Sunday, February 16, 2014

When Restoring Order Fails a Movie of its Purpose: Reading Kunjanathante Kada

(Poster of Kunjanathan's Shop)

Mainstream films could be social critiques. But only problem with them is that they give quick fix solutions to any socio-political and even cultural issues within two hours. Often solutions (for whatever kind of problems) are given by/through the intervention of the superhuman male hero. He pits himself against either a group of villainous people or the state, and fights not only for his rights but also for the rights of the society. By the time we reach the final frame of the movie, after some blood spilling as well as chilling fights, the hero brings back social order for everybody’s happiness. We leave the theatre reassured thinking that everything is fine with our lives and an ideal system, which has been temporarily shaken by the ill deeds of the villains or the powerful, is restored. By such solutions, in fact the mainstream movies defer our ability to act and interact, lulling our creative and critical faculties through the transference of it to a super hero and his projected sense of righteousness and the superhuman abilities to fight for it single handed. Subtexts are so abundant in mainstream films that we cannot call them completely aimless. But instead of flagging out the issues and suggesting possibilities of feasible solutions and demanding realistic methods of resistance, they let the people to take away a false sense of comfort and satisfaction, which in turn assures the returning of the same audience when another issue is debated and packed solutions are handed out by the last reel. A Malayalam film, ‘Kunjanathante Kada’ (Kunjananthan’s Shop, 2013) directed by Salim Ahmad could have been a very powerful film had it not ended up in giving away quick fix solutions.

The issue that drives the ‘action’ of this movie is ‘development’. Vattippara is small village in North Kerala. Kunjanathan is one of the five shop keepers in the market junction there. Though they run these shops, technically and factually these small buildings do not belong to them. Nambiar, who is the owner of Kunjanathan’s shop, wants it to be sold but Kunjanathan does not budge as he has inherited the shop from his father. For him the shop is not just a means of income but it is what something that gives meaning to his existence. Kunjanathan cherishes fond memories about his father who used to run the same shop. Sitting on the same chair where his father used to sit gives him a sense of protection from all kinds of pressures of life including the once created by limited financial means and a nagging wife. Kunjanathan, after closing his shop at night before leaving for home, which is close by, pastes a few messages on a notice board and on some public walls. He believes that he is supposed to live in that village and die there without making any noise. And he finds some sort of happiness when he pastes these messages on the notice board. One day, officials from land acquisition department come to Vattippara and give eviction notice to the shop keepers. The land is acquired for making a four line road. Kunjanathan makes all efforts to stop this. He meets the heartless officers in vain. As a final effort he even starts a Hindu Temple in order to avert the arrival of development. But he faces a catastrophe when his son falls from a tree and the undeveloped road becomes an obstacle in taking the child to the hospital in town. He realizes his folly and breaks the building himself letting the four line road to happen in the village.

‘Kunjanathan’s Shop’ begins with a particular narrative style which is familiar to the audience. We have seen so many movies in late 1980s and early 1990s when films spoke the ambitions, aspirations and resistance of ordinary middle class and lower middle class people, who did not pick up guns from air and shot the villains and restored social order. The pre-globalized Indian audience identified immensely with these characters and the slow but jovial narrative pace of these movies as they thought they reflected their own lives. These movies, which were qualified as parallel movies dealt with so many issues and never suggested a quick solution to any of them, instead they focused on the weakness of the human beings and their efforts to gain strength at the face of adversities. The latest glimpses of such narratives were seen in Billu Barber (Kadha Parayumbol, Malayalam Original) and Peepli Live. Kunjanathante Kada also progresses in the same line often making the audience wonder whether this film was written by and for Srinivasan, who is an accomplished film maker and actor capable of sharp social criticism through films. Though Mammootty, a mellowed mega star of South without any star halo around him this time, looks like a miscast in the beginning soon finds his foothold in the earth of Vattippara. But the problem of the movie is not in its star cast or in its technical crew which has star technicians like Madhu Ambat (cinematographer) and Rasool Pookkutty (sound designer). The problem of the movie lies in the story line itself. The director starts off with the grand idea of making human resistance as the central theme of the movie but towards the end he accepts the idea of so called ‘development’ as suggested by the World Bank (for World Bank is supposed to fund this four line road) and makes the protagonists resistance so far a foolish act even unto himself and causes a change of mind.

Kunjananthan’s shop is the hub of the village life. Postman leaves letters for people there. Poor farmers take their provisions on credit from there. Kunjanathan is a means through which the village reaches out to farther lands as he has a public telephone in his shop. His married life faces problems due to disparity between his and his wife’s world views. She wants him to be a government servant but he is happy with his shop. Though they have two kids their sexual life has reached a dead end as they sleep in two different corners of the same room. She perpetually nags and finds her solace in chatting with ‘fake ids’ in Facebook. Kunjanathan however finds his happiness in speaking to himself at night or to a rat that lives in his shop. The director deals with several layers of social problems including the difference of opinion amongst people regarding the broadening of the road. Kunjanathan is not against development as he suggests a different route for bringing the same four line road in Vattippara. Kunjananthan’s voice is the voice of so many people who have been displaced by development assisted by the loans from World Bank. They all resist such incursions though most of them fail and some still find energy to withstand the pressures. Personal catastrophes do not prod them to yield their larger causes of resistance. In the film, however, Kunjanathan’s idea of resistance move from the realm of public need to the limited zone of selfish interest. When the film ends, people still speak of Kunjanathan’s shop and its relevance as the hub of the village life is reiterated but the audience are not privileged to see the new location of his shop. However, we are allowed to see the new four lane road and the increased and ‘easy’ flow of traffic.

The film maker somehow seems to believe that development is all about four lane roads and connectivity between places. That should be read as increased encroachment on village lands, farm lands and increased pace of real estate business and related industries. Four lane road also means displacement of people from their own lands, occupations and careers without feasible plans of rehabilitations. From the text of the film we could read out that Kunjanathan must have got a shop (obviously in a new concrete building) somewhere near the newly formed junction. At the same time, a major fallacy of the film’s text is that the real catastrophe that makes the protagonist to change his mind from resistance to selfishness is not addressed at all. Why was Kunjanathan forced to take his injured son to the nearest town for treatment? His injury, as the text suggests, is not that grave. It needs either first aid or a few stitches. But Vattippara does not have a hospital and that’s why they had to rush to a town and had to face a few road blocks on the way. Hence, the film, had it been a critique of development, should have addressed development as basic necessities for the village. When the land acquisition happens for developing a four lane road, not a single character, including Kunjanathan speaks a word against it nor do they highlight the need for a hospital. The film becomes retrogressive in this aspect and falls into the regular rut of quick solutions; here development in terms of road is necessary. And the order is restored by the imagined rehabilitation of the protagonist. Perhaps film festival circuits will laud this movie. But for a critical viewer, this film is a pretentious one and any Srinivasan film would have done a better job with the same theme.

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