Thought Box

A Dream Run for Kalyani

A Dream Run for Kalyani

by Janaky Sreedharan July 6 2020, 1:31 am Estimated Reading Time: 12 mins, 19 secs

Janaky Sreedharan writes about J.Geetha’s debut venture Run Kalyani, which is set to be the opening film at the New York Indian Film Festival.

Perhaps there is nothing extraordinary in Kalyani, a girl in her early twenties trying to eke out a living as a cook. Except that she is the lead character in the feature film Run Kalyani, directed by J.Geetha.

Geetha’s debut venture in 2019 is all set to be the opening film at the New York Indian film festival beginning July 24. Kalyani joins the long list of female domestic helps in Malayalam cinema with a striking difference. Geetha, who has breathed life and energy into Kalyani’s lissom frame is one of the pioneering feminist scholars in Kerala who initiated debates on gender and cinema in the late eighties. And that makes Kalyani’s journey an uncommon one. Kalyani is conceived as a gentle, soft spoken girl with an innate elegance, her head held high in a sea of troubles. Played with a fluid ease by Garggi Ananthan, an upcoming theatre artist, Kalyani hooks the viewer with her optimistic gait and half smile, lighting up the bleakest moment with a new possibility. The film evolves into an ode to all the little escapades that add to the beauty of ordinariness.

A life of want with her paralysed aunt in an agraharam, has not dulled Kalyan’s joy in life. Each day begins with her hands framed against the morning light pouring gaily into her humble dwelling. The film follows her daily walk to work and back, through the city streets, into the rich urban neighbourhood. The script evokes the rhythm of this daily ritual, which in feminist parlance  was once called a  ‘monotonous drudgery’.

Geetha pushes the boundaries of many stereotypes, complicating the conventional most imaginatively. Because through every repeated act, the story is moving on. Till dreams catch fire.

Meera Nair, who plays Nirmala in the film, puts up a telling facebook post: “There are no in your face statements or loud proclamations. Subtlety is an art and this film is a perfect example of it.”

Kalyani is a quiet witness to the duplicity, violence, despair and passion beneath the veneer of middle class domesticity, which is offset by the delicious images of cooking and the scent of savouries literally wafting out of the frames into the viewer’s hearts.  

Into Kalyani’s quotidian life enters a whiff of romance with her as the emissary of love between two middle aged individuals. What about her own desire, sublimated into the surreal sequence of story telling in her attic room every night? Geetha interweaves the prosaic and the poetic while her nuanced lens reveals how our choices and agencies are layered in the most inscrutable ways. Geetha’s artistic process becomes a  meditation on form, as she tries to imagine anew frames of liberation.

Awarded the Special Jury Award at the Kolkata international film festival (2019) where it premiered and the FIPRESCI award at the Thrissur International film festival (2020), the film also reveals the mellowing of a woman with a camera, as she blends art and theory in her search. No novice to filmmaking, J.Geetha has made her presence felt in the cultural sphere of Kerala as a journalist, a documentary filmmaker and producer.

As the film community awaits her next venture eagerly, Geetha looks back on her journey so far, shares her concerns and tells us more about the making of Run Kalyani.

How difficult was the first step towards making a feature film?

Very difficult. I remember thinking I am trapped in this life of constantly telling people I am trying to make a film. I made my first film in 2005 followed by shorts in 2006 and 2007. In 2008 I got an international development fund for a feature fiction. I really thought I’d make my first film in 2008 - I made it ten years later!!! I did not get a penny from the film industry. Yes, some wonderful, highly respected individuals who are part of the industry, who believed in the film, joined me and worked on a minimum budget. I also got a lot of in-kind support from many people in Trivandrum.

Kalyani's everyday journey is followed with great precision and detail. And the interplay of poetry, music and images haunting. Especially the notes from  the nadaswaram...

There is a lot of detailing in Run Kalyani, which is a minimalist pattern film. Music heightens the patterned nature of the film. Also, I have deliberately used music for the everyday scenes of the street rather than inside the households. There are no songs in the film but poetry is exchanged between the two lovers Vijayan and Nirmala.

Yes, as Kalyani walks her everyday walk to work, we see the mad man still able to walk freely, we see the red flags still flying strong in the winds, we see the sketches of great poets and actors on street walls, we see a traditional street musician under a not yet scarce sprawling banyan tree. Kalyani’s female gaze notices her class-allies, like the security guard and driver and dwells on those in the fringes like the mad man and musician. I may sound a bit romantic, but the mad man and musician are important figures for me, they are the rebels of the world!

The nadhaswaram player ushers in an element of the magical and dream-like as Kalyani moves with a secret smile. His music ends with the scriptwriter in the attic. Here, a bold experiment is made in our “Indian Bolero”, an Indian take on Ravel’s Bolero that builds on a pattern to slowly reach a crescendo.

Why is Kalyani a cook?

Who is the closest person to all of us? Our mothers. What did they do as we grew and formed ourselves? Cook! So the cook is a very beautiful character.  I combined all the cooks I knew together. Mother to maid. Me too. Remember I was focusing on ordinary people and yes they may be victims and they may be sacrificing but not like you see in films. Our young women workers are our hope. Their dreams and duties are no less evocative than those of men who lead the family, state, nation, world!

How did you choose your actors? And how did they contribute in their own distinctive ways?

Kalyani was always going to be a new face. In fact, the film was envisaged with my niece Gouri as Kalyani, who called herself a back-up. Then just a few days before the shoot, a final year student from Thrissur School of Drama sent us a clip and I knew I had found my Kalyani.

Garggi owns the character. I have said this before that Kalyani is both the spine of the film and a shadowy figure – this is not an easy role to perform but she does it with an ease that belies the depth of understanding. Of the main triangle of Ramesh Varma, Meera Nair, Manoj Menon, only Ramesh is an experienced actor. Both Meera and Manoj are newcomers and they have done a brilliant interpretation of the characters. You see, most non-mainstream films have a few characters but mine is in a sense an ensemble drama and I am fortunate to have in it experienced actors like Tara Kalyan, Nandu, Sathi Premji. And, the living legend Madhu sir is also part of our film, as of now it is his latest film. And there are some excellent performances from newcomers like the script writer by Anoop Mohandas, the mad man by Rajanand…

As a feminist film critic who took to filmmaking as a part of your exploration, how would you comment on your experience in feature film making?

Many filmmakers have tread this path - from writing about cinema to making cinema. Many feminist filmmakers too have come from this kind of interrogative criticism. But women have much more hurdles than men who arrive from this search. It is a search for a new way of looking and doing. My filmmaking is part of this search.

I started out as a journalist, researched cinema, got my doctorate, wrote as a film critic and then moved to television and current affairs. I did make a few TV docs like my first - The A(Miss) World - on the protests surrounding the staging of the Miss World Competition in India. My experience as a journalist and film critic, my constant negotiation of theory and practice was what culminated in my first independent film Woman with a Video Camera (2005). From then on I have been involved in filmmaking but turned to producing documentaries and writing scripts. I also lecture at Film@CultureLab set up by Ian McDonald at Newcastle University. In 2018, ten years after I got a development award for my first fiction script, I decided to stop looking for funds from the industry and plunged into my first fiction film. Constant in this highly chaotic graph is my engagement with film criticism especially feminist film criticism.   

How has critiquing the existing film aesthetics helped you to craft a different idiom of filmmaking?

Have I created a different idiom? In Run Kalyani, I think my main concern was the pattern of the film. I also did not want to explain everything or anything for that matter! My training in Observational Documentary can be seen in the way the story unfolds. But I was not going to be “realistic” though the film does follow poetic-realism. I did not want my film to be issue-based or have any of the loud bravadoes that are becoming common even in  alternative cinema. As for the women, I have been very true to their character and (what I gauged as) the actor’s sthayi bhava. I allowed the mystery of each character to remain a mystery. I brought out the feminine leaving the feminist as a sub text. A lot of this is down to the brilliance of our cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan who also found cinematic beauty in the mundane. Of course, add to that the music composer Sreevalsan J Menon who told me that he took a cue from the film to compose sad and strong, grief and grit! Looking at the film I think I succeeded in bringing out a feminine sensibility from everyone!

How does feminist politics and aesthetics intersect in the actual act of creation?

I think most of it comes in the writing stage itself. When I write I imagine and often what unfolds comes from memories and the unconscious. So the life you have led, are leading, matters a lot.  I am no expert, but I feel there is a rhythm to the creation - the writing and pre production requires immense concentration, the process of actual production is a process of letting go. Then you end it with a post production where again ‘chitta’ matters most. How do you translate chitta – a scientific discipline?

You must have faced many constraints while shooting. For instance making a low budget film is challenging...

Well, a group of us got together and decided to make the film. I owe a great deal to B Ajithkumar, Madhu Neelakandan and Ian McDonald. Two of them are well known Malayalam film professionals and Ian is a renowned independent documentary filmmaker working in India and UK.

But filmmaking as a collective art can be taxing. As director you are totally dependent on your cast and crew to actualize your vision. I did not insist on certain things - partly because I let go and partly because I was painfully aware of time constraints. There were isolated moments when I felt that the frustrations that crew members feel while working on a low budget film were expressed to me in a way that it wouldn’t have been if I were a man. But I can’t say for sure. As my first feature fiction film, it is an intense experience. 

How has the scene changed for women in filmmaking? I ask this because of the recent scandals in the Malayalam film industry.

I absolutely believe that we must have more women in the film industry. Women must feel this is a work place they can enter and express themselves. Yes, there are more women in Kerala today than when I began. This is good. But let me tell you a curious thing. If you have watched my first film Woman with a Video Camera, it kind of foretells the violence that erupted against women in the film industry. It also hints at a possible way out of this - with the entry of the woman with a video camera.

Certain unfortunate incidents in Bollywood have brought out more skeletons from many filmi closets. How do you see the operation of cliques in film industries world over?

Sushant Singh Rajput’s death is tragic. But I am not shocked. Camus comes to mind every time I hear of a suicide. That “there is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”  Your body is geared to living. And the mind follows driven by habit, hope or curiosity – to see where the contradictions of life will lead. When the contradictions turn too painful you want to destroy those who inflict pain and because you cant do that you turn the aggression against yourself. 

Is there not cliquism in Kerala?  The underlying principle is the same – destroy competition. My experience is not very different - first step they will not give you a foothold unless you agree to be part of a clique, in spite of that if you continue, they will erase you, you still plod on, they will ignore you, you still go forward, they will shut doors, you still walk on, they will start a whisper campaign, you start running… Yes, Run Kalyani. Keep your dreams in your torn handbag and run.

Is there a backstory to the title Run Kalyani?

Aren’t we all running! Actually this refrain is a reference to the title of an amazing song by an experimental band from England called ‘65 Days of Static’. It’s funny where you pick up influences, but well it is there! My Run has two connotations – one is escapist, the other is emancipatory. It is dialectical. In today’s context it has an eco reference too. Kalyani is running towards the hills. In this sense, shouldn’t we all be running? 

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