Aditya Shrikrishna reports on the film that had its world premiere at the ongoing International Film Festival Rotterdam.
DON PALATHARA'S Family — that world premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam — begins with a conversation about human-animal conflict. Two men on a motorbike talk about a leopard on the prowl in the regions around Idukki, Kerala, where the story is set. “It won’t hurt you unless you threaten it,” says one to the other.
This leopard remains unseen but keeps cropping up in conversations as we meet the faces of this modest village surrounded by hills and forest, its tiny community that is a small collective of devout families. The beast leaves its marks just like the forces of religion, the church and its vicious hand in an isolated region ripe for control. We meet them through Sony (Vinay Forrt), a BEd dropout who does odd jobs and lends a hand to everyone in town in different capacities — physical labour, teaching, in the kitchen or organising a funeral. A simple man with a golden heart, but by no means a simpleton.
Co-written with Sherine Catherine, Family is Palathara’s most lambent film (cinematography by Jaleel Badusha) after mostly working in monochrome save for parts of Everything is Cinema (2021) and confined to the interiors of a car in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (Joyful Mystery, 2021). The lush greens of Idukki coexist with the pastel blues of the walls of every home. The petrichor leaps off the soil of this village, at once pristine due to its untrodden nature and contaminated by the vagaries of the characters that call it their home.
A shot of a father watching TV in the living room is foregrounded with Sony in the background in another room teaching the daughter mathematics, the doorway and Sony blocked for us to see just him and his side of the table. The daughter, a child, becomes invisible just like the malevolent forces that exist under the same overcast clouds but buried deep in the ground. There is an element of shadow throughout Family, one that sometimes disconnects from the physical form to attend to something sinister. The film’s eye handholds us to note these aspects but the people populating the film do not, for continuing the pretence of a placid family composite is as important as keeping the faith.
Palathara shoots interiors with care, shots tend to be isomorphic depending on who is in the room. Several shots of Sony in a room with people, are with the exit open and visible on one side of the frame. The forces around him help Sony perpetuate his charade, but the younger women with their silent faces and mute spectatorship are looking for a quiet stratagem out of the bucolic, indoctrinated rigidity that binds them. In vain.
The pregnant Rani (Divya Prabha in a small but neat turn) and other women are always shot huddled in a room without a door in the vicinity. The oppressively cloistered feeling of a woman alone in a room is palpable. There is so much to see in Family that they yank us from our seats to notice everything without the camera doing any heavy lifting. With every passing minute, Palathara wants us to look at the space the characters occupy, the size of rooms, the walls and if there is a doorway for a quick exit or not.
The film primes us to look at the rooms and their structure, they tell us more about the characters in this film. It is designed to be fine and detailed, sometimes excessively ornate, with the pictures of long passed men and women framed on every wall with the Christ and everyone related to the being looking down on all. There are many lone shots of houses, some display a false luminescence and exude an aura of togetherness, some stand neglected like the unpainted, half-finished home of two young women whose father dies by suicide because the parish will not swallow a scandal involving one of his daughters. The family ostracised even before the event — such that there isn’t a pathway leading up to the house. The church steps in to help the family on Sony’s insistence; he soon develops a relationship with the elder daughter, the rare empathiser in a sea of apathetic, devout individuals.
Vinay Forrt is effortless as the seemingly innocent good Samaritan, the film’s sole secret keeper, the secret open. Within this realist framing and performances, there is humour in the most serious moments, like how the priest absolves people of their sins almost by rote, he probably didn’t even bother listening to them. The word “absolve” is one that quickly jumps out of his mouth. It’s clear how in a very simple tale Palathara’s film becomes a study of maintaining the status quo and nothing — however malicious — can come in its way of the family or the community controlled by the iron fist of the Church.
An early sequence forms the anchor for the rest of the film. A cow is trapped in the pit meant to catch the leopard and Sony is an important part of the bovine rescue mission that takes immense physical power, the concerted effort of the villagers and an elaborate setup. Palathara regularly focuses on the hold of Christianity over a community especially in films like Shavam (2015) and Vith (2017) but this is probably the first time he’s gone for a chokehold of the very concept. Family suggests that the same level of concerted and conceited effort is required to keep the power imbalance, ameliorate the pungency emanating from suppression of both independence and expression against all bad forces be it individuals, the pedigree or more forcefully the faith and the church.