Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (1975)
Director: P.A. Backer; Writer: P.A. Backer; Producer: Pavithran; Cinematographer: Vipin Das; Editor: Kalyanasundaram; Cast: T.V. Chandran, Raveendran, J. Siddiqui, Salam, Pailunni, Shalini, Dawn
Duration: 01:22:30; Aspect Ratio: 1.293:1; Hue: 142.363; Saturation: 0.000; Lightness: 0.334; Volume: 0.129; Cuts per Minute: 11.963; Words per Minute: 13.103
Summary: Backer’s debut telling the love story between a young woman (Shalini) and a radical political activist (Chandran). The relationship ‘humanises’ the idealist who is declared to be a criminal. The featurette ends with police killing the hero, a tragedy the woman learns about through the newspapers. Several young Malayalam directors were strongly influenced by the film, notably T.V. Chandran (Alicinte Anveshanam, 1989), who plays the lead, and Raveendran, who worked on it. The film was repeatedly censored, and even pulled out of theatres during the Emergency, apparently on Indira Gandhi’s instructions.
The film opens with the burning torch (invoking underground political action) accompanied by the poignant musical chorus (conjuring up the spirit of a mobilized collective, and of collective homage). This is followed by the shot of a train.
One way of reading these two shots together is to say they sum up the protagonist's past, hinting at his involvement in radical politics due to which he has to go in hiding to escape from the Police. In other words, a short montage introducing our protagonist, who is a Naxalite on the run.
G. Devarajan, known for his musical compositions for the stage and film melodramas propagating the Left's political messages, composed the background score for the film.
P A Backer’s debut in direction. Before making Kabani, Backer had worked as production boy in Neelakkuyil
, production designer in Mudiyanaya Puthran
, production manager in Chemmeen
, and produced Olavum Theeravum
-- all milestones.
Backer left education after his eighth grade, to join cinema. In Madras, Backer opened a lodging facility, which came to be known as ‘Pune Home’, to “give shelter” to many graduates from Pune Film Institute who were to spend their initial years in penury. John Abraham, cameraman Ramachandrababu, K G George, M Azad, Balu Mahendra, etc., have stayed here after graduating from the Institute, according to several accounts.
The producer of the film Pavithran, who later went on to become a major director in parallel cinema in Malayalam, had to sell off his farm land to make the film. Pavithran and Backer decided to shoot the film in Bangalore in order to avail the Karnataka state government’s subsidy of Rs 5,00,00/-. The shooting started in Bangalore on the next day of the declaration of the Emergency. After the first schedule, while the editing was in progress in Madras, the Police arrested Backer, was taken to Kodampakkam Police station, was questioned and later released.
The first cut edited by Kalyana Sundaram disappointed everyone, as “it looked like just another love story”. The legend is that Backer disappeared with the print, and came back with a re-edited film, which impressed everyone. The Censor Board removed roughly 1800 ft from the film.
In an article, K N Shaji
describes Pavithran, John Abraham and P A Backer as directors who transformed “viewing (cinema) as an act of rebellion”. The article describes the film as the first attempt in Malayalam cinema to tell the story of a Naxalite.
The film brought together a number of figures who were to become important directors in parallel cinema movement in Malayalam: Director T V Chandran plays the protagonist Gopi; Chintha Ravindran plays a small role of the mobilized worker; its producer Pavithran later directed films like Yaro Oral.
For a selected filmmography of Backer: http://www.cinemaofmalayalam.net/backer.html
The film was distributed by Janashakthi Films - a production and distribution company launched by the CPM with the money collected from people. Janashakthi rented off-beat films, exhibited them in theatres and made them available for film societies in the region.
Janashakthi has the ambitions of making Mrinal Sen direct a film on Kayyur movement. As its production ventures didn't succeed, Janashakthi tried to reduce its losses by exhibiting the 16mm prints of the films, which it had the distribution rights for, in festival and fair grounds.
For those who are interested in more on Janashakthi films: Janashakthi Films started as an initiative by the CPI(M), in association with Deshabhimani Study Circle, in order to attract the youth fascinated by the new enthusiasms especially in and around cinema during the 1970s that manifested in the forms of film society movements, attempts to spread political literacy through international cinema, search for new aesthetics in cinema-making, etc. Chathunni Master, then the Party’s State Secretariat member and a leading figure of the Deshabhimani Study Circle, in consultations with the Left ideologue P Govindapillai, conceived Janashakthi in the context of the emerging film literacy movements in Kerala during the 1970s.
On Jan 25, 1977, it got registered as Janashakthi Films Pvt Ltd as per the Companies Act of 1956. It sold its 118 shares for Rs. 5000 per each, to around 40 people; set up an office near Town Hall in Ernakulam; Advocate Jayapala Menon was appointed its managing director. Janashakthi was instrumental in the distribution of films like Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, and Ek Din Prathi Din, Khatak’s Subarnarekha, B V Karanth’s Chomanadudi, Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashradha, Ray’s Pather Panchali, and Apur Sansar, P Lankesh’s Pallavi, Bhim Singh’s Oru Nadikai Nadam Parkkinal, Kutishai, Shyam Benegal’s Bhoomika, and Manthan, etc. in Kerala, in theatres and through film societies. It brought the “outright” of many award winning unreleased films like Agraharathil Kazhuthai, Bakkar’s Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol, G S Panicker’s Ekakini. Ekakini happens to be the only film that brought Janashakthi some profit – the film was bought at its production cost of Rs 1.25 lakhs. Apparently, the practice of showing award winning films as ‘Noon Show’s at Ernakulam Kavitha theatre – one of the first to start the practice – began with the screening of Ekakini. (Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Chithralekha had initially brought the distribution rights of the film and had helped G S Panicker by paying the money required for completing its post-production works in Chennai. However, the release was getting delayed indefinitely.)
Janashakthi brought the rights of Agraharathil Kazhuthai by paying Rs 2.5 lakhs when the Brahmin community’s opposition in Tamil Nadu had made sure the film was not released in the theatres in the state, and after it was even denied a screening slot in Doordarshan even after it winning the national award. In the film festival that Janashakthi Films organized in 1978 from Oct 20-26 at Ernakulam Kavitha and Shenoys theatres, it screened films like Mrinal Sen’s 1977 Telugu film like Oka Oori Katha, Jack Gold’s Aces High (1976; English), Agraharathil, Alain Resnais’ Stavisky… (1974), Shyam Benegal’s Bhoomika, Sergei Bondarchuk’s They Fought For Their Motherland (1975; Russian), Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatashradha, etc.
Janashakthi also had plans to set up outdoor units, post production units as well as mini theatres in towns in Kerala. Upon the influence of Janashakthi, the party started Yugashakthi in Tamil Nadu Navashakthi in Karnataka, under the chairmanship of Jayapala Menon.
The spectacular opening shot, a slow pan right over a wall in a living room set to a voiceover conversation between a woman and a man, declares the film's overt intentions. Woman mildly complains to man (presumably her lover) about his tardiness in writing to her, her loneliness in a city far away from home (it is established soon enough that she lives and works in Bangalore) . Shot comes to rest on the woman's face.
Quoting from Ratheesh Radhakrishnan's essay
: "The film begins (...) with a conversation between the couple in the background. Once the slow-moving tightly framed camera rests on Shari, it cuts a close-up on Gopi. To Gopi, who is now looking straight at the camera, Shari poses a question on behalf of the spectator: ‘Can the world be changed
with murder?’ Dispensing with realism, the film is shot in a series of frontal shots as
characters either ask questions or proclaim revolutionary ideals to the camera, producing
an alienated spectator. With a clear pedagogic intent, the film does not attempt to locate
itself either within a cultural frame or realism/melodrama debate." (p. 8)
Shari is hosting the Naxalite Gopi (future filmmaker T.V. Chandran) in her tiny apartment. The entire mise en scene inside the room recalls, if anything, Mrinal Sen's cinema: she tends to his wound, has him bathe, makes tea and then food for him: he tells her how he got here, that the police are looking. She discovers the gun in his bag, he sees her looking at it, says nothing.
The use of the 'Chingari koi bhadke' song from the Rajesh Khanna melodrama Amar Prem has been a cause for debate. As the melancholic song - translating as 'If a spark causes a fire, the monsoon will put it out, but what if the monsoon itself creates a fire?' - plays slowly in the background, Shari and Gopi discuss the present and the future. Gopi says that marriage is not for him. While Radhakrishnan says, perhaps correctly, that the song represents youth culture, more likely this reference - (with the several other visual and sound references to the urban popular (the Amul milk can label, the Sholay poster) - might more likely be the influence of Sen's early Calcutta films, and thence Godard. The song's spark/water metaphor for Shari and Gopi's situation is also somewhat obvious.
"Cinema is a recurring presence in the film. (...) An amateurish rendering of the song ‘Chingaari koi bhadke . . . ’ from the Hindi film Amar Prem (https://indiancine.ma/OFT/info
) (d. Shakti Samanta, 1971) ensues in the background while the protagonists are discussing their relationship. The incorrect and incomplete lyrics of the song point to the fact that it is not used here as a framing device but as a marker of youth culture, where the protagonists (and the film itself) can be located." (Radhakrishnan 2013: 8)
We are presumably in the first of her fantasies: she lies down, we see Gopi on a hillock, then see her with an infant child, cut back to her reverie, then to the Amul milk can.
The Amul milk powder can label.
First panoramic shots of the city (Bangalore) from the terrace shows an outside to the cramped room in which they were. the convention, pace Padatik, is to almost eliminate the 'outside' for cramped and suffocating interiors. She washes his clothes, asks him what dreams he has been having - he says he never dreams - and then she shows him her hands which have 'turned red' from washing his clothes.
The flashback to a romantic moment in the past, contrasted with their alienated present. The extended mirror sequence: he has seen his own face after a long time, he says.
"It is erroneous to think of Kabanee as a politically radical film though the period of Naxalite politics forms its background. Backer himself suggested that it is a film about Shari and not about Gopi, the revolutionary. The film successfully stages a pedagogic intervention by making Shari its protagonist, right from the first
sequence where Shari vocalizes a question on behalf of the spectator. In another sequence, Gopi is seen looking at a mirror and saying that he hasn’t seen himself for a long time. Shari
enters the frame of the mirror to complete the circle of looking and ingrain the spectator into his field of vision, with Gopi now looking at Shari’s reflection instead of his own. The film is more or less devoid of moments where the looks of the characters can be worked into an aesthetic of realism. The film’s central concern is a flattened out world of desire where the connection between individuals can only be built through static frontal shots and addresses. The space-time co-ordinates of the diegetic world become legible only through the affective intervention of the politically radical viewer via the character of Shari." (Radhakrishnan
Her long and solitary walk to the office where she works. There are a series of such walking shots in the city through the film with her, either alone or with Mary, her Christian (and therefore liberated) office colleague, all of which clearly move the focus of the film away from the man to the woman.
The office space, the street, engagements with modernity - and the Christian colleague. The clash of two modernities, one radical and brought about by force, another, cultural.
The shots of the city - Bangalore - beginning with a shot of Sholay poster.
The Sholay poster.
Flashback of her own relationship with Gopi, of happier times when he was becoming a student activist and a troublemaker.
She stands at a bus stop, gets into a bus, and the elaborately shot bus ride. Movie hoardings outside - a metropolitan realism clearly tracking its roots both to Calcutta and to Bombay New Cinema
Further shots in the cramped domestic space - and explications of the daily-life realism - as she stitches buttons on his shirt, he says he must go or else he will endanger her, a neighbour knocks on the door causing a moment of anxiety.
Unusual framing: she prays to her god, while he becomes a Christ-like martyr.
Shari's evening prayer becomes an occasion for a heated exchange between the couple on faith and ideals, through a series of frontal shots. The sequence starts with Gopi in the foreground, with his posture reminding us of Christ, while in the background, Shari lights the lamp in front of her God.
Two sets of religious iconicities: she prays to god, disbelieves in his right to kill, he believes in liberation and in the glorious dawn: in the process he turns into an icon.
Sexuality and alienation - they sleep in the same room, she bathes and comes out, changes her clothes, but he appears to be entirely disinterested in her.
He asks her to mail a letter, using her address. This will now implicates her in his actions.
Classic metropolitan-realist sequence: first in the rain, then at the office, then at a coffee shop (modern woman and modern men, bell bottoms and flares), typewriters, office bosses, pavements, tea drinking at home - as much Basu Chatterjee as Mrinal Sen.
Gopi leaves. Another world is introduced to her.
Another movie poster, at the back of an auto rickshaw. This is a poster of a little-known but significant film, Maze Le Lo by Kumar Vasudev, with music by the great Chris Perry, including several then-hits like 'Love Me Tonight'. Shot of Bangalore.
Cinephilia... This time, the focus is on the poster of a B grade, A-certified film, pasted on the back of an auto rickshaw.
Introduction of Gopalan, played by future filmmaker Raveendran, who is also the film's producer. Gopalan says not a word through the film, like Kim Ki Duk's characters.
The role of Gopalan - the mechanic as well as the intermediary between the revolutionary and his lover - Gopalan's role is played by Raveendran
. The conversations between Gopalan and Shari are muted out.
Solitary close-ups of Shari in her solitude, her discomfort and her desire.
Gopalan takes Shari to the hideout. Curious scene: Gopi and Gopalan share a tent, and appear much more comfortable in their silence than she is.
Arrival of the police. The inspector is at once an ordinary man and a fire-spewing tyrant.
The Police Inspector's leaving triggers a strange stream-of-consciousness sequence. First, Shari has a dream, that she is dragging a bound Gopi up a hill. This causes a second associational connection, of images of Christ clearly associated with Gopi. A third association now arises, of her officemate Mary, now marrying her lascivious boyfriend James in a church, followed by a fourth, as Shari imagines James and Mary having sex. This sequence ends with the Police inspector once again.
In a dream-like sequence, Shari is painfully dragging Gopi up a hill. The sequence cuts to the crucified Christ in a Church.
The Police Inspector's arrival leads to an expressionist sequence, full of close-ups of faces, eyes, hands, feet, sounds of things banging, which leads to another phantasy for Shari: of being tortured by the police, who wear masks and dance about her.
Shot during the Emergency, the film had to come up with innovative ways of showing police torture and harassment that would escape the Censor Board's scissors.
Unusual sequence of free association. Reality and phantasy increasingly mix - Shari walks with Gopi in a twilight field, cut to the office, then in the city she buys cloth with the idea of stitching a shirt for him, buys magazines. Then she reads letters presumably from him in different spaces including her office and in a park, is in a reverie as she sits on a swing. Through all this she is being apparently followed by the Policeman.
Near-wordless sequence: Shari returns to the tent, Gopalan has a letter for her from Gopi - presumably he's gone. We again get her walking alone, and a montage of close-ups.
A further stream-of-consciousness sequence. Her boss at the office proposes marriage to her. This triggers off a series of dreams, one of which includes her in a white wedding sari seeing Gopi in a near-black field with a fire and several other figures in white. We cut back to a traumatized Shari.
Shari decides to quit her job. Another near-silent sequence, again in interior spaces as she sees or imagines Gopi before her, smoking his bidi.
Final montage sequence. Shari reads a newspaper, and learns that Gopi is dead. Shots of her running, then sounds of gunfire, long tilt-downs and pans, and eventually a close-up of her expressionless face to the voice of Gopi speaking of a day in the future when all will love each other.
The police hunt for Naxalites in the forests of Wayanad, which ended often in encounter killings of the young radicals like Naxal Varghese
, became part of public memory and even topics of middle class obsession, as the print media took tremendous interest in bringing the details about the radicals, their activities as well as their to the readers in Kerala - one of the most literate states in India.