Posted by: gdevi | March 8, 2016

Remembering Aravindan


Here is a nice report on the activities planned around aravindakshan mammen’s 25th death anniversary on March 15th.

Here is a report on the first recipient of the film award named after aravindakshan mammen.

Here is a short article I wrote–primarily, for Appu and Rajan–on Kummatty.

Seeing is Believing: The Invisible through Aravindan’s Eyes

Perhaps no other artistic medium is as apt and made to measure the invisible as cinema. The very premise of the movie camera is that if there exists something that can be seen, the movie camera has the power and capacity to show it to you. Conversely, if it cannot be represented by camera, it is not real. The most enduring quality of Aravindan’s movies is their search to depict on screen in three dimensional images, shapes, and colors that our five senses would be able to comprehend, things that are invisible; in particular, entities that are the products of imagination and faith.

It is commonplace to assert that a story is an act of imagination, which it is, to be sure, but Aravindan’s stories work on more than just the narrative level. There are symbolic and allegorical levels that run alongside the narratives that reach out to a matrix completely outside the world we experience through the senses or our brain. Aravindan’s stories and films show us the simultaneous existence of both the visible world of phenomena, as well as the invisible world of noumena–or what is thought, products of our mind, in particular, myth and faith. Indeed his films may be read as subtle and sophisticated explorations of the capacity of myth and faith to create an ethical community, not merely the community within the space of the film, but also the community of the viewers.

Aravindan’s movies trace the arc of the invisible as it lands and rests on a varied group of people bringing them together as a community. In his films, contact with the invisible changes the people for the better, even if in the most imperceptible manner. Two feature films, Kummatty (1979), and Esthappan (1980), in particular, and the biopic documentary about the philosopher and teacher Jiddu Krishnamurthy The Seer Who Walks Alone (1985) show us through Aravindan’s eyes our world imbued with “things” of sacred value and weight that possess transformative power to forge a new ethical community. We see fields, roads, the sea, rocks, boats, hands, trees, birds, animals, and the sky as we have never seen them before. With great love, Aravindan shows us these “things” as they are in their original, uncorrupted and sacred state. In Aravindan’s eyes, these aspects of nature or the human mind become sacred images. Our encounter with such sacred images cannot be anything but ethical. The following is a brief appreciation of such an ethical encounter of one viewer and one film, Kummatty.

Kummatty, the earliest of these films, tells the story of a folk figure, the Kummatty, a relic of grandmother’s tales, a larger-than-life figure, a wandering folk minstrel who is also a boogeyman in popular imagination with an anecdotal propensity, it is suggested, to abduct children. Kummatty will take away unruly children from their parents. Thus Kummatty’s charms and powers are both positive and negative. He is a source of wonder and fear because his powers are unlike yours or mine. In other words, Kummatty is a liminal figure that embodies a pathway that connects the material world with the non-material world. He exists simultaneously in the visible and invisible worlds.

In the film, Aravindan is careful to expose us to the forged and fabricated aspects of Kummatty’s personality such as his fake beard, and his human necessities such as needing a shave. Kummatty falls sick as well and needs to be cured. The human limits of Kummatty are well established. When we first see him on the screen, he materializes literally out of nowhere—he simply shows up in the scene from a distance, his song preceding his form. Indeed much of what we know of Kummatty resides in products of imagination such as folk songs that the children of the village sing. Kummatty himself sings songs of the Brahman, as formless as the deep, dark and vast sky, formless as the rain, thunder or lightning as represented in the movie’s unforgettable song “Karukara Karmuki” written and sung with great devotional calm by Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

Kummatty upsets the placid pace of the village life when he befriends the children of the village, children who are as much a liminal figure as he is, as they contain both the past of a community and its future. In a grand processional scene, the children celebrate the myth of Kummatty by recounting his story from the folk tradition in song form (“Manathe macholam talayeduthu”) as they follow him all across the mountain. The children are transformed by this contact. We see this in Chindan’s new solicitousness to the old grandmother.

That Kummatty represents something regressive from the progressive perspective is indicated in the earlier scene where Chindan’s mother, in particular, calls Kummatty a “mad man” and discourages Chindan from spending time with Kummatty. To be sure, there is a critique of modernity and progress, as we normatively understand it—“Forward! Forward!” is the chant of progress – in the film, in the episode where Kummatty turns the children into animals whose masks they were playing with. Human children turn into a peacock, an elephant, a monkey, a dog etc. The critique of modernity continues when Chindan—the boy turned dog—is abandoned by the wealthy family that initially takes him in only to cast him out as a “country” breed. Animal masks in folk traditions echo the totemic functions of their counterparts in the mythical world; animals are spirits. The children see them as toys. Thus in turning the children into the animal they were playfully mimicking, there is an implicit transformation of a toy into a totem, an encounter with the “uncanny,” an inanimate object turning into a living entity. This uncanniness is the ground of the children’s ethical transformation in Kummatty.

Ritual, community, the uncanny, and the unknowable and the invisible come together in the final scenes of the movie when the narrow domestic tragedy of a family that has its son turned into a dog opens into a communal ritual to reverse the metamorphosis. Oracles and priests attempt to reverse the metamorphosis but to no avail. Kummatty alone can reverse the metamorphosis because Kummatty is not a part of stagnant village rituals, which are as meaningless as modernity itself. Kummatty’s power is of another invisible order, the order of the formless and the unknowable, the order of the sky, the rain, the lightning and the thunder. It is the order of openness. It is the order of freedom. It is instructive that in the one year that the Kummatty has been gone and Chindan lives his animal existence as a dog, the grandmother who was the repository of the old stories, including that of Kummatty, has died. This loss of communal memory, however, is offset by Chindan’s metamorphosis into a dog, and a family’s and community’s suffering over this transformation. The family and the community have to mourn. They have to believe in loss. They have to believe in the magic and the power of the Kummatty. They have to believe in the power of the invisible.

Chindan (and us, the community) learn the lessons of the metamorphosis in the final euphoric climax of the movie where Chindan, now reverted back to being a boy, sets free the caged parrot and watches it fly away into the sky. For nearly four minutes we see nothing but birds flying in the sky, nothing but the rapid crisscross of birds traversing the sky in pure freedom, from one side of the screen to the other, as the children’s chorus sings the song of the Brahman, “Karukara Karmukil.”

The flight of the birds is much more than a simple metaphor of freedom. What is the flight of a bird? The flight of a bird is the pathless order of freedom. The overall plot of Kummatty is overdetermined to bring us to this vantage point where we dedicate our full attention to the random flight of birds almost in real time, since not many of us would have watched birds in flight in nature as part of our daily routine. Yet, birds have flown in the sky without any particular pathways since the beginning of time. That is all they do. This simple and serious truth is the ethical promise of this cinema to its viewers. It is a direct representation of what Aravindan saw with his eyes.



  1. […] beautiful. Kavalam wrote the songs for Aravindakshan mammen’s film Kummatti. I wrote about Kummatti here a while ago. They are such beautiful songs. Your death is a big loss Malayalam literature and […]

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