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K.G. George: Chronicler of the Moral Void

Banner Image: (from left to right) John Abraham, M. Azad, Ramachandra Babu, Kabeer Rawther, K.G. George, Suresh Babu, Unni, G.S. Panikker

 

 

The films of K.G. George continue to haunt and enchant viewers, for they deal with the most elemental of human conflicts. In the process, they portray the different layers of oppression and violence that constitute human relationships and upon which our social institutions are founded. He explores this theme in its multifarious expressions within different milieus and structures of power, with the man-woman relationship at its centre. Never resorting to sentimentalism or sloganeering, nor indulging in any kind of voyeurism, his narratives raise disturbing questions about us and our society. 

 

Kulakkattil Geevarghese George was born on May 24, 1945, in Thiruvalla, central Kerala. He did his schooling from S.D. Seminary School, and later graduated in Political Science from NSS College, Changanassery. During George’s childhood, due to the exigencies of his father’s work—he was a signboard painter—the family used to move from one place to another. George, too, helped his father, and it earned him enough money to watch movies. This was the heyday of theatre in Kerala and he was fascinated by the professional plays that were performed in his locality; he also watched films avidly and was a collector of film souvenirs and memorabilia as well. In 1968, he joined the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune. If, until then, his exposure to cinema was mostly limited to Indian and Hollywood films, it was at the film institute that he saw films from all over the world. Interactions with filmmakers and his fellow students radically transformed his approach not only towards cinema, but towards life itself.  After leaving FTII, he moved to Madras where he started his career as assistant director to the mercurial filmmaker Ramu Kariat, who was at the peak of his career, after having made Chemmeen (1965), a landmark film in Malayalam cinema. In the words of George, ‘During that time I assisted Kariat in films like Maya and Nellu. It was an opportunity to work with a big director and also to enter the circle of his friends who were all big names in film industry.’

 

After a brief period of initiation into the industry, in 1976 K.G. George made his first feature film—Swapnadanam. The film won critical acclaim and several awards, signalling the entry of a filmmaker with a distinct aesthetic style and approach to life. Swapnadanam was a psychological drama, whose narrative style and visual compositions were new to Malayalam cinema at the time.

 

In the next one and a half decades, he made several films; almost all of them were noted for their thematic variety, dramatic intensity and humanistic values. Unlike other ‘new wave’ filmmakers of his generation whose films addressed a niche audience and film festival circuits only, George’s films fared well at the box office, besides receiving critical acclaim, despite adopting offbeat themes and treatment. 

 

 

Phases of George’s Oeuvre

When one looks back, George’s works till date seem to fall into three phases: the first spans the period between 1976 and 1978, after he made Swapnadanam. During this short span of time he made six films in a row: Vyamoham (1977), Rapadikalude Gatha (1978), Ona Pudava (1978), Mannu (1978), Ini Aval Urangatte (1978) and Ulkadal (1978). Out of these, Ona Pudava and Rapadikalude Gatha were based on stories by reputed writers like Kakkanadan and Padmarajan. But all these films, except Ulkadal, failed at the box office. Neither did they live up to his early promises; George himself considers these films as ‘a series of flops that arose out of my overconfidence following the success of my first film.’

 

The second phase, which one could term as that of ‘milieu’ films, saw George dealing with various aspects and layers of man-woman relationships within different milieus and social backgrounds. This phase includes Mela (1980), Kolangal (1981), Yavanika (1982), Lekhayude Maranam: Oru Flashback (1983), Adaminte Variyellu (1983), and Panchavadipalam (1984). If the narrative of Mela unfolds in a circus tent, among circus artistes, Yavanika is about theatre artists and Lekhayude Maranam… about the plight of a woman caught in the glamour web of the film industry. Kolangal and Panchavadipalam, the former, a dark tragedy, and the latter other a black satire on politics, are set in villages insulated from the outside world. Adaminte Variyellu weaves together a series of incidents in the lives of three women from different social backgrounds to the tragic destiny that awaits all women. The third phase with films such as Irakal (1985), Kathakku Pinnil (1987), Mattoral (1988) and Ee Kanni Koodi (1990) takes George’s predominant themes to more intense and dramatic levels. All of them deal with the workings of various social institutions, where women are either objects of lust, tools in the hands of men or passive victims. Any attempts on their part to question or transcend are crushed, forcing them to death, insanity, murder or suicide.

 

The romantic themes that the films of his first phase dealt with lent them new tragic dimensions and intensities. The next phase is the most chilling and devastating of George’s oeuvre: all of these films excavated various layers and dimensions of women’s life in Kerala society. Adaminte Variyellu marks the highpoint of this phase, presenting three different women from various classes—upper, middle, lower—and from various communities, doomed to the same predicament in a patriarchal world that lures, traps and enslaves them, driving them to suicide, insanity or endless drudgery. Irakal dissects the complex and omnipresent presence of power underlying the institution of the family and the sexual economy on which it is founded. Built on endless greed, this oppressive structure can find release and expression only in blind lust and brutal violence. The desolate biblical wail of the grandfather, the man who toiled on earth to create wealth and build the family, resonates through the film as the martyred conscience of not only that family, but also the community and Malayalee society at large. Both Kathakku Pinnil and Ee Kanni Koodi trace the trajectories of a woman’s life in her relationship with a man and its entanglements with family and society. Women here are inexorably drawn into the vortex of male power and greed, abused, exploited and ultimately become prey to it and are pushed to spaces of no return. What makes George different from other filmmakers is his experimentation with a variety of genres—from crime thrillers, romantic dramas, family dramas, to comedy and the historical film. His films have journeyed into various performative modes also, like cinema, theatre, circus, etc., in mapping the lives and fates of women.

 

The only film he made after Ee Kanni Koodi was Elavamkodu Desam (1998), a historical film that was neither commercially successful nor aesthetically or thematically captivating. After the 1990s, with the spread of television and its all-pervasive presence, along with the rise of superstars, K.G. George gradually withdrew from the field, refusing to play up to the monoculture of the market or the macho narratives of super heroes.

 

The following overview focuses on the most significant and landmark films in his career, his debut film Swapnadanam and the films he made between 1980 and 1990.

 

 

‘The Graveyard of Love Within’

Swapandanam begins with a close-up image of the hero lying face down on a beach, clutching the sand with his fingers. He is a lost man in many ways: he has lost his memory and connections with his past. Having left his home and land, he is now an anonymous vagrant in a city (Madras). Admitted to a hospital by chance, bits and pieces from his past life are revealed through the psychoanalytical cure. In his past life, he is Gopinathan Nair, a doctor and a husband. His marriage is a troubled one; though he married his own cousin, they belong to two different social backgrounds. His introverted nature, coupled with her aggressive demands for love and attention, tear their relationship apart. He is someone who is not able to find himself anywhere; he is unable to perform the roles of a son, lover or husband in the manner expected of him: he sacrificed his first love due to familial pressures and financial obligations, and is unable to avoid himself from being engulfed in guilt. In his marital life, he is haunted by a sense of lack, which borders on impotency and transforms into suspicions about his wife. She wants to possess him completely but he is not able to yield, respond or conquer. Gradually his world collapses from within and without. His past is revealed through a series of flashbacks as the psychoanalysis progresses, and finally, as the narrative comes back to the present, he regains his sense of identity and returns home. The film has an enigmatic ending where we see him turning his back on his house, wife and mother, and riding away on his scooter. Is he running away from marital responsibilities? Or, is he a free man now, who can take on the outside world on his own terms? The film leaves audiences to answer these questions for themselves.

 

In a way, Swapnadanam presents the major themes and concerns that remained central to George’s films in the coming years: that of man’s inability to cope with life, ambivalent male sexuality, and the impossibility of the family, love and a healthy relationship between man and woman.

 

After a series of flops, Ulkadal (1978) saw George return to his element. Ulkadal was a romantic love story with tragic undertones, which is also considered to be the first ‘campus film’ in Malayalam. The film acquired a cult status of sorts among the youth, and included several hit songs. ‘Deep inside everyone is a grave of a past love’ went the tagline of the film ('Ulkadal' literally means ‘the sea within’). Here was a lover (Rahulan) who embodied the ambivalence of Malayalee male desire: he comes from a rural background, is an aspiring poet who is fired by lyrical longings, and is introverted and silent. If the conventional film heroes fought against all odds, evils and enemies to win their love, settle scores and establish justice, here is a hero who is always hesitant, never daring to assert his intentions, make choices or take chances.  Both in Swapnadanam and Ulkadal, the protagonists are haunted by love, and are unable to cope with the challenges of reality. The love-relationships in Ulkadal tend to fall apart before they are consummated. Rahulan’s first love leaves him, devastated at the sight of him with her elder sister in intimate embrace. If his village love is lost due to that inadvertent sexual complicity on his part, in the city, he is not able to assert his love and convince Reena’s father, a staunch Christian, to accept their inter-religious love. Running parallel are a series of tragedies that engulf their relationship: Rahulan’s soulmate and Reena’s brother suddenly dies in an accident, soon after his love leaves the convent to marry him. Later, Rahulan himself is drawn into a marriage as if in a trance, from which he is jolted awake at the last moment by the arrival of Reena. Though the film ends with their reunion, there is an all-pervading sense of uncertainty and melancholy about the characters, especially the hero.

 

 

Milieus of Despair

Ulkadal marks the end of the first phase of George’s oeuvre. In the next phase, he moved from limiting himself to the inner lives and conflicts of individuals, to exploring how individual destinies are played out within the confines of different social, class and cultural milieus. These films delved into man-woman relationships in various milieus, ripping open the layers of violence and oppression in society. Mela (1980) has a circus troupe as its setting; its narrative revolves around the love-life of Govindankutty, a midget-clown. The film begins with the news of his impending arrival at his native village which he left long back. As a trained entertainer and outsider with extra cash to spare, he is an object of curiosity and admiration, which ultimately helps him to win the hand of the village beauty. After marriage, he returns to the circus tent with his wife, but there, he is a mere clown, a midget amidst the adventurous world of gymnasts, animal tamers and danger bikers. If he was looked up to back home, here he is someone on the last rungs of the circus hierarchy. Every attempt of his to assert his identity and self-respect within the space of the circus tent and among fellow performers proves ineffective. He is put in his place again and again, and he begins to suspect even the few who respect and understand him. Unable to live an ordinary life as a married man, he leaps into the sea entrusting his wife to his bosom friend. Earlier, in a poignant scene, Govindan falls down barging into a waiter in a hotel; everyone, including his wife, breaks into laughter at that sight. It is the moment that convinces Govindankutty that a ‘normal’ marital life is impossible for him. A clown, and the butt of ridicule inside and outside the circus tent, and always, literally and figuratively, looked down upon, he realises he will never be considered an equal. Various layers of conflict and dissonance animate this narrative—between the stagnant village life and that of the teeming city; between the perpetually shifting circus tent and the dormant ordinary life outside; between men and women, animals and humans, midget clowns and stunt-men. In this tender love story, George pursues the theme of the impossibility of love and marriage, the fatal lack that haunts men, and the conflict between individual and society.

 

Kolangal ('Caricatures', 1981) takes the theme of impossibility of love to another level and a different milieu. The narrative unfolds in the setting of an island-like village. In this enclosed and insulated space are an array of characters whose apparently mundane and placid lives seem to float within that moral vacuum. In this nihilistic drama, every expression of tenderness and humanity are snuffed out, with evil forces celebrating their final victory in the end. The film begins with the innocent village belle Kunjamma with her milk bottles approaching the ferry man to cross the river. This scene of Kunjamma crossing the river in a boat is a leit motif in the film, punctuating its pace and also sequencing the passage of time and events. It is as if the whole narrative of the film consists of a series of attempts to cross the river and to be liberated from the clutches of that island-village. But there is no escape from its stranglehold. At one level, the narrative moves with Kunjamma, with various lovers proposing to her. On the other, it is also the story of two families living on two sides of the road, and their never-ending rivalry. Like any other village, there is a tea and a toddy shop where people congregate to exchange news and spread canards. There is also a group of men spending their time playing cards, snooping on everyone and churning gossip. The narrative moves between these two houses, the ferry, the tea and toddy shops.

 

The film is episodic in nature, foregrounding a set of characters in each: it is the ferry man who first declares his love for Kunjamma, although she rejects it;  an official arrives at the village and marries a local girl, but is hounded out; another episode is that of a film guy from Madras coming to the village and luring his cousin to the film world, only to send her back, exploited, empty-handed and pregnant; an itinerant trader who happens to come to village also falls in love with Kunjamma; a love she responds to, but the gossipers in the village eventually drive him out. Any outsider who comes to the village is hounded out: first, the government official through lies about his wife’s infidelity; then the fish trader who tries to find a place in the local market and then the itinerant trader who wants to marry Kunjamma. Closed and insulated, it is a society that gradually withers and rots within. Only the worst survives in it. At one point in the film, the petty tea shop owner curses the village and hopes a hydrogen bomb will fall over it. '—True, I too will die, but who cares? What is the point in living with these creatures who were born in human form?' Kolangal thus rips apart the myth that the village is the repository and symbol of goodness and love. Here is a village, stagnant and closed, unable to welcome or absorb the outside or re-generate itself from within. The lusty final laughter of Varkey, who marries Kunjamma, declares this in a very ominous and disturbing way. Eminent film critic T.G. Vaidyanathan described Kolangal as one of ‘the most perfect tragic dramas in Indian cinema’. Like in Swapnadanam and Ulkadal, there is an uneasy union between man and woman at the end, but here, it is only a marriage that is doomed in advance.

 

Yavanika ('The Curtain', 1982) is one of the most watched and loved of K.G. George’s films. Set amidst an itinerant theatre troupe, the film is a crime thriller, a tragic love story and a milieu drama all rolled into one. According to K.G. George, this film is a homage to the theatre movement of the 1950s and ‘60s when plays were very vibrant and popular: 'During my childhood, professional theatre was the most influential art form in our society. I grew up watching and listening to them. These plays had a great role in conveying messages of revolution, reformation, and protest to the people. They helped in fostering new awareness about reality, inspiring people to see new dreams, to inculcate new visions of science, and to fight against injustice in society. Theatre transformed itself into a medium to convey many different things. Beyond entertainment and storytelling, theatre had the moral strength to deal with life with all its incongruities and harsh truths..'

 

Yavanika begins with the drama troupe about to begin their journey to perform. One person is missing: Ayyappan, their star tabla performer. Police initiates an inquiry about the missing person, but soon his dead body is found. The narrative unfolds through the various testimonies and memories of the troupe members providing glimpses of Ayyappan’s past, and also that of Rohini, his ward and later his ‘keep’. Along with the flashbacks into the events leading to his murder are scenes from the play, which is also a doomed love story.

 

Formally, the film has an interesting structure that mixes rehearsals, the performance onstage and real-life events on the one hand, and also the present and past events on the other. The scenes of the play are composed in a very complex manner, by intercutting between shots from the side of the stage where we have the side view of the performers and the orchestra, etc. along with frontal shots of the play itself and the audience in the hall. Three levels of action, simultaneous but exclusive, happen here: there is the story of the play, the audience engrossed in it; backstage, we find the players, technicians and artists going through their regular, studied motions; but in between all these activities are Rohini and Joseph, her accomplice in murder, playing husband and wife in the play, exchanging secret glances, pregnant with fear and suspicion. The relationship between Ayyappan and Rohini is portrayed with a kind of cold-blooded detachment; in a series of incidents we see the wily Ayyappan luring innocent Rohini into his clutches; it turns out to be a path of no return for her. Like many other K.G. George characters in the films that followed, she has no means to defend or protect herself other than to murder the man. Brilliant acting performances by Gopi (as Ayyappan), Jalaja (as Rohini), and Mammooty (as the Inspector) along with evocative ‘drama songs’ penned by O.N.V. Kurup and set to music by M.B. Srinivasan contributed to the phenomenal success of Yavanika.

 

Adaminte Variyellu ('Adam’s Other Rib', 1983) is the most critically acclaimed and analysed of KG George’s films. It is also arguably the first ‘feminist’ film in Malayalam, for no other film had attempted such an honest and incisive survey of women’s life in Kerala society from the perspectives of class and gender. Even when questions of gender were raised, they were subsumed under that of class, or seen as a moral issue. In some films, it appears as an exclusively ‘feminine’ issue—something biological and ‘natural’ to the condition of being woman.

 

Adaminte Variyellu addresses the issue of women along the axes of gender and class; it also poses several disturbing questions about the sexual and economic oppression that is naturalised in the institution of the family. Its protagonists belong to different economic classes: Alice is the wife of a rich contractor and is from the upper class; Vasanthi is a middle-class woman working as a government clerk; and Ammini is a low-caste servant in Alice’s house. The film weaves everyday events from the lives of these three women from different strata of society, but in the end, it is the same old story of exploitation and oppression for each one of them. Alice is used by her husband to promote his business interests. Disgusted with that marriage devoid of love or emotions, Alice finds refuge in a young architect. But for him Alice is yet another trophy; he withdraws into his shell once she begins to take their relationship seriously. With nothing to hold on to, she commits suicide.

 

Vasanthi’s husband is a drifter who loses his job and takes to drinking alcohol. Engrossed in himself, he is incapable of love or care. When he loses his job, she has to carry the burden of the family all by herself, but continues to be ill treated at home. Unable to keep herself together, her world disintegrates about her. She loses interest in life, and becomes mentally unstable; she is visited by the spectral presence of her patriarchal father-in-law who held the family together before his death. Casting away all her roles—as a wife, mother, official, and friend—she retreats into her own world and ends up in a mental asylum.

 

In the case of Ammini, her life is controlled and run by others: she is left in Alice’s house by her uncle, never to return. She is sexually abused by Alice’s husband, who, after impregnating her, dumps her in the shack of a bootlegger who cares for nothing but herself. Left on the streets with her newborn child, she leaves her offspring at a doorstep and runs away, but is caught by the police and relegated to a rescue home. In the final sequence, we find a series of women in the rescue home, of different ages, doing different things, staring at the camera, at us. In a sudden move, Ammini wakes them all up from their slumber, and urges them to escape, to run away from their prisons. Ammini and the women run out of the rescue home, on the way pushing aside the film crew shooting the film. If the upper class Alice finds refuge in self-destruction, a violence that is turned onto oneself, the middle class Vasanthi escapes from reality by weaving a mental world of her own. It is only Ammini, the representative of the underclass, who finds a voice of her own and rebels against the system.  According to Bindu Menon, ‘the final act of breaking the boundaries of the camera and rushing past it should be read as breaking free from what are being explicitly activated as agents of narrativity, as operators of the image. Perhaps one of the most revolutionary closing shots in Indian cinema..' (Menon 2010:118)

 

Lekhayude Maranam: Oru Flashback ('Lekha’s Death: A Flashback', 1983) was the most controversial of George’s films. When it was released, it invited a lot of criticism from the film industry for revealing its dark underbelly. Also fresh in the minds of viewers was the shocking news about the suicide of talented young actress Sobha (the heroine of Ulkadal) after a tumultous love affair with another film personality. Lekhayude Maranam follows a brief period in the life of an actress—the film begins with Santhamma, a girl from a remote village in Kerala arriving in Madras, the dream factory of South Indian film industry.  She is accompanied by her family, and is there to realise her dream of becoming a film star. In Madras, she meets a series of men who lure her with offers and exploit her. Wading her way through dirt, she makes her way through this male jungle, through sheer talent. Eventually, she is cast by an eminent director in a role that fetches her a national award. Their relationship thickens with her moving in with him, leaving behind her home and family. But after a brief, stormy affair, he leaves her to go back to his own family. Her only hope of fulfilment and meaningful life dashed, she ends her life.

 

This film is one of the most brutally honest reflections upon the film industry as seen from the inside, especially about how women are treated on- and off-screen, as objects of pleasure, tools of advancement, or consumables for moneymaking.  As Lekha’s tragedy unfolds, we come across an array of people living and feeding on this glamour industry—upcoming actors, future, and often spurious, producers, directors, brokers, extras, assistants of all kinds, light boys, dance girls, gossip writers, studio boys, technicians and artists. Among them there are genuine ones, frauds, successful celebrities as well as those who are washed out. It is a crazy world run by and for men; women are either idols or dolls, tools or pleasure machines.

 

From the macabre world of cinema, George turned to the tragi-comic world of politics in his next film Panchavadippalam ('The Panchavadi Bridge', 1984). A unique film in his oeuvre, it is a dark political satire set in a small village panchayat in Kerala. The film presents a series of stereotypical characters with fancy mythical names like Dussananan, Mandodari, Panchali, Sikhandi etc. In this microcosm of the state, a petty, abominable group of people, whether in the ruling front or in the opposition, is always in power. Democracy here is nothing but a performance—of divergent opinions, ideologies and positions. All the allegations and counter-allegations, the controversies and fiery speeches they make are for public consumption, while public resources are systematically looted. The film revolves around the conspiracy to demolish a bridge and rebuild it, only to create the illusion of ‘development’ and to share its spoils. Every stratum of power—the legislature, political parties, leaders, bureaucracy and the business community—supports the move, which eventually ends in tragedy. On the day of the inauguration, the bridge collapses, and the only human casualty is the cripple who moves on a small wooden board with wheels. He is a perpetual presence in the movie, and is addicted to public meetings and speeches; in more than one way, he represents the people, who are passive witnesses to, and admirers of, the lurid melodrama of democracy. His inability to move on his own, his addiction to political verbiage, and finally, his getting caught up in the melee of ‘democratic’ celebrations and sacrificing his own life for it, all encapsulate the average citizen, one who is gullible yet interested, the subject and object of politics, ending up as its victim.  

 

The Last Desperate Links

The third phase of K.G. George’s filmography extends the themes explored in earlier movies to their logical ends: all three films of this phase culminate in murder or suicide. It seems to mark the dead end that women in these films eventually reach or are pushed to in their lives.

 

In Kathakku Pinnil ('Behind the Story', 1987) George delves into the life of a woman who is caught in the wily web of men. It is told in a story-within-story format, where a playwright, facing severe writer’s block, comes to a remote place to pen his new play. One night, a woman barges into his place, seeking shelter for the night. Obviously she is fleeing from someone. The writer, hungry for stories, is curious to know about her, and she slowly narrates her life: how she was torn apart by the impotence, indifference, lust and treachery of various men at different points in her life. Her father, once a rich exporter, withdraws from life once he becomes bankrupt, her mother elopes with a young lover, and her brother, a drug addict, also leaves her to fend for herself. The other men—the publisher who shows interest in her poems, the politician who promises her a job, the hotel owner and manager who employ her in their hotel as a singer, her lover who helps her to find that job—all deceive or exploit her. Virtually driven away from life and any hope of a decent living, she is forced to murder her lover. The writer’s valiant attempt to save her fails, and she is convicted for life. The writer realises that justice for a woman like her is realised only in plays. The narrative develops through an interesting interface between him, the story-writer, and her, the story teller, between the narration of her life and the actual living of it, and between fiction that follows life and life that turns into fiction.

 

Mattoral ('The Other Man', 1988) is one of the most chilling interrogations in Indian cinema of marital relationship within a middle-class milieu. At the centre of the narrative is what appears to be a small, happy family of husband, wife and two kids: Kaimal, a respectable, middle-aged bureaucrat as 'head of the family'; Suseela, an ordinary 'housewife', and their two school-going kids. But this tranquility that appears unshakeable and ‘unto death’ is shattered by the sudden disappearance of Suseela. She elopes with another man, a mechanic who lives in the same city. Her departure leaves Kaimal devastated. Sympathies pour in, and he becomes a butt of ridicule to many; the only friends who understand and intervene are the young couple Balan and Veni, who had just moved into the town. Balan desperately attempts to bring Suseela back, but she refuses. When she meets her on the night of her elopement at her lover’s house, he tells her, ‘Please come back, it is still not too late.’ She coldly replies, ‘It is already too late. I am not coming back.’ But soon Suseela realises that she has only moved from one hell to another, from the cold indifference of one man to that of another. She feels trapped, and has nowhere to go.  But when her lover brings another woman to their house, she decides to go back to Kaimal.  Balan arranges for them to meet at the beach, and when she arrives she finds Kaimal lying on the beach after stabbing himself to death. Kaimal embodies the patriarchal mindset of the Malayalee male who despite his liberal pretensions, would rather prefer death than living with a woman with a mind and will of her own.  In a parallel story, we also witness the experience of another woman, Veni, Balan’s wife, who dares to be free, when her business partner makes sexual advances towards her. Later, without revealing the incident, Veni tells Balan, ‘In the end, every woman in this world is a prey, to be humiliated, conquered, destroyed.’ Mattoral revisits and reiterates K.G. George’s central themes: the impossibility of family/love, the impotency and indecisiveness of the male, any attempts by women to break free ending in fatalily or in futility, and the allure of self-destruction.

 

Ee Kanni Koodi ('This Last Link', 1990) follows a narrative format similar to Yavanika, where the narrative begins with a murder and unfolds through flashbacks. In this film, Kumudam, a high-class prostitute is found dead in her house, and during police investigation, a series of flashbacks reveal the journey of her life. She was born into a progressive family, but she had to elope with her lover, a painter, who is from another religion. After the thrills of a budding romance, he gradually sinks into alcoholism when faced with the reality of life. A rich man, a moneylender, enters the scene as their saviour. He conspires to wean her husband away from her, makes her believe he is dead, and gradually wins her confidence. But it is not out of love but only to use her to further his illegal business interests, for which he is eventually arrested. Left alone, she manages to survive as a call girl and brings up her son. After a long stint at a mental asylum, her husband returns to her but is shocked at the sight of her present life as a call girl; he pleads with her to leave with him to start life anew, but she refuses. A scuffle follows at the end of which she consumes poison and ends her life.

 

This film again portrays the impossibility of love, family and companionship. It is always the woman who is at the receiving end, who is always forced to succumb, surrender and sacrifice. Her natal family disowns her, the family she creates with her husband crumbles under economic pressure and her husband’s irresponsibility; all the other men—her clients, young and old—only use her to satisfy their own needs and pleasures. In the end, she is an emotional wreck with nothing to cherish or hope for. Her only reason for life is her son, whom she entrusts to her husband, before she destroys herself.

 

 

Despair of the Generation of Midnight’s Children

Born two years before Independence, K.G. George can be described as belonging to the generation of ‘Midnight’s Children’—one that was caught between conflicting ethos and values: the nationalist imagination of an erstwhile colony emerging from the shackles of imperial rule, and the colonial structures of power and cultural legacies it left; between demands to go back to the roots, and a cosmopolitan imagination yearning to embrace the world, between a tradition that weighs heavily, and a modernity that offers new flights. Though George was never directly involved in politics, nor do his films deal overtly with political themes, the concerns that animate his films and the anxieties and conflicts that haunt his characters have a lot to say about the underlying conflicts and dilemmas of the nation and the society he lived in.

 

Most significantly, the period his oeuvre spans (1974–1990) is a very crucial and vibrant period in cinematic and political history. The 1970s and 80s were decades when Malayalam cinema was at its peak as an industry and in terms of artistic merit; this period witnessed the entry of a lot of young filmmakers who were charting new thematic terrains, visual sensibilities and idioms. In Indian polity too, the years 1975 and 1990 mark two significant historic landmarks: 1975 witnessed the dark days of National Emergency when a hitherto benevolent state turned into an authoritarian, brute power. The 1990s mark the beginning of another era in Indian history with the Congress government announcing new economic policies of liberalisation and globalisation, and the demolition of Babri Masjid leaving lasting wounds on India’s secular body politic. Coincidentally, K.G. George made his first film in the mid-1970s and remained prolific until 1990, when his film career came to a halt. During this period of turbulence marked off by two traumatic events, K.G. George made 17 films that traversed various milieus, classes and social strata, and dissected and interrogated Malayali life and society, most devastatingly through the complex web of the man-woman relationship. No other filmmaker has looked so brutally and so incisively at the life of women within the patriarchal structures of Malayali society—often invisible and hidden behind the veneer of its civility and progressive credentials. His active years coincided with a turbulent and transformative period in Kerala’s socio-political and economic history: the communist movement had lost its steam and the party was fast turning factional, vying with others for electoral mandate and power; the land reforms had affected agricultural production by splintering large holdings and making farming unviable; there was increasing unrest amongst the educated middle-class youth; migration to the Middle Eastern Gulf region gathered momentum, along with the resultant inflow of money into the local economy in the sectors of construction and consumption, upending traditional caste and gender hierarchies; on the cultural front, the modernist movement was making waves in literature, arts and cinema. With the breakup of joint families/holdings into small plots and nuclear families, new conflicts and tensions at individual and social levels began to emerge. Even as old patriarchal mores were crumbling¸ Kerala was not yet a modern, secular, urbanised society; its production base remained stagnant, even as Gulf remittances and state interventions helped create a social infrastructure that was robust. All this brought into being the much-acclaimed Kerala Model, characterised by low industrial development, along with high social indices. All of these put a severe strain on the organisation of the family and man-woman relations, both of which were undergoing a process of re-imagination. One can see in K.G. George’s films, families on the verge of collapse; the men are either melancholic, impotent, indecisive or extremely violent and aggressive; the whole of society and all its institutions are run and ruled by feudal patriarchal values. In this Republic of Men, women were not citizens, only slaves for labour, objects for gaze or subjects to rule over.

 

In a way, K.G. George’s films are seismic records of the subterranean and surface tensions brewing in the man-woman relationship, in the family as an institution, and in society as a patriarchal order. His narratives are played out in this moral void within which the individuals find themselves; they explore and map these terrains by always placing women at the centre, portraying their pain, dreams, drudgery and struggles across social strata, vocations, age and milieus. 

 

 

Death, Murder, Suicide

There are no happy endings in K.G. George’s films; happy, contented characters are rare in his world. His narratives do not lend themselves to easy resolutions or culminate in a happy wedding or a grand family reunion. Reunions or returns, even when they occur, are ambivalent, always portentous of an uncertain future; for instance, in Swapnadanam, even though Gopinathan comes back home after being ‘cured’ of his mental illness, he does not step into the house, but impulsively rides away in a scooter, without any apparent destination. In Ulkadal, too, the reunion of Rahulan and Reena is not without its constraints; it is haunted by festering wounds of past loves and deaths. In Mattoral, when the wife who finally decides to return to the family after her elopement, it is only to meet her husband’s dead body. In Mela, the husband leaves his wife with his friend and leaps into the sea. Kolangal does end with a wedding—but it is an alliance between an innocent girl and a depraved drunkard. In Ee Kanni Koodi, when family reunion becomes a real possibility, the wife chooses to commit suicide leaving her son and husband. In Lekhayude Maranam, Lekha has to sacrifice her life at the altar of Family; while she has to demean herself for her natal family, she is pushed to death by her lover, who betrays her and refuses to live with her.

 

One can find the end of life appearing again and again in K G George films in various forms—as natural deaths, accidents, murders and suicide. Many of the narratives begin with a dead body and unfold backwards to reveal the events leading up to it (Yavanika, Ee Kanni Koodi); sometimes death or murders occur at the end (Panchavadipalam, Irakal, Kathakku Pinnil, Kolangal). Suicide, that of men, is another common occurrence or end: in both Mela and Mattoral, the unhappy husbands, unable to cope with their feelings for their wives, commit suicide at the end, while one leaps into the sea, the other stabs himself to death on the beach. In Adaminte Variyellu, Alice commits suicide by swallowing sleeping pills; in Ee Kanni Koodi, Kumudam poisons herself; in Lekhayude Maranam, Lekha hangs herself to death. In Ulkadal, David succumbs to a bike accident, while in Irakal, Baby commits two murders, and attempts many more, only to be shot dead by his father in the end. Interestingly, the murders committed by women are acts of despair or occur by accident: in Yavanika, Rohini stabs her tormentor during a violent scuffle, in Kathakku Pinnil, Vanitha, at the end of her tether, and in order to save her life and honour, hammers her treacherous lover to death. On the other hand, the violent acts of men are self-motivated and spurred by lust or revenge; it is as if violence is a part of their being, unlike in the case of women.

 

 

Home and the Women

For long, in arts, literature and public discourses, femininity has been identified with the home and the domestic, and with motherly and wifely functions, all of which constituted the essence and ideal of womanhood: caring, nurturing, nourishing. 'The housewife as a construction of a middle-class, upper-caste and heterosexual femininity has often been taken as the feminine per se. As a highly visible figure of the modernisation of gender during the twentieth century, the housewife came to stand for the completion and assumption of a "proper" feminine identity' (Menon 2010).

 

In K.G. George’s films, women are not ‘at home’ in their homes or in the patriarchal world; his narratives problematise and interrogate the very notion of the home-bound woman, the idea of the ‘housewife’. Most of his female characters, especially the young, find their own homes to be suffocating; their desires and dreams transcend homes; they relentlessly yearn for the wider world outside. Men and the structures they have created are the stumbling blocks in their way. Men want to confine them to the household, use their bodies for their own pleasure or benefit, never engaging with women as equals or individuals. The responses of male characters veer from mindless violence and lust (Irakal, Yavanika, Kathakku Pinnil), to impotence, ambivalence and indecisiveness (Ulakadal, Swapnadanam, Mela, Ee Kanni Koodi, Mattoral, Lekhayude Maranam: Oru Flashback).

 

‘Housewives’ like Suseela in Mattoral, Alice and Vasanthi in Adaminte Variyellu, are utterly tired and bored with their homes and its daily chores, which they leave at the first opportunity. (‘Yes, I have wings… and I want to fly’ says Veni in Mattoral). Sarada, an ordinary girl from a remote village, upon marrying the circus artist gets out of her rural confines to live in the town, feeling very much at home there. Many women like Alice and Annie in Irakal seek sexual pleasure outside home. Women like Ammini in Adaminte Variyellu and Rohini in Yavanika are forcibly kept in their homes through economic needs or violent force.

 

Reena in Ulkadal, Kumudam in Ee Kanni Koodi, Vanitha in Kathakku Pinnil, the tea vendor’s daughter in Panchavadipalam and the girls who want to become actors in Kolangal and Lekhayude Maranam either walk away from their homes or are thrown out of them, though outside home, they are often captured and imprisoned in other male bastions.

 

 

Frontal Compositions that Stare at Patriarchy

Visual composition in K.G. George’s films follows interesting patterns. The characters are mostly picturised frontally and often with all or most part of their bodies in full view. There is a predominant preference for mid-shots where the characters are kept in full view. There is an effort to keep in view their surroundings and settings that frame their action and also define their personality. The women are never objectified as targets of male gaze or desire; they are always shown engaged in various activities, professions and daily chores. Close-ups are few and very rare; they are used only during moments of intense conflicts or self-indulgence, when the character is engrossed in something or someone (men lustfully looking at women), oblivious to the world. For instance, there are close-ups of Ayyappan in Yavanika, when he is furiously playing the tabla to the pace of the dancer’s steps, while gazing lustfully at her; or that of circus artists in intense concentration etc.

 

Such compositions create a kind of distance or detachment in the viewer, like that of the psycho-analysts who probe into the life of Gopinathan in Swapnadanam. One could describe K.G. George as a ‘mise en scene’ director who composes his frames and details it carefully. The form of his visual narrative is determined not by ideological convictions or idealist convictions, but by his acute sense of reality, of the visceral physicality of oppression that engulfs the world that he chronicles with a kind of clinical detachment. George’s mise-en-scene gradually draws the viewer into a real, physical space, the coordinates and directions of which become familiar through repetition; take, for instance, the houses in Irakal, Mattoral, Ulkadal, Ee Kanni Koodi, Kathakku Pinnil, Adaminte Variyellu etc.—as the film progresses, the viewer gets familiar with the layout and insides of the houses. It is through repeated movements of characters through these spaces, which are also sites of action and interaction. This acute sense of space also translates into a kind of claustrophobia in his films, leading to an overwhelming feeling of being trapped within spaces from where there is no escape, always closing in on their inhabitants, especially women—the feminist resonances in the dramatisation of spaces, that always turn into enclosures and entrapments, are unmistakable.

 

By always framing his characters within their physical and social settings, he, in a way refuses ‘to put asunder what reality has joined together, namely, the character and the setting’, as Bazin describes while defending the film style of Rossellini. Bazin says Rossellini’s is a neo-realism that ‘always presupposes an attitude of mind: it is not reality as it is visible through an artist, as refracted by his consciousness—but by his consciousness as a whole and not by his reason alone or his emotions or his beliefs—and reassembled from its distinguishable elements’ (Bazin 98). This is true in the case of George also. George’s narratives are defined by a certain sense of immanence; transcendence of any kind is ruled out, shunned or punished.

 

So, the spatial coordinates in George’s films are drawn and defined by this vision that is committed to reality in its concreteness and physicality; they never flinch away from it, and never idealise or ideologize it.

 

 

Closed Spaces, Claustrophobic Lives

The narrative worlds in George’s films have a kind of closed quality to them—it is as if the characters are trapped inside that space, unable to cross its boundaries and escape from its confines. These ‘enclosures’ take the form of institutions, structures, mental states, vocations, relationships, behaviours or even physical spaces. Institutions like the family, habitats like the house and the village, love and other relationships, filial and marital obligations, maniacal states of mind, professions and livelihoods (circus, theatre or cinema, advertising etc) define, enclose and sets the limits to their lives. Any kind of transgression is punished—by others or by oneself. In Swapnandanam, Gopinathan Nair never manages to escape from his mental condition, in Kolangal, the characters are trapped in that island of a village, the ‘outsiders’  who attempt to bring different ethos or values are punished severely, in Yavanika, the theatre constitutes livelihood and transcendence through performance, but is also a space/vocation from which there is no escape; once Rohini is enlisted to the troupe she has no escape from it; the police finally arrests the culprits inside the theatre and while the play is in progress; in Irakal, all the characters are under the spell of one overwhelming passion or other, and they pursue it blindly till the end; in Mattoral, the boundaries and bounds of the family haunt Suseela, whose attempt to break out of one house only pushes her into the confines of another; in Kathaku Pinnil and Ee Kanni Koodi, the lives of both female protagonists are a series of enclosures that oppress and trap them and from which they are desperately struggling to escape; the circus tent in Mela, the glamorous world of film in Lekhayude Maranam also enclose the characters, always keeping them under its fatal spell; in Adaminte Variyellu, it is the family, house and marital relationship that enclose and enslave women. Any attempts at escape, transgression or transcendence by women are punished and crushed. They are prevented by force or circumstances from indulging in their own passions and creating an inner world of their own. Reena is a painter, Lekha and Rohini are talented actors, Kumudam is a poet, Vanitha is a singer and Veni is an advertisement professional—but they all finally succumb to death or inner destruction.

 

In the final scene, all the women escape from their homes, seeking different refuges. While the enclosures that surround and suffocate women are social in nature, in the case of most men it is mental; they are driven by lust, guilt, passion, greed and ambition. They create enclosures, perpetuate and guard them.

 

 

The Ever-Present sans Past or Future

Like confinement of/in space, time also follows definite patterns in George’s films. His narrative world is one of an eternal present (an exception is the historical film he made in 1998, Elavamkodu Desam). Engrossed and trapped in a perpetual present, his characters seldom indulge in nostalgia; they do not seem to have fond memories about childhood, nor does the past nourish their present in anyway. The past is not only a refuge, or cause for delirium (as in the case of the grandfather in Irakal); it is always an unpleasant place to go back to. For both Rahulan and Gopinathan, the past is a ‘graveyard of love’ that haunts them. Even in instances where childhood memories surface, they are sources of guilt or fear, that return to haunt them in the present. In the crime thrillers like Yavanika, Ee Kanni Koodi etc, the narrative delves into the past to where it is the site of crime—the past is recounted and remembered to piece together evidence about the crime. Most characters desperately attempt to bury the past; it could be one of unpleasant, haunting memories, or of evidence of crime, experiences of sin or failure of some kind.

 

The future seldom figures in George’s narratives. Even when the characters refer to the future, it is only in the short term, mainly with regard to strategies of escape, survival, revenge, etc. In Irakal, when the priest pontificates upon the wages of sin and urges them about the future, his advice falls on deaf ears.

 

It is this utter lack of use for the past and future that pushes the characters to self-destruction when they lose hold over the present. At the end of their tether in the present, they opt for death, murder or suicide. They would rather stop time than wait for a better future; there are no memories to fall back upon or redeem. The past or memories do not hold them back, and they have nothing to look forward to.

 

This total immersion in present time means continual immersion or entrapment in space and vocation too. Devoid of ‘society’ or with severe incapacity for inter-subjectivity, each character acts and lives as an island, cut off in a deep way from others; unable to share, reach out, and imagine togetherness. K.G. George films are about the moral void they are caught in where love, kindness, justice and compassion are impossible.

 

 

Narrating the Moral Void

 

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

——W.B. Yeats, 'The Second Coming'

 

Times have changed. When there are too many rules, how can one live without breaking a few?

——Mathukutty, in Irakal (1985)

 

To call K.G. George a ‘feminist’ filmmaker would be to use a misnomer. It is true that all his films have women at the centre of their narratives, and deal with their desperate struggles and tragic experiences. This has to be understood and read in the larger context of the moral void that pervades his narrative universe. The violence against women, blind greed, ruthless avarice, total insensitivity towards the other, and absence of dreams about the future are all manifestations of this amorality. Retrospectively, the narrative world that George created through his films seems to be characterised by the moral vacuity or void that our society has turned into. In this amoral world, there is no sense of, let alone yearning for, justice or fairness—nor is there any palpable feeling of good or evil. His male characters inhabit a moral void where emotions and sentiments have no currency: only power and might, blind pursuits and tunnel visions figure there.

 

 

References

Menon, Bindu. 2010. 'Middle Cinema and the Category of Woman', in Women in Malayalam Cinema, ed. Meena PIllai. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

 

Bazin, André. 2004. 'In Defense of Rossellini' in What is Cinema, vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press.