ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Politics of Namelessness

The 2014 National Film Awards for the best film on environment conservation was bagged by a Malayalam film on the nameless workers who keep a city running.

At this year’s National Film Awards, Perariyathavar (Names Unknown), a Malayalam film directed by Biju Damodaran, won the award for the best film on environment conservation/preservation as well as another for the best actor, which went to Suraj Venjaramoodu, popular among Malayalees for his comic roles and stand-up mimicry acts.

Perariyathavar displays an extraordinary realism as it zooms in on the suffering and oppression of socially marginalised sections of society, specifically, the countless nameless construction workers, scavengers and sweepers who do not own tenements, but struggle to keep a city running and clean. Perariyathavar is a sharp detour from contemporary mainstream Malayalam cinema, combining as it does popular cinema’s narrative continuity with the stylistic abstractions of art house films.

Director Biju’s auteur status derives, to some extent, from his positioning as a politically marginalised director. This strategy seeps into the film’s narrative and its overriding theme of marginalisation. The motif of garbage predominates, with the camera repeatedly panning down to overcrowded streets and alleys teeming with the marginalised and urban waste, both carelessly discarded. In its narrative style and mise en scène, the film suggests a lingering debt to left-wing ideology and aesthetics. The self-centredness, greed and excess of the privileged classes appear as a subtext that is at odds with the trials and tribulations of the marginal and the underprivileged.

The cityscapes in the film are rife with pollution, environmental degradation, corruption, dictatorial state regimes and exploitative capitalism. The movie also resonates with echoes of the recent Vilappilsala issue in Kerala’s capital, Thiruvananthapuram, where the waste of an entire city was dumped into the heart of a village, leading to prolonged and anguished public protests that finally saw the closure of the garbage plant without any solution to the problem of urban waste management.

Perariyathavar realistically documents lives lived on the edges – the edge of the city and, later, the edge of the forest. The narration is linear and ad hoc. We confront individuals and different groups of people, who have in common a rejection by civilisation and culture, both elite and popular. Inhabiting makeshift shacks and shantytowns, these migrant labourers and scavengers embody the widening chasm between fast-developing, ever-globalising cities and vast hinterlands of underdevelopment.

The film offers a refreshingly stylistic treatment of the city as a trope. There are no visual excesses of cityscapes with skyscrapers and skylines. Instead, the focus is on the ground, through myriad shots of garbage, rotting, floating and ubiquitous. The camera pans steadily at the street level, often yielding what can be called “scavenger-framed” views that are highly unsettling and subversive. Suraj’s nameless character thus scripts an urban text of a city made quintessential sheerly by virtue of sweeping, scavenging and thereby mapping it. And yet Suraj’s travel away from the city and into the forest is dizzying, an expurgatorial rite of passage that ends in tragedy.

The National Awards for best actor and best conservation film together demonstrate that the distinction between comedy and tragedy is not in their opposition but in their complementarity. Therein lies more than one irony. The ironies operate at multiple levels. The first is that Suraj Venjaramoodu shocked the wits out of many Malayalees who had never rated him as an actor with serious histrionic talents, used as they were to his slapstick, stereotyped and often exaggerated styles of acting, his misogynist, pun-ridden dialogues delivered in a typical Thiruvananthapuram colloquial slang, and his less than marginal comic roles. The other irony or paradox is that while his often-berated stand-up comedy gags are created through comic departures from hegemonic masculine roles and, when he tested the same formula in a tragic mould it fetched him national recognition. Another ironical incongruity is that he shared the best actor award with Rajkumar Rao, whose forte lies amidst the more serious variety of Indian cinema.

There is yet another twist to the story – the jury for the Kerala State Film Awards thought it wiser to give Suraj the best comedian award, which many, including the director Biju, felt was an insult to an actor who had just bagged the National Best Actor award. Suraj is the second stand-up comedian in Malayalam cinema to bag this award – the first was Salim Kumar in 2010 – forcing many Malayalees to rush to misquote Karl Marx tongue-in-cheek, saying history repeats itself first as comedy and then as farce.

Tragically, since the national accolade, Salim Kumar has not been able to net many roles in Malayalam films. For comedians, an award of this sort seems more ominous than salubrious. Significantly enough, Suraj dedicated his national award not to the nameless oppressed classes he represented in the film but to the mimcry artistes of Kerala, who, he believes, are the ones who actually reflect the life and voices of the common people.

The ephemeral nature of comedy makes it tricky to pass judgments on a comic actor. In the case of Suraj Venjaramoodu, his diverse and colourful image as an actor capable of flaunting the motley with élan will always prevail over his rather dull and monochromatic tragic screen persona in Perariyathavar. In an age when the borderlines between elite and popular, high art and low, classical and vulgar are becoming porous and non-existent, why are we so careful in constructing walls between the comic and the tragic, with all the connotations of the politics of class and beauty moulded into the division. Isn’t the aesthetic always already political?

 

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