Traps You Fall Into and Traps of Your Making

in 20th International Film Festival of Kerala, Trivandrum

by Latika Padgaonkar

An Off-Day GameTwo International Critics Prizes are awarded every year at IFFK (International Film Festival of Kerala): one for a film in the International Competition section and the other in the Malayalam section. This year, at the 20th edition of the festival, both awards went to Malayalam films, to the utter delight of the Trivandrum public. Veteran director Jayaraj – winner of multiple awards at home and abroad – won in the first category, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan in the second.

Jayaraj’s film The Trap (Ottaal) is at once heart-warming and heart-breaking. Based on a story, Vanka, by Anton Chekov, it uplifts the viewer for most of its 81 minutes, then wrings him dry. A young, frail-looking ten year-old boy who has lost his parents lives with his grandfather (outstanding performances by both for which they received Special Mentions) in a shack the two of them build together along the picturesque backwaters of Kerala. They are poor, they earn their living by selling ducks’ eggs. They may be illiterate but there is much they can teach others about their surroundings. Bounteous nature is an integral part of their lives. Water and swamps, flowers and birds, sun and moon, wind and rain dictate the rhythm of their days. They are content and seem to ask for nothing more. The boy is inherently talented and humane, befriending a stray dog which he feeds and a school boy from a well-to-do family who he helps in little ways. His grandfather speaks to him about the secrets of nature and opens his eyes to the world around him. The boy, in turn, opens the eyes of his new-found friend.

But how long can this blessed peace last? When the grandfather falls ill, he understands that the boy needs an education to be able to face the future without his granddad by his side. He takes the child to an agent who will put him in school. Does the old man know he is walking into a trap? It’s not clear, perhaps he does. Does he have a choice? No, he doesn’t. He is too poor. His contented life has also been a secluded one. But he knows this ‘backwater’ life can’t go on. When the boy is deposited with the agent, he senses danger, he shouts and kicks and cries that he doesn’t want to learn. But the distraught grandfather leaves him behind (for his good, or so he believes), rowing furiously and sadly away, overwhelmed by guilt. He has delivered his grandson to a child labour racketeer.

Jayaraj’s strength lies in the slow, quiet exploration of the mind of an innocent child. Embraced and shaped by nature, the boy grows up the way we all probably should. The film tracks earth’s bounty through superb camera work, never highlighting it for its own sake, but letting the viewer know it is around us if only we care to look, if only we care to live it. The swish of hundreds of ducks as they pop in and out of water in perfect whirls; the rooster the boy finds to hatch the ducks’ eggs; the patient fisherman waiting long hours for a catch; the depth of the granddad-grandson relationship needing no words, no caresses, no looks, no pauses in the story for reaffirmation; you cannot call this acting ‘restrained’; it is quite simply natural.

The Trap is a poignant comment on the beauty of what we receive and the ugliness of what we change it into; on the way the world turns – sadly, inevitably.

An Off-Day Game (Ozhivudivasathe Kali) by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, winner of FIPRESCI’s Malayalam film award, adapts an eponymous short story by Unni R. Here, too, generous nature – this time, dense forests – surrounds the characters. But the forest doesn’t define them as it did in The Trap. It simply holds the story and proves to be an appropriate background since five friends, all middle aged men, plan a day of drinking and merrymaking on the day of a local election, a holiday. They must drink in hiding since liquor is prohibited in the state of Kerala. So off they go to the forest. These are men of different backgrounds, different castes and different skin colour, something that will prove to be vital in the architecture of the film.

The isolated, clap-trap guest house in the forest which is the site of fun and frolic initially, ends as a witness to an alcoholic smash-up. The camera observes their shenanigans from a distance in a series of long takes. The men clown and stagger around and cackle loudly as they polish off bottle after bottle. It is their off-day, their day to do what they want. Since the film had no script, the actors were left to their own devices, their own improvised dialogues. The fact that they spoke incessantly, without a moment to think, was necessary for their downfall. Adding to the noisy chatter is the ongoing TV coverage of the elections which stays with us till almost the end of the film.

Bit by bit, their boisterous mood begins to change.

Two of them try to harass the female cook they have hired but she fends them off; they need to kill a rooster they would like her to cook for lunch but don’t have the guts to do it themselves. One tries to follow the election debate, the others couldn’t care less. The seediness of the guest house mirrors the seediness of their minds. Arguments erupt on issues of gender roles and caste, and their moral duplicity is exposed. But it is when they decide to replay a childhood game (“Judge, King, Minister, Police, Thief”) that the film reaches a crescendo. The camera simply watches as an upper caste man appoints himself judge and the dark man is ordered to do the dirty work. Long held prejudices egged on by drunkenness, a loss of bearing and mob psychology result in an appalling chain of events.

An Off-Day Game ends as a sad and frightening commentary on social and political power structures. Kerala’s natural beauty is irrelevant here. What is relevant is characterless house, and the loud-mouthed men; and partially the elections in which none of them plans to vote. The lone woman character is spunky while the men are cowardly (since they want her to kill the rooster!), with no notion of where to draw lines, where friendships are on the surface and ‘civilizational’ forces which have shaped them are deep.

Two disconcerting films that lead you into traps after years of childhood innocence and an afternoon of raucous laughter.

Latika Padgaonkar