IFFK 2021: Don Palathara's 1956, Central Travancore is a revisionist adventure
Desperation is the dominant emotion in Don Palathara's latest film
After successive weeks of rapidly edited mainstream films with multiple camera angles and colours, Don Palathara's 1956, Central Travancore feels like a breath of fresh air -- a palate cleanser of sorts. The filmmaker's third film -- after Shavam and Vithu -- which screened in the Kaleidoscope section of the 25th IFFK, 1956 is entirely in black-and-white, with mostly single-source lighting. The camera is stationary for the most part and moves only when necessary. We get long periods of stillness punctuated by dialogues, some of which have an undercurrent of dark humour.
1956 is essentially an adventure drama that doesn't do what most adventures films do. There is a clinical detachment to the proceedings. There are no overwhelming emotions. The only time it gets a bit 'dark' is when some characters narrate morbid tales. The film's core idea - the why of it - is explained by one of the characters through a single dialogue. A small group, led by a man, sets out to hunt a gaur hoping to use the profits to clear off debts. That's the entire plot in a nutshell. But it does a lot of things outside of it.
There is a recurring discussion of frustrated men running away from their families. It's an idea also put across through a musical interlude-cum-play, which could be a memory or a dream. There are moments where you wonder whether a particular shot or movement is longer than necessary. But things get more interesting as more characters come in. Their relationship doesn't inspire much confidence as there is often mistrust (which reminded me of John Huston's The Treasure of Sierra Madre) and differences of opinion. Some group members express an urge to be independent, just like the men who escape their families. At times, the behaviour of the group reflects the behaviour of a typical Indian household.
Given that the entire film takes place inside the jungle, far away from the city, you get the feeling of watching a story unfold on a different planet. Occasionally, there is a voiceover evoking the time when your grandmother held up black-and-white photographs in front of you while talking about the people in them.
The environment is closer to Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God than Apocalypse Now. Desperation is the dominant emotion here. Before the characters set out on their journey, we get a 'build-up' through tales narrated by the secondary characters. Early in the film, someone recalls a story of a man "seeing" Lord Hanuman; much later, one man "sees" a visual resembling Mother Mary.
I have to admit, though, that I dozed off for a few seconds in a couple of places, but that's not because the film was boring; it's because there is a hypnotic quality to the film's use of stillness. It's a quality usually found in the films of Tsai Ming Liang. You doze off a little in the middle, but you want to get back to it again to be entranced one more time. Liang's films convey a certain mood. The intention of 1956 seems to be that too.