 2 am? Do they somehow know that there’s this stranger, on a moving bus, looking at their town, thinking about them? I didn’t know. But all I was left with was this feeling of nostalgia.  

That’s exactly the feeling that this film offers. It doesn’t offer resolution. It doesn’t even offer a story, in a traditional sense. It offers this feeling, a longing sense of nostalgia. Not just for the past, but also for the lives we’d never get to live. A longing for some kind of existential connection, which cannot ever be described accurately.  

Of course, I connected with this film on another level. I grew up in a very small town in Tamilnadu. There were a handful of houses, a nearby forest, peanut and rice fields, and a distant hill. Oh, and a lake. Life was slow. We had a cow and a calf. Our family delivered milk to our neighbors.  

When I walked around at night, moonlight was my only companion. I occasionally hear distant TV from someone’s house. Sometimes it felt like my town was the only community in the whole universe. A lot of the time was spent under the starry night sky. It was a quiet life.  

This film showcases life in one such small village, and it took me right back to my childhood. Everything on screen was heartachingly familiar.  

This film also talks about journeys. Both literal and metaphorical. At first, I was going to say that this film talks about death. But what is death, if not a journey.  

First, the theater artists are on a journey to get back to their home. Then James gets off the bus and goes off on his own journey to the village, a journey to become Sundaram.

James’ friends have no choice but to follow him on his journey. A character even quips, how if not for James, they wouldn’t have had any idea about the existence of this rural village and its people, and how the villagers wouldn’t have had any idea of the existence of this theater group. They would have gone on to live their whole lives, without meeting or knowing each other.  

Then the characters are on a literal journey to chase James, all through the village as he goes on about his new life. Even the village dog goes on a journey at the end, chasing his master as the film comes to an end.  

And what about Sundaram? The non-existent protagonist. Is the whole film, a journey that his soul goes through, just to see his family once more, just to go about his daily chores one last time, or sleep in his house one last time? We don’t know. But the most haunting scene in the film is when we get to see the real Sundaram. I’ll just leave it at that. 

As an aspiring filmmaker this film gave me strength. Strength to trust my subconscious mind, while writing my script. Strength to not over analyze or think about what an audience will or will not like. Strength to serve my art.  In my opinion, this film is on par with any of Tarkovsky’s, Bergman’s or Fellini’s work. 

Well, you made it to the end of my rant. All I can say is, watch the film. Your conscious mind may or may not like the film, but your subconscious mind will thank you.  


I made a video out of this essay too.