Sunday, 25 January 2009

Sancharram - feminist filmmaking from Kerala

On my weekend trip to Jyväskylä I found Ligy J. Pullappally's film Sancharram - The Journey (2004). Pullappally is an US-based lawyer-filmmaker from Kerala, with a long background in feminist activism. In the year 2000, she received a letter from a Kerala college student asking for help in coming out as a lesbian. There had been sad cases of queer suicide in the province. In 2004, she returned to her home village to film Sancharram. The film is also a tribute to a young lesbian couple, the other party of which killed herself.

Sancharram is an indie film, made with a modest budget, with local Malayalam-speaking actors. Contrary to Bollywood, its music and dance scenes do not celerate couplehood and fulfilled love. The actors fill their roles almost quietly, without exaggerating any emotion. Nature engages in further dramaturgy than the people. There are some scenes that use the common Indian cinema codes: rain and thunder symbolize sexuality, the women play with their destiny at the edge of a steep cliff - but these episodes are not overdone.

I cannot compare Sancharram with Deepa Mehta's Fire (1996), a film I haven't yet seen. Fire caused violent outbreaks in and around cinemas all over India. What I gather from other reviews, it seems Fire was rather bold and graphic in the depiction of love scenes; Sancharram on the other hand engages in minimalistic poetic play, alluding more than showing. It is difficult to imagine that the film could offend someone as a love story or a portrayal of sexuality. One can easily watch this with children. If I were to choose one focus group to watch this with, I would show it to teenagers. Not as a film depicting exotic India, Third World or cultural differences, but as a universal story about love and boundaries. Cannot remember any good coming-out-of-closet film from Finland. Yet similar responses to queerness happen here on a daily basis.

Some points worth noting:

*Historical time. Because the film has been made with a low budget, it looks like the time frame is from 1970s to 1980s. It shows ancient cars and fashions that could be from earlier periods. There are no computers or mobile phones. But the characters discuss recent film stars like Shahrukh Khan and Rani Mukerji. This makes me guess the story happens from 1990s to early 2000s.

*Malayalam language. So refreshing, if one has mainly watched Hindi films. I can actually recognize some words, as I have listened to this language for years at my friends' place.

*Grandmother figure. She sees the two girls being intimate in the backyard, yet doesn't interfere. It looks like Delilah's falling in love with a girl isn't such a scandal historically and culturally at all. All scandal is based on what the neighbours think, what the church says, not on how the family members feel between themselves. Delilah's mother unsuccessfully uses the grandmother as a blackmailing device ("you choose her or your granny", implying the granny will die if she hears the news). Her bond with the grandmother is so deep not any love relationship could destroy it. If anyone has seen the Swedish film Hus i helvete, in which a young Iranian woman struggles for her independence through becoming a porn star, you will automatically grasp this grandmother-granddaughter complicity.

*Everydayness. Of course, the film is a visual treat especially for those of us who haven't been to Kerala. Nature speaks for itself. But Pullappally doesn't make a spectacle of the local village life. It shows quite realistically the everyday life of a multi-religious village, where Hindus, Christians and Muslims gossip about each other across communal divides. Kiran and Delilah also belong to different religious communities, but this dimension is downplayed. Delilah's Christianity is shown with more detail than Kiran's Hinduism. Kiran comes from a cultured cosmopolitan family, which has moved to the mother's ancestral home from Delhi. Basically, the two girls are like any village girls. Also other girls shock their parents by eloping with their loved ones. Pullappally shows that also heterosexual love affairs cause chaos in the community. The film is open-ended and leaves the audience to think of a possibility that the two women may even stay together in Kerala. If not in the village, then in some bigger city.

*School scenes. This makes me think I am truly looking for an Indian version of an ethnographic film on everyday school life, in the style of the French Être et avoir.

I would like to think of Sancharram as a call for honest discussion about homosexuality in Indian, or local Kerala society, or any given society. The way Pullappally shows young girls falling in love can make even the most homophobic viewer to acknowledge that queer folks have always existed in all societies. She is not portraying the girls' parents as homophobic monsters who feel disgusted by the daughter's sexual behaviour, but as parents worried about the community's response and the girls' futures, their possibilities to support themselves without a man. The film opens up a space where these different pressures, but also different empathies and sympathies can be discussed.

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