After Kanchana Seeta (1977), the mythical dimension of Aravindan’s cinema acquires a quasi-real, quasi-mythical character in Esthappan (1980). Esthappan is a mysterious figure, allegedly immortal, in a Christian fishing village in Kerala. An enigmatic figure defying spatiotemporality, like many others in Aravindan’s films, Esthappan resides at the periphery of society. Although a more earthly version of Kummatty (the subject of Aravindan’s previous film), all manner of virtues and magical powers are ascribed to the Christ-like worker of miracles (including printing his own money and drinking whisky without getting drunk). The director says it was made as a rejoinder to the criticism levelled against him and his scenarist Panicker for the emphasis on folk ritual in their theatre. An extra dimension is given to the central character, adapted from stories about religious mystics of all stripes, by casting Kakkanadan, a Malayalam tantric-modernist painter, in the role. However, contrary to the director’s stated intention to sympathetically explore religious mysticism, the film can be seen as celebrating confusion, jumbling together religious iconography, pop music, tourism, garish calendar-art colours and artistic creativity. This cultural levelling out is further heightened by more than one version of Esthappan’s activities, each bidding for plausibility but also undercutting whatever conviction the plot might have. The fragmented narrative helps to convey a critique of the conventions of psychological realism prevalent in ‘quality’ cinema by refusing to present an individual as a complex but ultimately coherent and knowable character. However, by also refusing to show the individual as a historically formed figure, an option chosen by Ghatak, Shahani and Abraham, Aravindan ends up relativising his characters completely, dissolving them either into creatures of gossip, as in the film, or into the timeless and eternally unknowable flow of nature.
The film ends with a mythical dance play embodying the essence of Esthappan, which Ashish Rajadhyaksha identifies as Chavittu Natakam, a form derived from Portuguese passion plays which arrived on Indian shores in the 16th Century with the arrival of Portuguese missionaries in Kerala.
“He was a very ordinary man. You understand Esthappan only through the stories people relate about him. There are people who tell one story in many different ways. In the film there is one person giving two stories of the same event. At this rate we don’t know what is real and what is mythical. The issue here is which of the stories about Esthappan is right. Perhaps all of them are right, perhaps all are wrong.” – G. Aravindan
3.42GB | 1 h 33 min | 960×720 | mkv