In a little village in the state of Kerala in South India, a frail but dogged old man Chakyar (Premji) waits in hope for his missing son Raghu to return. Raghu had disappeared the month earlier during a political demonstration banned by the ‘State of Emergency’. In the hope of news, the old man goes daily by boat to the pier, which is the terminus for the bus that runs daily between his village and Trivandrum, and waits patiently at the bus stop for Raghu’s return. Learning of the boy’s arrest, he goes to Trivandrum to meet the Home Minister, once his protege. He returns to the village reassured that his son will eventually return. The man’s daughter (Archana) however doesn’t share her father’s optimism and through her own investigation, learns that her brother probably died in police custody after being tortured but she cannot bear to tell her father who continues to hope and search. However, the old man’s grip on reality is slipping fast…
Certainly since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), no other Indian film has made the kind of impact internationally that Piravi (Birth) has. The film has been screened at over 50 International Film Festivals and has claimed dozens of international awards including the Sir Charles Chaplin Award at Edinburgh and the Camera d’Or at Cannes, besides 10 awards at both the National Level and State Level in India, every one of them richly deserved.
Piravi is based on the ‘Rajan Case’ that occurred in Kerala during the time of the emergency in 1978. The Chief Minister of the State attended a college function where a boy sang a song against him. The boy was caught by the police, and brutally tortured in the police station where he died. After the Emergency, the boy’s father filed a case against the government thus sparking off a big debate. But Piravi is not a documentation of that incident. It is primarily a moving and poignant story of an old man in search of his missing son. Piravi’s purpose, director Shaji N Karun said, was to expose corruption in society, particularly the police. What disturbed him was political oppression, an on going phenomenon not only in India but the world over – that unless a human being can pull strings and unless he can wield clout, he is a nobody. The perpetual conflict between the liberty of the individual and the unbridled authority of the state, as shown in Piravi, makes as powerful a political statement as any.
But the heart of Piravi, its political statement notwithstanding, is its humane touch as it evokes the helplessness every citizen faces when he has to confront an oppressive system. The film on one level is an intensely personal human drama revolving around the anguish of a father, mother and sister for the missing boy, Raghu. Silences and sounds piled on each other create the mood of longing for the one who has gone away. But save a brief flashback of Raghu as a young boy, we don’t even see a photograph of his in the entire film. By being absent he looms over the film as well in the hearts of his bereaved family. The decision to keep Raghu out was a deliberate one says Shaji. To quote him, “I felt his unseen presence was more effective than a tangible character in flesh and blood. This way the audience could identify with him more inseparably. Make him a creature of their own imagination.”
As a director, Shaji shows a mastery of images, nuances and cinematic technique as he draws an organic circle of a universe around the film, taking the viewer to a quiet, virginal, untouched village where there is an invisible presence of nature that is an undercurrent throughout the film. In fact few films have made such splendid use of the elements of nature, of the monsoon, of rain as Piravi has. You can almost smell the monsoon that permeates Piravi. Once again quoting Shaji in an interview given to British Television, “The monsoon has played a very important role in the film. I have used it as a symbol many times. Monsoon to me gives a feel of birth. Water is the origin of life and that is known to everybody. During the monsoon you have a loss of time because you don’t see the sun. That gives the indication that the film is about a loss of judgement.”
Shaji uses the boat and boatman as a kind of connection of hope. When you look from one side of the river, you get a feeling of hope at the other side. Once you reach there you find no hope at all. What you hoped for is lost. That is why he has used the river with its two shores and the boatman as the link between hope and reality.
If one person is the life and soul of Piravi it is without doubt Premji in the central role of the old man trying to trace his missing son. Over 80 when he did the film, he responds with a performance that is at once brilliant and astonishing. A veteran of the pre-independence theatre movement, Piravi is a rare foray into screen acting for him. What’s commendable about his performance is the way he adapts to the cinematic medium. It is a very internal, very deeply felt performance with his eloquent facial expressions speaking volumes. Archana supports him perfectly as the daughter who tries on her own to find out what happened to her brother. About her role in the film, Shaji said that Kerala is the only state in India where girls and boys have equal standards of literacy. Many women in Kerala go out, seek jobs and support their families. They have the capacity to think and to understand what is happening around them and this is what he has tried to portrayed through her.
Piravi is greatly enhanced by Sunny Joseph’s evocative camerawork. Sunny had earlier assisted Shaji, originally a cinematographer himself, on four feature films. In Piravi, however, Shaji correctly concentrates on the directorial aspects of the film leaving the camerawork to Sunny who is clearly inspired. The damp climate of the rain-drenched village, the cloudy sky and the darkness that slowly descends on Chakyar’s life are captured beautifully. The visuals of the elemnts of thunder, lightning and rain are used to stunning effect. To quote Sunny, “Since most of the day exterior shots were to be done in actual rain, we did not use any lights neither any reflectors for those scenes. Completely available light. And two thermocol sheets. It was really interesting the way we started our day..all of us would wear a rain coat and plastic hat and just move out. The camera had a big umbrella and a plastic sheet to protect it. What we used to do was if we saw any rain approaching then we would get ready for a scene with rain..that is how we shot the most celebrated rain sequence in the film. We were shooting another scene. Then we saw the rain approaching ..got ready for the rain scene…placed the boatman in the boat…and there it is.”
Piravi has been acclaimed worldwide and rightly so. Quoting Michel Egger in the Catalogue of the Fribourg International Film Festival, “The force of Shaji N Karun’s film Piravi is not solely of telling a magnificient and simple story, of developing the thematic content richly but also of having a true idea of cinema.”
Or British Television which called Piravi, “…a remarkable new film hailed as one of the best to come out of India for years.”
While closer to home quoting Maithali Rao in the Sunday Observer, “It is not often that a film leaves you so profoundly moved that comment seems an intrusion.”
Malayalam, Drama, Color
Header photo courtesy trigon-film.org