Like many among you, in my family too, as children – we hated vegetables. It was always the usual fuss around the dining table. Our parents had almost given up, being burdened enough with the guilt of having sent us off to boarding school early on, they never exercised what the diplomatically inclined would refer to as ‘restraint’. We were like Lars Von Trier in a quasi sort of way – reckless childhoods.
Order, calm and common sense prevailed only when my grandmother showed up at home. Kerala, my home state, is a very matriarchal society. The women are pretty intense. Her visits always brought the same sense of bittersweet joy. Sweet for the obvious reasons and bitter because of just one – Avial.Oh don’t worry, don’t reach for the dictionary – it’s not your lack of vocabulary. Avial, pronounced as aah-vhee-al is a dish that is uniquely Keralean. It is also every strictly carnivorous individual’s worst nightmare. It is a dish made from not one, not two but 10 different vegetables and it’s all mashed into this thick, morbid looking thing that screams at you to run from the moment it’s on your plate. None of us would touch it and like all parents, mine would say, “Taste it, why don’t you? How would you know if you like it if you don’t taste it?” But not my grandmother. She knew that we were too smart for reason. She had a better trick up her sleeve. She told us a story. It went something like this, Avial is believed to have been first prepared by Bhima, the mace wielding Pandava, while in exile in the kingdom of Virata. In a moment of desperation, Bhima disguises himself as one of the cooks in the King’s palace. He manages to do odd jobs around the kitchen and avoids suspicion.
Until, one day, the otherwise miserly King, in a bid to win his subjects’ waning favour, throws a grand feast and the entire kingdom is invited. Food is made in plenty and distributed. People from all over the kingdom arrive to partake in the feast. It was a sight to behold. Seeing the joy in the eyes of his people, the King in a moment of self gratifying benevolence, orders everyone to be fed till their stomachs burst. Soon enough, they begin to run out of food and supplies become scarce. The King panics, his reputation is at stake. He has a multitude of hungry people at his gates. Anything could happen. He couldn’t afford to fall out of favor, not now. So he, true to his Kingly nature, orders the royal kitchen to come up with a solution or face certain death. The cooks begin trembling in fear. They have no idea what to prepare. There are vegetables in the kitchen but not enough of any one kind to make a dish that would serve everyone. Bhima sees the men in fear and true to his noble heart, he rises to the occasion. He does what any Kshatriya would have done in such a situation, not knowing how to cook – he picks up the closest knife and chops up every vegetable – every last piece of bulb, root, stalk and tuber in the kitchen to cook up a potful of thick aromatic stew, enough to feed the royal brigade of elephants. Once the dish was served, euphoria ensued. People abandoned everybody and everything to savour this new and strange dish. It was such a big success among the people that even the king got down from his throne and went down among them to cop a taste of it. Not a single drop was left. The old ones say that the great King of Virata fell to his knees and wept. The Avial was thus born at the hands of a warrior, given first to the poor and denied to a king. So when my grandmother was done with her story, we suckered out and ate the whole thing. I still hate it though. Just that day, it was the best thing I’d ever eaten in my life. Why all this talk about Avial? Well,
AMEN is director Lijo Pelissery‘s Avial.Not just in the sense that it is a bittersweet combination of different things but also because it has the flavor of so many things but the essence of none. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a sweet little attempt from someone obviously inspired by the recent acceptance of different narratives and narrative techniques in the Kerala Film Industry along with an insatiable appetite for movies fueled by his ever expanding DVD collection.People in Kerala believe that after the passing of Malayalam cinema’s Golden Era(late 1980s to early 1990s), it is only recently that Kerala has begun to have a resurgence in terms of films finding a new voice under the hands of capable youngsters whose rebellious streak is mostly inspired by Tarantino, Korea, their daring Tamil (and to a degree) Hindi counterparts. And well of course, the digitalization of cinema. When cinema was brought down to bits and bytes, it became accessible and malleable in the hands of too many. It was only a matter of time before a new generation embraced its possibilities.Sadly, the press or some moron somewhere with a misguided notion of film history began branding their work as NEW GENERATION CINEMA. In the beginning, this isolated the older segments of the market along with the industry and gave them an excuse to label new ideas and their treatment as provocative without cause and desperate in its attempt to ape the west. The moral police joined the bandwagon calling the a large portion of the work – vulgar and immoral; these young filmmakers thrive mostly on the unflinching support provided by the Facebook generation. Nowadays almost every Malayalam movie thanks its “Facebook Friends” in the opening credits. Silly and tacky you might say, but it works because people in the hall begin clapping. Everyone is personally identifying with the movie from the very beginning. Move over suspension of disbelief and continuity editing. The rules are gone with the wind. It’s mix-match go-pro time and the audience will buy it hook, line and sinkeras long as it is fresh and interesting.Amen is a prime example of NEW GENERATION CINEMA marketed via the social media. Its recent counterpart in terms of execution and novelty value could be loosely (and I use the term ‘loosely’ very very loosely) compared to Barfi.What do I mean by novelty value? In India a lot of credit is given to the director, among sensible viewers, for two things:a. Content – The fact that, “Oh! My God, he made a movie about this subject.” b. Form – The fact that, “His technique is so brilliant” Reason why most of us love folks like Nolan and Guy Ritchie too. Just the sheer attempt on the side of our regional filmmakers to stray off the beaten path inspires us to appreciate the effort regardless of whether it has been done before or whether it has been passively plagiarized. I personally believe in Picasso’s maxim that all art is deception. It is how well you hide your sources and distill your inspiration to make it uniquely yours that matters in this age of mass consumption. Warhol kind of symbolically heralded the death of all things original a long while ago. This is a beautiful place to peter out into an exegesis on Marxist Film Theory sub-consciously playing out in Malayalam cinema unnoticed by most, but we’ll tilt at that windmill on a rainy day. But just for those interested, read the paragraph below for a brief argument. Others can skip over. According to Marxist film theory, Eisenstein‘s solution was to shun narrative structure by eliminating the individual protagonist and tell stories where the action is moved by the group and the story is told through a clash of one image against the next (whether in composition, motion, or idea) so that the audience is never lulled into believing that they are watching something that has not been worked over. This is what AMEN also does in most parts apart from the times they stray to narrate a silly love story between Solomon and Sosanna. A plot tool, it becomes. But then again, Eisenstein himself, was accused by the Soviet authorities under Joseph Stalin of “formalist error,” of highlighting form (especially in terms of cinematography and editing) as a thing of beauty instead of portraying the worker/group nobly. This too AMEN does, becoming a cluttered piece of work when looked at from a critic’s point of view.This also is largely the problem of hiring a relative novice like Abinandhan Ramanujam (cinematographer). I’ll discuss this further in the visual analogue analysis of this movie later on. So what does all that tell you about the film-maker Lijo Jose Pellissery ? Think about it. For now, we need to just overcome the urge to be a ‘this is copied from …’ Nazi and move on from this whole, oh my God this movie feels so much like Amelie. We cannot compare movies to Amelie just because they rush in with the camera to their characters or provide quirky single-take (one shot) introductions with witty voice-overs or even when the harmonium infused – pipe ridden music creates that tingly feeling in your heart or every time the hue of the frame tips over to the filter fitted green or sepia. Yes, there are stretched similarities, most of Kerala’s Golden Era film-makers have gotten away with a lot because of the layman’s ignorance then. Soooo … I learned off late that somewhere the nitpicking needs to stop and we just need to give into the experience. This movie, like most movies that take liberty with form, works within its own narrative world and personal brand of rules though set against a conventional Syriac Catholic milieu. The definition of a classic Gonzo film. I hate talking about plots in a review but there are some things you need to know before you decide to watch movie.
The movie unfolds around a church dedicated to St. George in a village set against the backdrop of Kerala’s beautiful backwaters. St. George is usually shown killing a dragon to rescue a beautiful lady. The dragon stands for wickedness. The lady stands for the holy truth. This knowledge bears a lot of significance in the sub-textual narrative of the movie though I believe it is more as a consequence of the death of the author.Solomon, our protagonist, is an altar boy at this church. Altar boys help the priest with prayer services along with general activities and other upkeep of the church. Sosanna (Susan) is a choir girl. Speaking of choirs, this movie has it’s fair share of fairly decent songs. But don’t be dejected, it is all integrated into what comes next, the plot. What does every village in backwater Kerala have? A river. What does every river have? Two river-banks. What does every river-bank in Kerala have? A church. What does every church on a river-bank in Kerala have? A rival church on the other bank. What do both churches have? A marching band ensemble. What do marching ensemble church bands have in common? A tournament with a cup. What does every tournament with a cup have? A winner Solomon’s church hasn’t won the tournament in ten years ever since his father died.
So apart from being the altar boy Solomon is also the church band’s clarinet player. But there’s a catch, Solomon can only play the instrument a la Romeo, under his Sosanna’s flower laden balcony. To play in a band or in front of a crowd brings back haunting memories of his father’s death. His father, Esteban was one of the greatest clarinet players the congregation had ever seen. So part ‘fear of failure’ and part ‘the unbearable weight of loss’ prevents him from exhibiting his true talent to anyone else but Sosanna, his muse. Sosanna, played by Subramaniapuram fame Swati Reddy is your usual Kajol from PKTDK in traditional Syrian Christian attire. Nothing of merit to be spoken there both in terms of performance and characterization. The plot of this movie is both strengthened and limited owing to the fact that it deals with an entire village with its spectrum of colorful characters and settings. Sosanna gets lost in all the mayhem. You need to have a powerful understanding of the craft to pull off an ensemble but let’s not digress. We’ll get to that in a bit. There is a heart wrenching scene at the end of the exposition, just before things begin to shift gears, when after having fought with his sister for not doing anything with his life – he breaks down alone with his mother, not knowing what his future is going to be like. The personal anguish of a ‘character’ that is burdened with a gift that is locked within him; not knowing how to unlock it – he breaks down at the feet of his mother’s bed. His mother consoles him, helpless, finally asking St.George to intervene. Though not as subtle and effective as it could have been, it definitely was my personal ‘best character moment’ in this otherwise plot driven movie. Also, straight out of Barfi, there is a window to porch sign language routine between the male and female leads. Remember, Mani Sir’s Bombay. Remember when all it took was her purdah (veil) rising in the wind to reveal her face, for just a moment, the lovers exchange just glances and we felt something we;d never felt before on a movie-screen. Well, nowadays they have to use paper planes and shoes and autism and rain and flowery arches and balconies and high speed cinematography and what not. The Solomon and Sosanna: star-crossed lovers from the day they were born bit, was meant to be the driving force of the plot but is sadly reduced to more of a weakly recurring sub-plot aimed at pushing the screenplay forward when things tend to meander. This brings us to the highlight of this movie. Indrajit Sukumaran. He’s the brother of Aiyya cameo Prithivraj. 2. DEUS EX MACHINA
Deus Ex Machina is New Latin for a stage device in Greek and Roman theatre in which a god appeared in the sky by means of a crane (machine) to resolve the plot of a play. The term now denotes something that appears suddenly and unexpectedly and provides an artificial solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty. In this movie, in every sense of the phrase – divine intervention occurs providing resolution to the entire fable. To say anymore is to give away the entire movie. The setting is more than enough for you to figure out how this journey would end. The story arc is convoluted but there is an energy that is built up and sustained especially towards the end of the movie. When all that energy is released onto the frame in a crucial cathartic scene with the character of the band leader (Kalabhavan Mani) – the resulting intercut montage is beyond breathtaking. The final church scene is what I’m referring to, before the extremely rushed and unnecessarily book smart denouement (ending). The ending was a disappointment more so because they decided to trade in their thinking caps for mainstream shock value after pitching us for the past two hours in lessons of how innovative they were trying to be. There was no need for all of it to be resolved with such a dastardly explanation. I hate the way they ribbon everything up always. I personally feel that it is that mostly irritating tendency still prevalent in Malayalam cinema to always end the movie either by subtly or overtly pontificating a heap of morality based lessons through plot revelations which act as proxies for substantial surprise endings that connect and resolve story arcs. These twist endings, like the one in Amen, don’t have consequences. Only shock value like with Keyser Söze in ‘The Usual Suspects’. When I mean substantial plot twists I mean movies like ‘The Secret In Their Eyes’ where the reveal at the end actually empowers the movie. Not just topically enhancing a facade by revealing a concealed identity or making sense of some hidden agenda. Sadly the ‘surprise ending’ in this one garnered more of a snigger throughout the expanse of the theatre. In the hall I watched it – and observe the irony please – in the final scene, when the entire screen and theatre went silent, one kid actually blurted out in HINDI, “Amma, kyaaa hua ???” and the whole theatre burst out laughing for a good whole minute. 3. EXECUTION
Lijo, the director has three movies now in his kitty. He came up with the story while the screenplay and dialogues were done by different people. Where did he succeed? Well, to begin with, the cast and crew. This relatively respected director, fresh off two movies with small stars manages to assemble a team of emerging stalwarts.Abinandhan Ramanujam might sound like a new name to most but we have all seen his work. And when I mean all. I mean ALL of us and a couple of million others. Abi is the guy behind the camera for Dhanush’s “Why this Kolaveri Di” and he also wielded the camera for the National Award Winning short film ‘The Postman’.That being said and all respect paid, I found this movie both in terms of their visual analogue and the general direction of all things frame-related to be utterly inconsistent, haphazard and a hybrid between gonzo and guerrilla film-making. It did have it’s charm but most scenes just became reduced to mere dialogue and action coverage with no sign of a steady hand behind it.
This brings me to the point where I paused from digressing earlier on. When you have a regular setup, it is all fairly simple. You shoot the people in each scene and tie it all up. But what happens when your story is stuffed with an entire village full of people and they are all always centered around one location. To be honest this is one of those movies which gave the supporting cast enough space to co-exist, no. Sadly, Solomon and Sosanna are both lost after the first act. They are actually used as catalysts to keep the major plot line going through most of the movie. It is absolute mayhem both on a script level and on screen at certain places.You can see both the director and actor are still warming up to the craft. The cinematographer’s inexperience especially is seen in scenes where the sepia almost looks like the camera is suffering from jaundice. The predominant color in the movie is white owing to the Christian traditional attire. Imagine the nightmare it could create when shooting on a digital medium, outdoors. There are some film school shots that do not belong on a feature film, at least not on this one. Let me analyze my point a bit further. Notice, once (if) you see it, how every beautiful shot you will like was either a panoramic vista shot, a sun setting shoot, reflection shots, slow motion shots or fancy jib movements of passage in between important scenes. But whenever there is a substantial scene and there is a huge group of actors, the camera and direction just falter. It breaks down. The repartee is cut short, the timing is wrong, The jokes fall flat. The only jokes that worked in the movie, truly, are the subtle ones. The one where the old drunk sits and talks to a bunch of wrought iron statues or when Solomon loses his paddle in the river while rowing. Those were the highlights. But the crass humor works too, there are fart jokes in almost exactly 20 minute intervals, throughout the movie, as if someone was hired just to insert them at regular intervals. I guess after Barfi, all aiming for quirk won’t settle for a burp. Anyway, coming back to the point, I feel the weakest part of Amen was the direction. Whenever the movie settled down especially in lonely shots of Solomon, the cinematography and the direction worked spot on but the moment the ensemble came in and the Steadicam came out – everything went to hell only to settle again AFTER a fart joke. And this keeps happening a few times in the first half of the movie. Luckily, the supporting cast help give it a unique flavor, rendering all the slapstick, quirk ridden tom-foolery moderately amusing.
It is no joke though, try sitting down with a piece of paper and a pencil and try devising a shot breakdown in a single location with four walls like a church with at least 8 characters who have lines and reactions along with the people in the crowd with their interjections. Imagine the number of shots. Now figure out how you would either compress or expand that tallying your resources against your requirements. It is crazy and they say film-making is easy. The good ones just make it look easy and the bad ones, well, no one cares how the bad ones do what they do. The background score was definitely not the usual staple, with heavy influences and I don’t know how La vie En Rose is still out of copyright limitations. But along the way when I found it tedious I saw myself echoing what Morricone spoke of Tarantino’s music for Django recently – “that the scenes and the music were incoherent.” Sometimes, the effect works. Sometimes, it fails miserably. You be the judge as to what is what in both cases, Amen and Django. I don’t care for songs and their picturization in movies, no matter how impressive, not because I am a hipster douchebag and not that I owe you an explanation but why let anyone mistake my general lack of interest for arrogance. That is just silly. So, movie songs and their videos bore me like a lot of my fellow ‘fast forward that song’ generation. I just don’t like them. Also, there’s a clumsy single take song sequence in this movie which tried being clever towards the end but it just looked amateurish. But then again, points for trying I guess.
For the benefit of those interested in the music though, it’s done by Prashanth Pillai. Same guy who brought the score of Shaitaan and David to life. You see what I mean when I say that this director’s greatest gift is to pool good talent. Or maybe it is the EP (Exec Producer) doing it, I don’t know how it works down there.There is nothing much on the other facets worth expanding on – the sound design was very diegetic for a movie that was visually very experimental.Last but in no way the least, this monster review ends with the true unsung heroes of this movie. The Supporting Cast. What a brilliant group of people and usually in Malayalam movies the sole purpose of these people, supporting actors I mean, exist only to explain things, narrate to us lengthy flashbacks, to deliver monologues on how the hero is actually a good man misunderstood thus making way for everyone to raise him on their shoulders and march him out in the end as ” A Film By … ” scrolls up.Luckily they provide the meat of the movie. There is so much screen time dedicated to examine the world within which this movie is set that it is clear just like in the last three Star War Movies, the writers got caught up with the world they created that they forgot the characters they had intended to explore.4. CONCLUSIONThey say it’s experimental. Experimental films rely on effective subversion of form and genre elements to say the least to create a distinct voice. This movie is not that movie.I say, it’s a normal movie with fancy camerawork and simple moments that reach out. Definitely worth a watch. Definitely better than a lot of the nonsense that is coming out these days. But these are the reasons I use to exalt this movie. On it’s own merit, it’s comes off as clumsy, cluttered and not well thought out. That being said, I did tell you earlier, Amen is Avial. It is bittersweet and just like Avial you won’t know if you like it unless you try it, so yeah – go ahead and try it. Until then, Peace be with you. Amen.