Art mirrors life in Geetha J's Run Kalyani
The journalist-turned-filmmaker talks about her film which was screened at this year's New York Indian Film Festival to much acclaim
In Run Kalyani, one of the most original and impressive films to land at this year's New York Indian Film Festival, the eponymous protagonist played by Garggi Ananthan goes through a monotonous daily routine hoping for an eventual escape from it. At no point does she say she wants to get out of it, but it's very evident. Garggi deservedly won Best Actress at NYIFF for her performance. The film's arrival at this particular moment, when the world is hoping for an end to the pandemic-induced lethargy, feels so apt.
Geetha J, who directed the film, says the film's idea was born out of the sense of being trapped in a routine. Formerly a journalist who has written on cinema and the arts, Geetha nursed the urge to make a fictional film for a decade. Run Kalyani reflects her philosophy, that "life is not the same every day; it changes in small ways."
The film's style was influenced by the minimalist, observational documentaries she and her husband Ian McDonald worked on for a decade. "In them, things slowly revealed themselves like a fiction film," she says. "So the ritualistic nature of our lives, and how ultimately, we all have our agency, and how the change will happen, albeit slowly, in ordinary people's lives is what my script was all about."
The idea of having a cook as the protagonist was important to Geetha because Kalyani was a character who could take the viewer to other characters and their lives. "She knows them intimately and cooks food for them. What's more nurturing than giving food?"
She adds that the film, which was shot for 25 days, does not deviate much from the script. Run Kalyani's most notable quality is its minimal dialogues, especially for main characters. It also forgoes exposition in favour of subtle visual clues peppered throughout that give hints to who the characters are, where they could have come from, or what they did. It is visual storytelling at its finest.
"If one is knowledgeable about things like the historical facts about Kerala, or international music, they will notice that there are so many layers to the film. But it's okay not to know all these details for one to understand the film," says Geetha, who opted for a poetic realist approach to the narrative. "It's neither magical realism nor neorealism. At the same time, it's not French poetic realism either. It has a lot of our Indian rhythms."
As Geetha had written about films through the prism of feminism in her journalism days, one would assume Run Kalyani is a feminist film. But she thinks it's not the case. "I would say it has a feminine quality, which can be attributed to its cyclical structure. It's not a point-blank, masculine approach, unlike what we see in some of the films made today. I did not set out to make a feminist film. What I've done is layer the feminist issues."
This is quite apparent in the film's visual language, like the scene where a woman climbs up her terrace regularly to exchange glances with her lover living in the opposite building. We see a bird, a sky, and the railing of the steps framing her like a cage. Some of these contributions came from cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan, who tried to convey the woman's caged feeling. "You know, how in the old films, the heroine drags herself up the stairs? There can be different connotations in these visuals," she says.
Irrespective of the on-set decisions made, Geetha and team followed the script to a T. "As we didn't have the freedom to shoot for so many days, we remained sincere to the script. Our editor, B Ajithkumar — also a filmmaker in his own right — was with us throughout. When working under a tight budget, having the editor present is very important. He can tell us what is needed or what is not. Ian was also with us on the set observing, and looking out for what details could be added or not."
There may be literary or cinematic elements, consciously or otherwise, that may have influenced the film in any way. The vintage Bolero music, a favourite of hers, made a notable impact on the film's form. "Since I wanted minimal music, I asked composer Sreevalsan J Menon for an Indian adaptation of the Bolero. We can say he created the first Indian Bolero. It has a tune that repeats itself, and later more instruments come in, leading towards a crescendo," she explains.