The stillness in Shaji N Karun’s Piravi
The critically acclaimed national award-winning film is a splendid example of visual storytelling done right
This is not a film that your friends and family will immediately come running to watch with you for your weekend movie night. "Who wants to watch that depressing film?" comes the reply. But when you are in the mood to watch a depressing film, you make the choice to see it alone. It's better that way, no?
Though Shaji N Karun's Piravi won much critical acclaim and several awards, I don't know how many people still watch and discuss it other than at its once-in-a-blue-moon screening at some film festival. Yes, some may dismiss it as just another "boring award film", but for aspiring filmmakers, it still remains to this day a splendid example of visual storytelling done right.
Based on the controversial Rajan case, Piravi presents a sombre picture of the missing man's family. The mental anguish resulting from the young man's disappearance is too much for his 80-year-old father Raghava Chakyar (Premji) to bear. It has mostly to do with the fact that the son was born much later: there is a 60-year gap between father and son. Despite having an elder daughter (Archana), it's obvious that both parents have a soft corner for the son.
Piravi benefitted greatly from the unconventional but strong casting of an actor who could speak volumes with his face. A strong proponent of the "show don't tell" approach, Karun managed to get a lot of emotions out of his actors in spite of the minimal use of dialogues. They're used only when necessary and the melodrama is kept to a minimum. It's the actors' eyes that do most of the talking.
And note how Karun uses stillness in the film. You get the sense that the family's home was not always this way. Any small thing they do, like taking a pen, for instance, has a tendency to evoke anxiety. This is observed especially in a scene where Chakyar comes back one night after waiting at the bus stop and takes a bath. Each time he dips his mug into the bucket, the sound created by the bubbles suggest at the uneasiness building up in the heart of his wife, who is resting in the next room.
Though we get a few glimpses of Raghu's childhood, Chakyar's fond memories with Raghu play out as someone else's present moments: like a father and son walking on the street or a mother beating her son. When Chakyar's expression instantly changes at the latter, it becomes obvious that Chakyar never hit his son. Or does it imply that he now regrets hitting his son that one time?
And their house, with its long hallways and large rooms, not only emphasise the emptiness they're feeling inside but also the gulf now created between Chakyar, his wife, and his daughter.
Though we get moments when all three are seen together, you get the sense they are going through three different experiences. The mother's mental state is slowly deteriorating; Chakyar looks like he could break any minute; and the daughter goes off to do some fact-gathering of her own.
In addition to the perceptive actors, muted lighting and traditional architecture, another strong point of the film is its atmosphere. Karun was particular about the weather. I read somewhere that the director spent many months waiting to get the right weather for his film. The rain occasionally plays hide and seek, perfectly mirroring the characters' fluctuating emotions while hinting at a heavy downpour which would accompany the inevitable tragic news. Piravi is an excellent testament to Karun's superior craftsmanship.