Three tight whacks and the book of Avarna revelations in Ee Ma Yau

Ee Ma Yau is a film about three tight whacks.

The first occurs a minute into the film. That one, looking up from the boats is Chowro. A fisherman of a face so timelessly contorted that he could walk into any of the several decades of ads for Digene or Pudin Hara and signal reflux without even opening his mouth, Chowro walks up to an aging gent who has just tumbled out of a bus and plies him with questions about where he has been. This is Vavachan.

His visible lack of enthusiasm for such conversation sparks a moment of malice from Chowro. Your daughter has been fooling around in your absence, and is now pregnant, he says. Vavachan knocks him to the ground, and it is such a hard knock that Chowro walks around for the rest of the film with an incongruously white plaster flapping from the bloodied cheek.

Vavachan manages all this while holding on to a duck and a bag. After he gets home, the contents are revealed to be some bottles of country liquor and a stack of pre-demonetisation 500-rupee notes. The duck is a peace-offering to his wife Pennamma. The duck is accepted even as she gives him a tongue-lashing for having been away. He says nothing but sits outside the house mumbling to himself about how whacking Chowro was the right thing to do.

In a moment, his daughter Nisa appears, and Vavachan’s mouth makes the shape of a question about what he has heard, but what comes out instead is a conversation about something else. Nisa notices that change in direction, and asks about it, but Vavachan says nothing.

When Eesi, his son, returns from work, Vavachan tells him instead about his own father’s funeral, and how grand it was. So grand that he wanted to be the person dead, for a moment. I will do that for you, says the son as he plies him with the brandy that he has stood in a queue to buy.

The father is so kicked that he pulls out the notes, and offers them to his son, causing much laughter about what they’re worth now. They’re good for feeding into the fire that I cook by, says his wife from her window. We never see the notes again.  Vavachan takes several swigs from the other bottle, gets into an expansive mood, totters off to pee, has a mysterious vision instead, comes back to perform lines from a Chavittunatakam routine for his son, and falls down and dies before anybody notices that it is happening.

Eesi is paralysed at this moment of loss, but his wife Sabeth runs to her neighbour Paanchi’s house for help, and he picks up the baton she has tossed him and runs to tell all the neighbours who arrive to be with the family. This is a moment of kinetic camerawork, a disclosure of the many strands of the web that holds their shacks and lean-tos in precarious community against the open maw of the sea.

It is in this bustling together that we can locate the second whack in the film. This one goes out from Ayyappan, Eesi’s friend, played with pop-eyed, bared-teeth intensity by Vinayakan. Even at rest, his face is a grimace in which an anguish from within plays cat-and-mouse with the need to take charge of the world around him.

The recipient of Ayyappan’s slap is a lineman, and he receives this as a pending response for taking too lightly a prior plea that power be restored for the vigil that a bereaved family must sit. Don’t forget I’m a government employee, says the slapped man. Be off, is Ayyappan’s reply, even as Eesi holds him back from doing more. That moment is Ayyapan’s autobiography, a revelation of the all-there sincerity he brings to personal relations, and to his job as local body member.

Image Credits: Deccan Chronicle
Image Credits: Deccan Chronicle

Community is the hedgehog problem in Pellissery’s film. It is the many moments of generosity that come unbidden from Paanchi, Ayyappan, Maneek, and from nameless women from the neighbourhood who do much more than they say.

It is also a constant carping, an unending number of nips that might drive a sane person to distraction. There is Chowro to do this across the length of the film, and Lazar, Eesi’s friend, who unapologetically floats a story of death in suspicious circumstances just to see what will happen (‘njan oru resethinu vendi paranjatha’— ‘’I said it for kicks’). This unsolicited gift for narrative travels far in no time, and that is how the third whack comes about.  

This whack is administered by Chempan’s character Eesi, to no less a personage than the parish priest, Fr. Zacharia Parappurath.  It sends the priest tumbling across the screen and is his reward for activating what he sees as a canny but necessary investigation of the suspicious circumstances.

Each whack in effect announces who is subsequently going to own the camera’s attention, but we can still ask of Eesi a question made famous by YouTube in India. To wit, how can he slap? Each prior whack is a repudiation of the power that somebody has claimed, but what is Eesi’s slap about?

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The two big Lijo Pellisery films so far —Amen and Angamaly Diaries—seemed to suggest that he had no interest in making anything other than caste epics.  Both films were set squarely within a Nasrani universe. Other communities were notable by their absence or did not prove difficult in any cinematic sense.

Amen adroitly disappears caste with generous dabs of saccharine romance interspersed into a folkloric representation of Nasrani life (including, harsh-smarsh, some off-screen mentions of Garcia Marquez and ‘magic realism’).  Angamaly Diaries was even more galling since Pelissery seemed uninterested in giving narrative heft to the fairly obvious caste tensions that bring characters like Aappaani Revi into conflict with Babujee and then Pepe.

With Ee Ma Yove, Pellisery seems to do the thing he feared to do before—a direct engagement with the truth that Christianity has succumbed to caste in Kerala.

But perhaps we err in assuming for Pellissery a kind of unquestionable auteurship that discovers its own blind spots to progress thence to a more inclusive vision. The moving camera, the staging, and indeed all the other gifts that define the director’s admittedly unique cinematic imagination are merely the means by which we uncover the ethnographic thickness and narrative verve that the script conceals. He is the student here, not the maestro.

 If there must be a name above the title, that honour must go naturally to PF Mathews, the writer and scenarist who draws from a familiar world.  Pellissery’s real triumph is in being able to subordinate his many talents to serving faithfully the swerve that Mathews brings to scripting, without seeking to edit, footnote, mute or diminish it.  In short, to subdue his Savarna self to an Avarna vision.

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There are at least two ways of ensuring ethnographic disclosure when it comes to Malayalam cinema. The polite form is to let names and accents speak for themselves, without mentioning caste.  The form that Mathews favours is more direct, and yet very deeply embedded in cues from local history and geography.

A conversation about funerals between father and son is a moment of explicit naming—that they are Latin Catholics. This moment is augmented by another crucial reminder; by the father breaking into the archaic Tamizh lyrics of Chavittunatakam, the stomping dance-narrative form associated with the community, A small digression will help us see the significance of this moment.

Histories of the Latin Catholic community talk of four caste-based divisions in the community. The Aruvathinaalukaar, (literally, the people of the sixty-four), descended from Brahmin and Nair converts and a possible remnant from the Portuguese attempt at bring the Nasranis under their control; the Munnoottukaar (‘the Three Hundred’) also called Topass, of mixed-race origins; the Anjoottukaar (‘the Five Hundred’) who were largely converts from the Mukkuvan or fishermen caste;  and the Ezhunoottukaar (the Seven Hundred), descended from  other castes, including Pulayanmar and Parayanmar, according to some accounts. 

The complexities of Latin Christian origins are further underlined by the fact that Kerala offers them OBC status selectively, paying close attention to such hyphenated distinctions as Latin Catholic—Mukkuvan, Latin Catholic-Ezhava, and Latin Catholic-Nadar in different districts of the state.

The distinction between the Anjoottukaar and the Ezhunnottukaar may thus not be entirely one of caste but could have come from the fact that they were pressed into serving their colonial masters, whether Portuguese or Dutch, in regiments of such numbers. 

What is clear is that these groups are predominantly of Avarna origin. The interesting thing about the Chavittunatakam conversation is that it is set in Chellanam village of Ernakulam, a zone famous for rivalries between the Anjoottukaar and Ezhunoottukaar styles of Chavittunatakam, and that Vavachan is a carpenter, a profession associated with the Ezhunoottukaar.

In writing of Chellanam, Mathews exposes the way in which caste veins the structures of everyday experience. The mixed experience of everyday brotherhood and everyday sniping is to be understood this background of Anjootttukaar-Ezhunoottukaar rivalry—both the easy conversation that Vavachan has about the sea and the day’s catch with a neighbour, and the gossipy damage that Lazar and Chowro do to the funeral come from this context.

These disclosures of horizontal jostling are continuous with the small signs of distaste and distance by which a larger hierarchy among the Latin Catholics is announced—the fact that the doctor cannot be woken up to certify that Vavachan died of natural causes, the contempt with which the Christian nurse treats their mourning, the bristle in the venda with which the priest refuses tea at their house, the entirely different bristle from the priest when Eesi enters his house, the subtle syllabic variations that mark the distance between these luminaries and Eesi’s family as one of caste, the almost-anthropological, ‘these fellows’ suspicion with which nurse and priest receive the fairly straightforward story of the father’s demise, and even in simple details like which houses have emphatic statements of ownership such as actual compounds and walls. All this, I suppose, would be reading too much. Nevertheless, I will.             

Image Credits: New Indian Express
Image Credits: New Indian Express

The thickness of Mathews’ sociological disclosures is hardly confined to the mere identification of caste, or to the ramifications of local hegemony. There are little spots of filigree work which allow the intricate structures of individual relationships to show up.

Male friendships seem to rest on an unselfish gift of time. We have only the haziest about what Ayyappan, Paanchi, and Maneek actually do. Being there, and sharing Eesi’s load, is the most explicit way in which this gift is offered.

Relations between men and women within the family are just as finely done. When Eesi is paralysed by grief, there is a moment of exceptional tenderness in which his wife Sabeth gets him to snap out of it. 

Pennamma is no meek wife, as we have seen, and yet she is a kind mother-in-law who doesn’t mind slogging while Sabeth has an easier time. That kindness is the subject of much badinage between both women.

Nisa is out of the home with her boyfriend at dawn, and nobody piles on to her about it. When Sabeth catches Nisa coochie-cooing on the phone, it does not turn into family drama but into frank teasing—you must be tired, says the older woman, implying that more than just sweet-talk has been happening.  

The ease between men and women that Mathews’ script narrates is a response that turns the dosa on the Savarna view of Latin Christian women being too forward and independent. 

We see many times that there is less bullshit between the sexes; a looser patriarchy first expressed in that delicate moment where Vavachan chooses not to be family autocrat, and indeed, not to interrogate Nisa about anything.

That said, Vavachan is free to run off and be with another wife, and another family in a way that Pennamma is not. Sabeth’s moment of nurture does not make her immune to Eesi’s asking for the gold chain on her neck—we never find out if he keeps his promise of retaining the thali that dangles from that chain. 

He can also turn on her and say I don’t know what you put in the food you gave my father to get his way.  She can only wail in response. It may be looser, but it is still patriarchy; Mathews does not flinch from making that admission. 

Mathews’ dialogues crackle with a hyperkinetic orality through the film but ascend to some other level when the women begin grieving for the dead man.  Pennamma’s keening after Vavachan is in effect the soundtrack for most of the film.

It is also the Kannokku-pattu that her husband ardently desires as part of his dream of going like a king. It flies up into the air and becomes song as she recalls the duck and potato curry they had made for him, only to be given away, When Chowro arrives, she sings again, and then a lot more when Sabeth’s parents arrive about how he made no fuss when they dilly-dallied on the dowry.  Pouly Valsan holds this role with authority, allowing little bits of work with the jaw to signal transitions between the tragic and the comic.

This public performance of grief—not very different from the oppari sung for dead people among Avarna Tamizh communities—raised titters in the cinema-hall perhaps because it did remind the audience that death is done differently by Avarna folk.

Nisa finds an adequate fund of sadness from which to add to her mother’s musical grief when she realises that the boyfriend is hanging around only to feel her up. Her tears are replaced by words about being alone in the world, and at this moment she appears to break into womanhood and a kind of modernised kannokku all at the same time.

There’s one more bit of dosa-turning that Mathews writes into his script. The names that Latin Catholics take cause much tut-tutting among nasranis for being too European, and therefore inauthentic.  The names of the main characters— Pennamma, Sabeth, Eesi, and Nisa—don’t seem to correspond to that cliché till we hear the obituary being composed. It is then revealed that their names are actually Mariyam Theresa, Elizabeth, Eeso, and Agnes.

In this phonetic crunching, we are invited to see another Indianness, another way of giving Christianity a local habitation. There’s one other thing. Put together the fact that Vavachan is a carpenter, and the names Mariyam and Easo, and you have, almost, the holy family that the title refers to,

 This talent for ironic mischief does a lot of work at least once more in the film. The object of this tough-love is the priest, Zacharia Parappurath. You might wonder if such irony is needed after watching the dash—half-Poirot, half the pout of pig rooting for hidden treasure–with which the director Dileesh Pothen plays this curmudgeon.  He skulks about, eavesdrops on his parishioners, extracts conspiracies out of thin air, and shines a torch on practically everything, including his own face in one bizarre moment.

The name itself bears one delicious smidgen of irony. In the surname Parappurath (literally, upon the rock), paradoxically, abide the Pharisaical and casteist distance from which he looks on his shore-bound parishioners,  and many things that he is not: cue references to the wise man who built his house on rock, not on sinking sand; a hymning memory of Christ as that solid rock on which one might stand; a summoning-up of St. Peter, a fisherman, upon whose work and martyrdom the Church was built.

Appropriately so, for the priest is one aspect of the larger wound that the Avarna protagonist Eesi must deal with and it is irony that leads us thither. The irony inherent in denying burial to the man who built the altar ‘out of a single piece of wood’ is a moment of recognition. That the Avarna who labours for a Savarna-run church must labour in vain.

Another such moment is reserved for Eesi. The loss of a natural parent is the moment in which he meets the oppression that the ‘political father’, to borrow Barthes’ phrase, is capable of. Church, which is one form of this metaphorical Father, is occupied in denying him the dignity that he seeks—the artistic dignity of organising his father’s funeral according to his expressed last wish.

In declaring his father’s death a suspicious one, the priest completes a cycle begun by the unavailable doctor, the grasping moneylender, and the disgusted nurse who cannot believe that a man may have had many swigs from entirely different bottles in one night. That is why he must slap; that slap is the Dalit Christian’s response to a Church that has abandoned him.

And what of the State, the other form that the political Father must inevitably take? Ayyappan appeals to the kindly Circle Inspector, after we have heard a running gag about how the priest and the policeman could exchange uniforms, and tugs at his heart, and ours, in a moment that reveals him to be a sharer of Eesi’s artistic anxiety.

To no avail.  In Eesi’s experience, they are all busy playing Pontius Pilate, washing their hands, and heading him off. His slap is now a prelude to the small act of secession by which he settles the issue.

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PF Mathews sets himself a tough challenge in scripting this film. To wit, how may one write about caste without repeating old slogans, without hand-waving, and without trite solution-mongering. His response to this challenge, as we have seen, is a mode of writerliness that sets the viewer tripping back and forth between insight and irony.

One question remains. Is there any way in which we may talk of Ee Ma Yau as a Pelliserry film? Since that is still the name above the title.

If we persist with one question–why he is content to play second fiddle to Mathews’ script—some kind of answer begins to take shape. If we look at the direction his Angamaly Diaries took in its exposition of local crime, and we take into account the unignorable presence that Vinayakan brings to Ee Ma Yau, we may begin to speculate that Pellissery is locked in a kind of fascinated dialogue with Rajeev Revi.

Specifically, with the way the director seeks to travel out of a Savarna milieu in films like Kammattipaadam and Njan Steve Lopez. This dialogue has moments of agreement and discord, but at its heart is a simple question—what do these things mean in my world? It is this curiosity that leads him to Mathews.

There’s another form of intertextuality on offer. Reminders and ghosts from Pellissery’s previous films turn up and make knowing gestures at us. The glum Alby’s dumb love for Nisa and his accidents with the clarinet are an ironic inversion of the romance in Amen.

One of the comic moments in Angamaly Diaries is the arrival of a second wife at a funeral. That moment is played differently for us here. Barbara’s high-pitched arrival, claiming to be Vavachan’s wife, is shot like a mini-ride of the Valkyries and escalates things suitably.

Pellissery embarked on a direction reminiscent of Ken Loach with Angamaly Diaries. He began casting first-timers who nevertheless had lived experience of the local reality that he was chasing after. This break with previous practice was one of the things that defined that film.

Ee Ma Yau seems to continue in this direction of assembling an ensemble cast with the villagers of Chellanam. I’d pick out the man who plays Maneek for special attention—he doesn’t say much but owns the screen in bare-chested silence every time he appears.

One of Pellissery’s signatures is a fascination with malice, once gendered in South Indian cinema in the form of the villi, a scheming woman who seeks power.  His is a specific fascination with the masculine talent for such malice.  This character is called Veshakkol in Amen, is a relative of Aappani’s in Angamaly Diaries, and flowers into multiple forms in this film. Another such signature is a reliance on choric commentary—the toddy-tapper in Amen, Pepe’s voice-over in Angamaly Diaries, and the men playing cards in this film. He returns to one other element from Amen—a strident anti-clericalism that reveals priests to be so lost in veniality that they cannot play pastor any more.

Vargas Llosa was once fascinated with writing the ‘total novel’, an idea derived from Flaubert, where the author produces a version of reality that is simultaneously faithful to what is while also being more ordered than the one slapped together by an absent-minded God. We can, without too much injustice to these writers, impute a similar ambition to Pellissery—the ‘total film’. 

It’s an ambition to take you there; you never stop hearing the sea, the winds that arise there, the rain that comes pounding down from there, or seeing the engulfing darkness against which so many make ineffectual combat via adjusted tube lights and torches.  The little hovel that the protagonists live in is simultaneously a box of curiosities; the camera never settles long enough for you to make out whose photographs those are, lining the walls.

Why do so many of Pellissery’s films end with such lavish delight in the midst of crowds, the unfilmable bane that Indian films generally like to avoid?  Perhaps because crowds are an acknowledgment of the carnival that sits at the heart of film-making; the mixing of differences before the repressive controls of society take over again.

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Arul Mani

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