Malayalam Features

Silverscreen Recommends: G Aravindan’s ‘Esthappan’ (1979) About A Mystery Man Who Lived On The Fringes Of The Society

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This is part of a series where Silverscreen recommends films, documentaries, shorts, songs or scenes from seminal films that make for a compelling watch.

Decades before Martin Prakkat, Unni R and Dulquer Salman created Charlie (2015), a flamboyant pop-culture figure, there was Esthappan, a mystic wayfarer who lived in an impoverished fishing village, among a Creole community. He painted biblical tales on the walls of the village and the rocks that lined the seashore, and roamed the lanes of the village day and night, sometimes floating in the sea, and treating the world with kindness he seldom received.

Aravindan – the prolific director who anchored Malayalam cinema’s golden parallel movement in the 80s with his contemporaries like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abraham – made the film Esthappan in 1979. The movie, produced by General Pictures, the apostle of parallel film movement in Kerala, had a screenplay co-written by Kavalam Narayana Panikker, Isaac Thomas Kottakappally, and Aravindan himself. It belongs to the realm of Aravindan’s Kummatty which was written by Kavalam. The films are centered around protagonists who exist on the fringes of the society, and don’t subscribe to societal life as they have a profound understanding of the universe.

The film fetched Aravindan two State Film Awards – Best Film and Best Director – in 1979. Thirty eight years since its release, all that remains of Esthappan in the public space is a copy that resembles a washed-out painting where the contrast of light that Shaji N Karun’s cinematography had weaved in is lost, and countless critique and analytical pieces in various languages. With the passage of time, the film has come to resemble its protagonist, Esthappan, whom the audience learn of mostly through the accounts of people around him.

Esthappan is an object of affection/amusement as well as fear/contempt for the villagers whose stories about him are contradictory. He is a charlatan, a do-gooder, a thief and a redeemer at the same time. The film starts off like a bedtime story. A dreamy shot of a silhouette that ascends from the sea at dusk transitions to a scene of four men on the seashore engrossed in repairing fishing nets. As the camera pans on to their hands dexterously going about the job, the tale of the mystic figure, Esthappan, is told. “What a sight it is!” one of them exclaims. “As if the sun has risen from the West. Inside it, a human figure.” His friend intervenes, “It must be Esthappan, that trickster!” His voice reflects disdain.

Esthappan is at once a film about religious faith and the lack of it. Esthappan refuses to lead the disciplined materialist life that the Christian church wants the parishioners to go about. At the same time, church is the entity he is closest to in the village. He encompasses the subtle, yet the most powerful biblical philosophies the world has forgotten. In a scene, kids throw stones at him when he is sitting beside a portrait of crucifixion that he made on a wall using charcoal. He smiles at them painfully, and turns the stones into sweetmeat that he distributes among the kids. He turns thorns into roses, hatred into kindness.

The people who despise him say that he has a scandalous affair with a prostitute, Anna. A certain other set of people say he has supernatural powers. In one of the scenes, he arrives at Anna’s door to heal her severely ill daughter. The mother, shattered as the doctor says the child will soon be dead, gazes at Esthappan, seeking his intervention. It is a particularly beautiful shot – the composition and her expression are reminiscent of a Biblical painting.

These contrasting versions of stories that the villagers narrate about Esthappan reveal more about general human nature than about Esthappan himself. The hypocrisy, jealousy and fragile sense of morality of the villagers come to light. As though Esthappan, the odd ball, holds the key to their famished inner lives. In a witty scene that is reminiscent of Christ’s resurrection, Esthappan fakes his death. The villagers are outraged. “What a nuisance!” yells the owner of the shop where Esthappan is found hanging on a piece of cloth.

The sea is a pivotal element in the film. It is from the sea the film takes off. In the climatic part, there is a shot of him floating in the turbulent sea waters. Fishermen claim they have witnessed him calming down the choppy sea and predicting storms. Perhaps, the sea, in its vastness and mysteriousness, symbolizes the divinity that Esthappan is able to see and the villagers don’t.

*****

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