Biweekly Binge: Still Life

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Biweekly Binge: Still Life

In Vignesh Kumulai’s Tamil film Karparaa, ageing, neglect and sudden but potent detachment of familial bond is observed in minutest detail. It begins with sound, of breathing, some crickets, then an almost lifeless form beginning to move, sparking a debate as to what’s worse between invisibilisation and dehumanisation.

The film premiered at the recently concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam. Vignesh Kumulai is one of the cinematographers of PS Vinothraj’s Pebbles (Koozhangal) that won the Tiger award at the same festival in 2021. The narrative of the two films and their passage couldn’t be more different. While Koozhangal followed a journey, always on the move with the camera, seldom holding position, Karparaa tries to capture imminent mortality in a bottle with its limited temporal space. The film is a flurry of images with the camera capturing still life in a village, something that goes for both the shot-making as well as the subjects of focus in Vignesh’s film.

The subjects are an old woman (Sundharathamal) and her husband (Arumugam), who live apart in homes of different children. Their daily life is reduced to its crudest form—still living. From Vignesh’s images, it’s hard to piece together the full family but that’s also the point, their lives go about in bed or crawling on all fours so often that that they are likely unaware of the entirety of their own environs. There is a grandson here, a daughter-in- law there, maybe some other relative or a neighbour too. But it’s all the same day over and over again. Tamil mainstream cinema has encountered these subjects, with most poignant films and moments coming from Balu Mahendra who had a special eye for the elderly. Fully realised in Sandhya Raagam (1989), teasing the former in Veedu (1988) and many memorable observations interspersed in his filmography. These were also experiments that claimed independence from the demands of Tamil commercial cinema and its unforgiving melodrama. But they were still neorealist but narrative Tamil cinema.

Karparaa, on the other hand, is a set of vignettes, really nuggets from the homes the couple live in, the people they depend upon and those who shun them. There is abundance of heat, flora and fauna. Puppies at the teats of their mother, and a calf violently crashing its head into the cow’s udder. There is young life around them in different forms but while they contain love there is also a little violence. Karparaa doesn’t flinch from showing the anile image of a woman with wrinkles having their own wrinkles and jaws without teeth trying to chew on some leaves. There is an attempt to tie the white hair into a knot and doddering at an absent minded, disinterested grandson to help his grandmother urinate. He chastises her for considering a response to a nature’s call. The grandsons would rather be at their smart phones all day and the women in the house talk about different varieties of food to cook while in another home the old man is fed watery porridge. The rare times the film turns dark we see tall, dying trees that look like a hundred years old and withering away. As a break in momentum the old man’s thoughts enter the images and the lucid, dispassionate account of his state is at odds with his disposition and treatment. Karparaa requires no words, the image of a bossy middle-aged man having a wife tend to the soles of his feet with the oldest person in the family rotting next to him on a cot speaks more powerfully than any verbal exchange.

Everything from puppies, dogs, cows, birds, insects make an appearance in Vignesh’s film. They are often bookended by a look at the everyday minutiae of the man and the woman, only once do we see one of them consume food, their bodies more emaciated than the livestock around them. Karparaa is a steady, motionless and unyielding look at the way multiple generations remain apathetic and disdainful towards the oldest one alive and what it really tells about us—that we don’t consider the precarious nature of mortality and we rather err on its side and believe that we’d be long gone before facing such a situation ourselves.

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