K G George’s masterpiece, Yavanika, was released 35 years back. Revisiting the film, this author finds it is time to unravel the long stretches of dreary stage sequences to clearly see the strong foundations of a stage, a story and a narrative that all come together like a painting set to chaotic life’s music.
When things get really bad at the movies, so bad that you can feel a crick in your neck, and when the little rings in your seat-arms appear too small for your hands and the soda-pop too flat, it’s worthwhile to think about the first reactions to old masterpieces. Sometime in the December of 1993, my 74-year-old great grandmother walked out of a theatre in Mavelikkara happy at having spent her time with a ‘lady possessed’ and the doctor who ‘freed her of her spirits.’ Ah, the beauty in glorious misreadings! Thoovanathumbikal was thoroughly queried: “That baby that Soman held in his arms -- that was actually Jayakrishnan’s baby, right?” And here we are, 30 years later, discussing the rain and its goddamn relevance!
By this measure, K.G. George’s Yavanika (released 35 years ago this week) got off lightly. Audiences of the day saw the picture as a well-mounted suspense thriller set against the backdrop of a theatre troupe. The general consensus: “Great acting all around and a big reveal at the end redeem a movie filled with long stretches of dreary stage sequences.” But - as it is with quibbles far in the past - those very things about Yavanika that were slotted as conventional and distracting in 1982 may now seem like its freshest elements.
A Vision for the Banal
I watched the picture again, recently, and was struck by how the stage, the geometry of the stage-shots, and the offstage mechanics, were so central to George’s vision. To put it plainly, it is in the most banal sequences of Yavanika that K.G. George’s directorial poise comes through. George and cinematographer Ramachandra Babu map, with great care, our moment-to-moment relationship with the stage. We are, by turns, the audience, the voyeur, the critic, and that child who has wandered into the wings of a Grand Circus. We watch in awe as our old idols reveal their tricks: moustaches are grayed, and moustaches are blackened; characters say thunderous lines, and then step out of the play, into life, and immediately confront their vanities, adjusting their saris or wiping bindi smudges off their foreheads; virile men take quick cigarette puffs, wrap mufflers around their necks in one swift motion, scrunch their shoulders, and walk onto the stage like old men; the lovers in the play share no chemistry off the stage and the leading lady is in love with the man she hates with great passion up onstage. A step this way, or that way, and you’re literally straddling a million different worlds.
One of the true pleasures of re-watching Yavanika is in noting what a pop-shocker the picture truly is. You are held so off-balance by the insider-view of the theatre, with all its tricks and machinations being constantly exposed, that you don’t realise, amidst all these banalities, there’s a murder being concealed.
Can anything be more unsettling than blood that gets washed away by the ordinariness of life?
The Portrait of a Play as Cruel Life
The blood in question here has drained off Aiyappan, but as the picture begins, what the drama group at Bhavana Theatres sorely misses are Aiyappan’s hands. They are the hands of an artist, as also a trophy male-figure; when Aiyappan’s not going all out at the Tabla, his energy still pours out, seducing some and bothering others around him. First revealed to us through a series of photographs, Aiyappan is not innocently evil, in that he also plays his decency act very carefully - blowing into his comb after he’s done adjusting his hair, or uncrossing his legs and talking with all sincerity when crafting a request. By the end, his speech is so garbled that you feel the complete absence of a tongue; it’s just self-appraisal phrased in Morse Code.
Aiyappan works out his cruelty upon Jalaja’s Rohini, when he threatens to kill her, his hands curl up like that of a hypnotist’s, almost as if inviting her into his spell. Her bowing down to his wishes is in the ‘Spirit of the Age’ and while the whimpering may seem out-of-place in today’s times, for K.G. George the two characters are like the naïve lady and strongman from Fellini’s La Strada -- they represent an era of silent, unvoiced exploitation.
In Yavanika, a key revelation about Aiyappan’s murder cuts straight to a backstage scene being played out against a watercolour painting. The murder is real, the fears of those involved are real, but there’s also the reality of a performer acting out his heartbreak against a fake horizon. The play itself is presented to us bit-by-bit, with its story unfurling parallel to the story of the movie. And as you know more about the characters and as the contrasts between their real selves and their stage roles become more apparent, your critical faculties also become naturally heightened, and the movie gives you a lift.
In a world of grays, the play being performed is titled Black & White and is the latest in a line of ‘revolutionary plays’ that Vakkachan has written. Thilakan, in his career-making role here, plays Vakkachan as someone with immense pride in his own artistry, without making this pride seem like a parody. Before the curtains open, he announces into the microphone, requesting the crowd to be at their civilised best: “Don’t pop open soda bottles, burst balloons, pull at chairs or make children cry, as such actions would distract you from noticing the various subtle nuances in this play.” George and Thilakan fashion Vakkachan out of a personality-type hardened by experience; he is a proud artist and yet money-minded, the kind of man you can watch from a distance and guess that his knuckles must be decorated with tufts of hair.
Eeraly as a Medium
Also in his breakout role here, is a certain Mammootty, as the officer investigating Aiyappan’s disappearance. Constantly photographed in medium and close-up shots, we are looking at a Mammootty who hadn’t yet learnt the trick of holding onto his expression between cuts. But that lack of polish, weirdly enough, helps humanise his character: he becomes a stand-in for us. His Jacob Eeraly is fully ready to set up the trapwire for his witnesses, and ask them some difficult questions. Jacob Eeraly takes the lid off the characters one by one in the process of uncovering the murderer. Or rather, in reacting to Jacob Eeraly’s questions, the main players all reveal themselves to the audience.
There’s Nedumudi Venu’s Balagopalan who comes armed with an expert flirt’s biggest weapons: chivalry and good manners, and who attributes his fullness of spirit to his rich ancestry. As a contrast to Nedumudi’s Balagopalan, there’s Jagathy Sreekumar’s Varunan who classifies his laughter as a balm for the inescapable problems in his decaying home. There’s Ashokan’s Vishnu whose hatred for his father manifests as contempt for the law. Vishnu is the only person Aiyappan is afraid of, for the simple reason that he happens to be his son, and hence, inductively, capable of doing just about anything.
Very often we find Eeraly asking questions that we, as a public, are constantly looking to answer. Eeraly reflects this genuine curiosity when he asks Vakkachan, “Why is Aiyappan such a heavy drinker?” and Vakkachan, who loves his whiskey, replies, “Sir, it’s the general public perception that only a drunkard can be an artist.” To Rohini his question seems pretty simple, “What are your present feelings for Aiyappan -- do you love or detest him?”
“I am not sure,” she says, after thinking about the question for a few seconds. It is true that the greatest exploitations can often numb you out of your feelings.
Of Unobtrusive Observations and Crossing Noises
K.G. George’s technique is one of unobtrusiveness, which means he does things here that maybe too sophisticated to even be noticed, let alone appreciated. He conveys humour through the observations on human strategies and responses thought up under desperation. In a scene in which Aiyappan’s wife publicly rounds up the drama group and enquires about her missing husband, Vakkachan pleads for intervention.
“Can, someone please, calm this lady down?” he announces to the onlookers.
“Who has this lady lost?” a voice in the crowd asks.
“Her husband,” says Vakkachan.
“Then how can she be calmed down?” comes the reply.
In Kerala, it’s not uncommon for a bystander to become a key character in a fight he has absolutely no dog in.
In Yavanika, noises cross scenarios -- a hacking sound from a sequence continues over an interrogation scene that follows. The lighting in the audience-section changes in relation to the happenings on the stage. Backstage conversations are full of overlapping talks and they kick-up as the staged speeches fade out. Same scenes are played out at different points in the movie, from two different angles -- suggesting a shift of perspective. As is the case with many of George’s pictures, I thought the background score was too much of a pad-up, and the problem with the score-infused scenes becomes more apparent when you compare them to the scenes set beautifully to diegetic music – scenes where engagement is not sought, and yet, achieved organically.
A film about its woman
George is perhaps the most empathetic Indian director of women since Satyajit Ray. And like Ray, his empathy doesn’t flow out as a hollow celebration of feminine verve or as an expression of punkish freedom.
George conceives his women as wholesome beings -- in his movies, they are fighters, schemers, wrongdoers, question-posers. It’s clearly women who have startled and shaped K.G. George. Adaminte Vaariyellu endswith a shot of female inmates storming out of a rescue-home and pushing away a movie-crew headed by George himself (who looks at the carnival with astonishment). In the director’s movies, you can feel him talking to women, asking them stuff like, “Why have women, historically speaking, found the brutal acts of certain men heroic?” These are dubious questions, but coming clearly from an artist who’s passionately interested in the world of women.
K.G. George’s sensibility also presents that rare mix of fatalism and romance. I once happened to see an interview where he was talking openly about his first act of public lovemaking as experienced on a Thiruvalla-bound train. “I still have that girl’s kiss on my lips,” he had said back then. When George the romantic tackles subjects such as murder, suicide, and psychotic behaviour, it is the tension between his natural romanticism and natural fatalism that shade his work viscerally.
Despite heavy theatrics, the play within Yavanika is about a woman trying to hold her own in the worldly scheme of things. Sadly, it’s this very right that Rohini is denied in her life. Accustomed to her sentences being clipped, her voice often trails off, unsure. At the end of Yavanika, K.G. George cuts from Rohini’s confession onstage, to her talking on a rainy night. It’s the commanding voices that now listen with rapt attention. In both life and in art, she has achieved her long-cherished goal: an uninterrupted monologue.
Comments material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, abusive, slanderous, racially, ethically or sexually hateful or offensive, or embarrassing to any other person or entity are prohibited.
Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...