‘Somewhere within your loving look I sense,‘Interpretation’, Vikram Seth
Without the least intention to deceive,
Without suspicion, without evidence,
Somewhere within your heart the heart to leave.’
A lot of who we are is shaped by the people around us. We become friends, care, and love – and each of these social acts builds us; even in solitude, we are not entirely detached from our interaction with the world outside. Every interaction, even the ones we simply brush past, leaves an impression on the subconscious, every living being carrying with them a storehouse of these brief proximities. Our strongest ties have the most influence – on our worldviews, choices, and more often than not, our deepest emotions.
When people leave, it creates a void. They take away a part of us with them, the part that held on to a strong bond, perhaps even grew accustomed to it – dies a sudden death. All the love we have to give is left without direction, purposeless without the ones it was meant for. Most of us heal – it takes time, but we fill the void, albeit partially. Some cannot.
An ageing father. A lover. Two friends – one a radical, another a sportsman with big dreams. Four of Balu’s (played by Balachandran Chullikkad) strongest ties, his only interactions with the world. The father dies, the lover moves to a different city, the radical friend drifts away, the sportsman suffers an injury that shatters his dreams – the death of aspirations blurring with the death of an individual. One after another, Balu’s strongest ties are broken, adding emptiness over emptiness until he doesn’t recognise himself anymore. Pokkuveyil (1982), meaning ‘twilight’, is the story of Balu’s strangeness in his mind, his world breaking away in parts, and his very slow descent into quiet madness.
Perhaps the most important aspect of the film is its music. Said to have been recorded in a single sitting, Pokkuveyil’s music is played by Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia on the flute, Pandit Rajeev Taranath on the sarod, and Ustad Latheef Ahmed Khan on the tabla. When the music first begins to play in the background, we almost fail to grasp its significance, imagining it to be the usual, brief accompaniment to a few emotive scenes, but it continues, almost throughout the entirety of the film while it tells us Balu’s story – beginning at the asylum, going back to his past, and returning to the asylum once more – of gradual detachment from himself. It nearly follows the format of an Indian classical music performance – beginning with the slow-paced aalap while we are introduced to Balu’s world and the people who inhabit it, before moving on to a brief jod, and later, heightening its pace to drut only after everyone has left. Aravindan decides to make music play the primary role while the story wraps itself around its notes, and it is sometimes the film that accompanies its haunting soundtrack.
Balu rarely speaks. Even when he’s with friends, he’s the listener – perhaps why the intensity of his feelings remains incomprehensible to his associates. Balu only absorbs what is around, incapable of participation – his aged father takes part in protests to fight for his rights, his radical friend Joseph dreams and plans a revolution, but Balu has no role to play in either of their dreams. The revolution shall need poets and artists like him, Joseph tells him, but Balu is incapable of fighting for a cause as he struggles to make sense of his own mind. When his basketball-playing friend meets with an accident, there is once again a detachment. Without the dreams, his friend is no more the one he recognizes – as the friend parts with his aspirations, Balu, too, parts with him. The only time Balu reacts visibly is when the girl he loves – the final remains of his crumbling world, leaves for a different city. ‘Don’t leave, please don’t leave me,’ he shouts in a frenzy on an empty riverbank as she frees herself of his grasp and walks away. The final shot of the film shows Balu curled up in a foetal position on the asylum bed. In some way, this makes Pokkuveyil sort of a continuation of Utharayanam (1975), Aravindan’s first film, as both deal with the alienation of the youth from their culture and surroundings amid changing times. Perhaps Ravi, the protagonist of Utharayanam, and Balu have blurred into one, detached from the new India which was to be a promised land for the youth – one finds respite in the mountains while the other ends up in an asylum.
‘Only Aravindan can show us a sunset as though we have never seen one before,’ writes Chidananda Dasgupta as he reviews Pokkuveyil. From Kummatty to Chidambaram, visuals play a central role in almost all of Aravindan’s films. Perhaps because of Aravindan’s versatility, his grasp over a variety of media makes him a filmmaker with poetic sensibilities. Aravindan was a cartoonist with a style of his own, a painter, and was trained in Indian classical music. This is felt in his films, but stands out distinctly in Pokkuveyil. Consistent with the name of the film, almost all shots are taken at dawn or at dusk, ‘enveloping its entire reality in the half-light of some world other than this,’ writes Dasgupta. Music and landscapes together help the audience try making sense of Balu’s mind on his journey of doing so himself. Balu is an artist, and he finds a growing sense of comfort in music and nature – which slowly fills up his mind until little else remains. As a companion to the exquisite soundtrack, the inimitable Shaji Karun’s camera lingers on seascapes and landscapes, silently watching the waves lashing the seashore or waiting patiently for the sun to set over the horizon.
At the 29th National Film Awards, Pokkuveyil won the Rajat Kamal ‘for its moving visualisation of the agony of the mind of a man dangerously on the edge of insanity.’ This was a surprise, for the film’s screening had seen a very restless audience. I was reading somewhere that the average attention span of humans today is eight seconds. ‘Art’ today competes to capture our attention in these eight seconds, for we are free to scroll up, tap over the next story, switch to a different channel. Very slowly, we put less and less effort in trying to understand the art, for our duty today as ‘consumers’ is not an attempt to understand, but a demand to be entertained, continuously. It is thus easy to lose the film halfway– we neither have the time nor the patience to look at sunsets anymore. Pokkuveyil ventures into the inner sanctum of an artist’s mind as it plays with music, painting, and poetry to fill its void, to become one of the most stunning films in Indian cinema.
From the ind.igenous desk