Biweekly Binge: Inside Don Palathara’s Cinema
A fortnightly column on what’s good in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you, and this week, it's Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam and Everything is Cinema
Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (Joyful Mystery) premiered at IFFK earlier this year and Everything is Cinema, premiered at IFFR and will release on MUBI on August 21. Both the films have little in common and yet share seemingly coincidental details. Both feature a couple at crossroads, one threatened by an immediate concern and another in its last legs. There is a glimmer of hope in Joyful Mystery, an 85-minute single shot off a dashboard camera. In Everything is Cinema, Chris (voiced by Don, all word salad and limbs, never the face) is in Kolkata to make a modern version of Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary Calcutta. He is with his partner Anita (Sherin Catherine who shares screenplay credits with Don), an actor, when the pandemic hits and filming becomes impossible. Maria (Rima Kallingal) in Joyful Mystery is a tabloid journalist who interviews a filmmaker – again voiced by Don – during the car ride and possessing the petulant pretentious air of Chris in Everything is Cinema. The filmmaker corrects her when she uses the word “movie”. He says the appropriate word for his work is “cinema”. He talks highly of his upcoming work, “A feminist film like this has never been made in Malayalam cinema.” In Joyful Mystery, Maria and her partner Jithin are mobile, in the front seat of a car in the middle of the pandemic. In Everything is Cinema, Chris and Anita are in lockdown, confined within four walls with little to no movement.
When his subjects, the streets and faces of Kolkata go missing in lockdown, Chris settles for the only protagonist in front of him – Anita. His voiceover is a constant presence, diluting the pure monochrome images of Anita going about her day – cooking, watching films, finding a companion in a Malayali neighbour, talking to her family. Everything is Cinema works like an antithesis to the films of Chantal Akerman. A woman is filmed in her domestic space, going through the most routine motions of daily life complicated by the effects of the pandemic but with the gaze and voice of a man critiquing her very existence. Don’s intentions are obvious, through Chris’s lines and trajectory of his behaviour through the lockdown. The voiceover is the catalyst that tells us everything we need to know about Chris and shows us everything we need to know about Anita, while also documenting the pandemic induced lockdown as a prison for even independent women like Anita and the domestic effects it can have (and has had) on their lives. Initially, we see the footage Chris has shot for his documentary. He says,” Malle’s was a westerner’s gaze”, and his intention is to course correct. But the 1969 documentary is also a strong indictment of colonialism and its detritus, and the economic and social disparity already expanding in India twenty-two years into independence. It also came soon after the Naxalbari revolt, a lasting chapter in Indian history. Chris inadvertently finds himself in the middle of a lasting chapter of world history – the Covid-19 pandemic. But all he can think about is losing a producer, freeing himself from the “ranks of cinema and capitalism” and giving shape and voice to his resentment for Anita. His film couldn’t have been Shengze Zhu’s A River Runs, Turns, Erases, Replaces that chronicled Wuhan before, during and after the height of the outbreak in early 2020. We judge him for the film he eventually makes and for the film he could have made but is too intellectually dishonest for.
The two new films of Palathara are unlike his earlier works. Joyful Mystery is his first film in colour. Everything is Cinema goes with colour for Chris’s Kolkata documentary and monochrome for the film Chris is making without Anita’s explicit consent. Don invites us to watch the rushes of the documentary and the film Chris makes in the interiors to get an idea of the dynamics between this couple. While Joyful Mystery gives equal billing to the man and the woman, revealing the details through conversation, Everything is Cinema does the same with entirely new devices. Don Palathara is a singular filmmaker in today’s Indian film landscape. He cannot be categorized, every film different from the other. Shavam is restless, moving with an unseen force pulling at it from all sides while Vith is languid in both its capture of mofussil normalcy and descent into darkness. 1956, Central Travancore, his best film to date is beautiful and visceral, never uninteresting and carrying the signature of several myths like a palimpsest, an ode to storytelling in and of itself.
Everything is Cinema looks inward, the reflection of Chris in its quickly leaping frames (the Godard hat-tip is not just in the title) and comments on the outward by its omission – the pandemic and what is cinema’s collective responsibility during crisis. Malayalam cinema, more than any other industry, has shown the way for an organic inclusion of the pandemic and Don’s two films stand on top of most. At one point Chris asks, “if we manage to come out of this situation, is there a hope for a better future?”. We wonder if he is talking about him and Anita or the world. But Don Palathara, certainly, has a lot to say about the lesser, vainglorious contemporary filmmakers through this double bill. And himself.