Sunday, 24 January 2016

Sancharram (The Journey): Being a Lesbian is Not All About Sex

When i was going to make a music video during my graduation days i used to watch the song made by Avial band for the film Sancharram. I found it beautiful, thrilling and goosebumpish. If asked why i had no reason. The visuals were the kind of cinematic i liked even though i did not know what the film was about. The portions shown in the song and the music and the singing all just made me want to shoot something. Quickly. It was that inspiring. Yet, i never bothered to find out where i could get a copy of the film. Till the film found me. 
I was trying to organize my hard disk and decide which films to share with the institute's newly introduced file sharing system when from an unassuming spot amidst a lot of bollywood and hollywood 'Sancharram with Spanish Subtitles' beckoned me. Yes, i watched it with inbuilt Spanish subtitles and that is why you will find it in the screenshots i am going to use here. After watching it the first word which came to my mind was 'damp'. The purpose of this note is to find out why i feel that way and what is causing this dampness. How the director's craft is so suited for her story and why it is way ahead of a lot of lesbian films which were made after it. 
Disclaimer: This is not a film review. 

When telling a story in the medium called cinema, repetition comes handy. In most commercial films you see this employed in a way which i think is boring. For instance if you have a character which follows a routine most filmmakers show the actions in fast motion like getting up, brushing, breakfast etc. Let's see how Ms. Pullappally repeats spaces, actions etc to create lingering, eye-wetting emotions. 
The film begins with an atrocious looking graphics butterfly. Then we are introduced to the space we see in the picture below. Kiran is there. The space is established through a crane shot which shows us the altitude, the waterfall, the depth etc. 

Later in the film we see Laila and Kiran going to the same cliff. They stand there and look at the beauty of the place. We atonce recognize the spot we saw in the opening shot of the film. It ascertains the thought that it is a space of much importance in the narrative
Laila spots a pupa under a leaf of a plant there and stretches her hand to pluck it. She slips and falls and Kiran lugs her out of death.

Laila's kameez is soiled. She needs to change it before her mother sees. Back at home when she is about to change clothes in front of Kiran she becomes very uneasy and runs away to her place. We will be back at the place one more time in the film. 

When Laila runs out of the church in her bridal costume and yells 'Kiran' we cut to Kiran who is again at the cliff over the waterfall. We now realize this was where the director had taken us in the opening shots of the film. She turns her head as though she has heard Laila. And what does she do after that? She tries to pluck the leaf with pupa and slips just like how Laila did. She climbs back and we see that she too has soiled her new white kurta in the same place Laila had soiled her kameez. She lies down in a top angle shot which draws all the attention to the dirt on the white. 

Young Kiran is shown the ornaments her mother has inherited. Her eyes fixate on a glass bangle. While the mother is about to start the story behind that bangle her father calls her and she runs away. This is also withholding information for we don't get to hear the story right after it is mentioned. 
Young Kiran sees her great grandmother's glass bangle
After she grows up her mother again asks her to choose ornaments from the casket. Kiran again goes for the glass bangle. We see the same bangle again and it is imprinted on our mind. It is soon going to be a motif in the text.
Grown up Kiran and her great grandmother's glass bangle.

After proclaiming their love for each other when Laila says that she had always loved Kiran, she takes off the bangle from her hand and puts it in Laila's. 
 After Rajan tells Laila's mother about their relationship Laila is given a thrashing. Her mother breaks the bangle. Laila gathers the broken pieces with her hand still bleeding. She doesn't know what to do. Along with the broken bangle we immediately think about the broken dream of Kiran's mother who wanted the legacy to continue through Kiran.
Laila with the broken bangle

In the first half of the film the director establishes the seating arrangement in Kiran and Laila's classroom. As the story progresses we hear about couples eloping, them coming back etc. Once Laila's mother gets to know about their relationship she is also not let to go to school. The solution that they find with the help of the vicar is to marry Laila off as quickly as possible. Here again we see the director show the voids in the classroom with the latest addition of Laila's absence. 


Till the point of time where Kiran and Laila become lovers, till they proclaim their love at the pond all camera movements are steady and smooth running if there is movement. The pans, tilts and cranes. Right after the scene at the pond when Laila is sharing her doubts about what was going on between them we easily notice that the camera has started breathing or even shaking. Hand-held look is achieved. I sensed a slight distortion too. 
Later in the wedding scene as Laila's head starts reeling looking at the vicar and others we see the same kind of movement with increased shakes and distortion. 

Withholding Information
Delaila and Kiran are now big. The first scene in which they interact after growing old has Laila giving Kiran a bunch of grapes. After eating it Laila asks Kiran if she could pierce her ear with a thorn. Kiran agrees half heartedly. It hurts and bleeds. After Laila leaves Kiran examines herself in the mirror and while doing it sees something unusual in her mouth. She puts her tongue out and we, along with her see the violet of the grapes. This information about the fruit they shared is revealed after some time and that scene attains perfection just because of this simple and sweet method.  

The story of Kiran's great grandmother's bangle is told to us later when Kiran is asked to choose ornaments from the casket of old jewellery. After her mother tells her the story and she realizes that it was a lover's gift to her grandmother Kiran decides to take just that. 

Shots and Scenes I Loved
Kiran's Sancharram
When young Kiran comes to the tharavadu (ancestral home) her mother tells her the legacy of her family. How the uppercaste family were all warriors. How she expected the legacy to be continued through Kiran, her daughter. As young Kiran explores the house her reflection is seen on the framed photographs of ancestors on the wall. Camera tilts down and we see young Kiran stepping inside the house. Her journey or sanchaaram is beginning.  

Power Cut at Laila's House
The scene is highly nuanced and evocative. It is instantly romantic without even a hint of physicality. The two girls are falling in love, gradually. Kiran seems to know about it. Laila seems unaware. Still everything is just clear on that night of rain. Through light, lighting, shadows and shadow puppetry and dance the filmmaker introduces the girls' feelings for each other. That way it looks most natural when in the next scene Kiran has a dream about Laila dancing. It is mysterious, just like how Kiran had described Laila as. 

Laila and Kiran dance

Laila and Kiran are in Love
This scene at the pond where the girls take bath is where they acknowledge each other's love. This is also the first time in the film where they get physically intimate. Physical intimacy is not sex for them. We are not shown explicit scenes of plain sex like in some films as Blue is the Warmest Colour. Instead it is the coming together of two minds and bodies in love. They simply merge, the sun reflecting on their faces through the water in the pond, with poetic camera movements which begin and end in the lovers. The end note of the film may look a bit contrived where Laila's arched foot beats against the water but then the camera moves further ahead in water and we have just about time to register a school of fish in there. Simply beautiful.  


Secret Meeting place 
The lovers' arrangement for meeting at night. Kiran paces up and down on the top floor of her house. Laila signals with a burning lamp from her house. They meet in the woods. The first time i heard of such a thing was when i read Hound of Baskervilles. In fact that is one of the few things i remember out of the story. In Sancharram the rendezvous is lovely. It happens in the sequence with music which shows us how they loved. Again, it is not about sex. They spend time together, laugh, read, talk and like in this scene look at the moon together. This is how the director makes lesbianism normal. It is shown using all the things 'normal' people do when in 'normal' love. Just look at them. 

Laila is Forced into Marriage
This scene is one which i liked because of its politics. After the vicar and another man who i am assuming to be the sexton/Laila's uncle come home and decide that the best solution to the 'problem' is to get Laila married off we see her sitting in a corner of her bed. The sexton/uncle approaches her and sits on her bed. He places his hand over her cheek and scoffs saying 'Had a lot of pleasure, didn't you?'. I like it for two reasons. One, a heterosexual male is shown to intrude into a lesbian space. He is defining their relationship. There is violence in his movements and action. The second reason is that when he makes his crude remark we feel disgusted because we, as audience have witnessed their love already and know that this comment is just obscene. This frame itself shows the intrusion clearly. We can split it into two halves and see how the man's hand is intruding into Laila's half of the frame. 

Secret Wish

Wikipedia told me that Ligy J Pullappally made the film based on her own short film. I would like to watch that as well. I fell in love with her craft so much so that i am finding it difficult not to copy her. It's not that this is the greatest film i have ever watched. In fact towards the end i found it a bit too melodramatic for my taste. But i cannot but help admire the politics and poetry of the film. Nobody dies in it. It is a common trend in popular films that anybody who travels an unconventional like being in an extra marital relationship (Cocktail), being gay (Mumbai Police, Rithu) etc are killed, made villain or given a sad ending. Here both the girls find happiness in their own skies with their own butterflies. Kiran smiles, cuts her hair and goes back to some place which is definitely not death. Kiran is also seen questioning her mother's casteism a couple of times. In fact she is who comes out as lesbian and states that it is her mother's blood running in her of which her mother was so proud of till then which was making her rebellious. Her rebellion is not killed. 
I am really tempted to make a sequel to this film with the same actors. You two beautiful actors, please wait till i make some money. Till then happy Sancharram to all.

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