Ravi, Frida and Pilar
Malayalam filmmaker Ranjit's most critically acclaimed films so far have been 'Paleri Manikyam' and 'Pranchiyettan' (both were big money-spinners as well). But I don't think either was a masterpiece. Admittedly, 'Paleri' had an absolutely authentic-looking central character played by Mammootty and interesting observations on the Communist movement of north Kerala and but its core story felt like a dumbed-down parody of Karamasov - brothers troubled and haunted by the shared karma of a dead father and his bank of sins, a burden they can only add to. 'Pranchiyettan' had its moments as well but was marred by several clumsy passages ( the advent of 'Padmasree' and the silly yoga-master to name a couple), not to speak of its tasteless swipe at Oscar-winner Rasool Pookkutty.
Now Ranjit has come up with 'Njaan'. It does not seem to have won the same acclaim as the aforementioned films; and it certainly did not make much money. But I found 'Njaan' distinctly more interesting than anything its maker did earlier.
I confess my judgement is colored by personal experience: the frame story of 'Njaan' is driven by a seemingly successful IT professional who writes a widely-red blog and has decided to write a play, an event eagerly anticipated by some hard-core (and hugely appreciative) theatre buffs. The parallels: I was in IT for long, I certainly blog and I have written a play. The divergences: I never had it very good in IT, my blog has had but a handful of readers and the play I wrote and published several years ago was a non-event.
Now for the real stuff:
Watching 'Njaan', one senses 'Paleri' persisting as a hangover in many of the key elements - an investigator so omniscient he does not need to investigate anything, a son haunted by his late father's moral transgressions... (and the over-appreciative theatre group, eagerly lapping up everything ladled out by the all-knowing young hero, is a throwback to yet another Ranjit film, 'Thirakkatha'). But, slowly examining the protagonist Narayanan's bond with an illegitimate half-brother born to a free-spirited 'Kurathi' fortune-teller (the latter was also hired from beyond the pale of caste-restrictions as wet-nurse to the legitimate son), 'Njan' matures to connect with Khasakian dilemmas of lust and guilt and their oppressive karmic baggage. Also striking were the film's snatches of fantasy (or is it magical realism?) - the increasingly disturbed Narayanan puts up dozens of little mirrors on the walls of his room and they all begin to show the specter of his recently deceased aunt; in another episode, his blind bride 'sees' long-gone ancestors peering beatifically at the couple from a balcony. Towards the close, setting out on his final fateful journey, Narayanan confronts his father's spirit and speaks lines which are almost identical to Ravi's final farewell to his absent father (that the young investigator probing Narayanan's dark secrets is also named Ravi was almost certainly a conscious decision).
In a curious coincidence, the day after I saw the film, I heard Artist-Scholar Dr. C S Jayaram speak on 'Ekphrasis'. During the course of his hugely informative and provocative presentation, Prof. Jayaram presented an extended meditation on the painting My Nurse and I by Mexican artist Frida Kahlo. I was struck by the uncanny parallels between the Native American wet-nurse's shower of milk and the outcaste Kurathi's unfettered generosity.
And just as I was keying in the above lines, thoughts wandered off again towards Latin America and fetched from some dark corner, vague memories of some character from Marquez's 'One Hundred Years of Soliutde'. Searching online, I saw this page. Excerpts.
"(In the scheme of 'One Hundred Years of Solitude'), Unlike the "proper" women of Macondo's founding generation, Pilar Ternara is a free-wheeling agent, answerable to no one—the complete opposite of proper and sexually repressed characters such as Úrsula and Fernanda del Carpio. She arrives in the Buendía household to help with the domestic tasks and progresses from managing the kitchen chores to sexually initiating the Buendía sons into manhood and fatherhood. ... But sexual attraction is not the only reason this raunchy woman acts like a magnet for the Buendía men. It's her spontaneity, emotional understanding and unconditional devotion that draw them to her. Along with her raucous peals of laughter Pilar dispenses tenderness, compassion, and a joie de vivre that's missing in the Buendía women. ...
Pilar represents a different dimension of female power. In some ways she's traditional, completely loyal and devoted to caring for her men. But Pilar cannot escape her low social status, nor she does not have the seal of approval that comes with marriage. She is not a wife, but a prostitute. Pilar gives birth to the first offspring of the Buendía sons, making it possible for the Buendía lineage to carry on. Despite being a pariah she occupies a privileged space in the novel, right alongside "decent" women. The only Buendía to decipher the gypsy manuscripts goes to Pilar for the advice he needed to continue on. Her powers go beyond the arts of domesticity—she heals the psyche and reads the future in the Tarot....Buendía women like Úrsula, Rebeca, and Meme seek out Pilar and her cards, as do the men, during times of doubt or crisis. Clearly, Pilar, as possessor of the secrets of fertility, memory, eroticism and clairvoyance, occupies a primary and critical space in the novel..."
For long many critics have been looking for parallels between Macondo and Khasak. Vijayan often had to take and parry questions on the alleged debt he owed Marquez (although, to my knowledge, nobody asked Marquez whether he knew of Khasak before writing '... Solitude'). However, very personally speaking, 'Njaan' has become a very real and interesting bridge between the two masterworks.