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When the Curtain Falls: Socio-cultural Facets of K.G. George’s Filmic Narratives

With the benefit of hindsight, we realise that it is directors like John Abraham and K.G. George whose lasting imprints and contributions we recover with a sigh of relief in the present, especially when confronted with cultural nationalist avatars of various hues in the culture industry and country at large. It was Abraham and George who revolutionized Kerala cinema in 1970s and 1980s with their genuinely auteurist interventions.  While John was a bohemian and avant-garde of modernist fervour, George carved out a space of his own in the industry with brilliant and sustained cinematic narratives that still attract audiences, students and critics of cinema alike. 

 

He remains a favourite with both the academic and the general spectator with a range of films stretching across many decades. He initiated the subtle and allegorical depiction of the mindscapes and psychological make-up of characters, within a well-defined socio-political milieu. His cinema created a space for a unique psychological realism as well as political allegory in the mainstream of the Malayalam film industry. The film industry, much like literature and every other part of the public sphere and cultural domains in Kerala, continues to be dominated by chauvinistic groups. Though J.C. Daniel is known as the pioneer of Malayalam cinema with his 1928 film Vigathakumaran (The Lost Child), the Malayali identity, represented by a chauvinistic high culture, overtook cinema soon after, burning the theatres and chasing the outcaste heroine, P.K. Rosy, from the cultural and actual geography of Kerala. Thus, Malayali filmdom is a caste Hindu sacred space built violently upon the exclusion and expulsion of the real creators of cinema in Kerala. It is not a wonder that George was given the J.C. Daniel Award only in 2016, almost two decades after he ceased his cinematic and cultural interventions.

 

His filmic dexterity and narrative polyphony continue to lure audiences. He has also entertained common viewers with a lot of psychological and crime/detective thrillers, apart from introducing and immortalising many ace actors and technicians in the industry. His talents lie in multiple areas such as screenwriting, dubbing, art direction, acting and associate direction. His scenographic contributions and style of collaborating with other radical writers are traits that he imbibed from Italian neo-realist masters like Fellini, who seems to have left a lasting impression on George. 

 

Kulakkattil Geevarghese George was born in Tiruvalla, in British Travancore, just a year before the independence of India. From a humble and poor background in middle Travancore, he graduated in politics, before going on to study at the Film and Television Institute, Pune, and graduating with a diploma in film direction. Returning to Kerala, George went to the Malabar Coast in order to assist the renowned director Ramu Kariat, a legend in Kerala filmdom, who had nurtured and trained talents like P.A. Backer.  George wrote the screenplay for Kariat’s Nellu (Paddy) in 1974, which is broadly based on P. Valsala’s (Vatsala's) novel depicting the life of the Adiyar tribal community in Wayanad.

 

His own directorial debut Swapnadanam (Dream Voyage) won the National Award for the Best Malayalam film in 1976. It also won the acceptance of the common people, despite its unconventional form. George carefully avoided the usual song sequences and easily gratifying routines in his first work. The social drama dissecting marital conjugal relations was successful in attracting crowds. Its popular appeal was based on its cast and crew, which included Rani Chandra, Dr Mohandas, Soman and P.K. Venukuttan Nair.  It also successfully used for the first time, a series of flashbacks in and through the mind of the protagonist who is undergoing intense clinical psychological therapy.

 

The problems of marital life and the lack of understanding between two differently tempered people are interestingly woven into a closed marriage drama through which the director attempts to mount a serious critique of the patriarchal institution of marriage in allegorical and indirect ways. The man is presented as being hypersensitive and the woman as lacking compassion, and burgeoning with arrogance and ignorance of human relations. Some autobiographical elements may also be identified in this psycho-social drama. But a persistent concern with the limping and wrecked individual needing love and support is present at the heart of this narrative, an innovative attempt in the Malayalam film industry of the 1970s. Along with the National Award, it also won the Kerala State Award for the best film. Interestingly, the protagonist’s voice was also dubbed by K.G. George.

 

His 1978 film Vyamoham (Craving) is a remake of a Tamil movie titled Policekaran Makal. The performance of Adoor Bhasi and the music by Ilayaraja proved to be major draws at the box office, making it a hit. The same year he also released another remake named Soundaryam (Beauty). Using the screen image of Vidhubala in service of a screenplay by Padmarajan, the narrative places a young woman steeped in music and drugs at its centre. Despite the wide accolades it received, it was a failure at the box office, and unfortunately its film prints are lost forever. This film was directed and produced within three months. In the year of 1978 George managed many such productions such as Raapadikalude Gatha, Iniyaval Urangatte, Onappudava and Mannu. He seemed to be drifting towards commercial success and short-term projects during this early phase of his career. Female characters emerge to the forefront in these movies. Music by Ilayaraja, Devarajan, M.K. Arjunan; lyrics by young and new poets like Yusafali Kecheri and Poovachal Khadar, and songs by Yesudas and Janaki were key ingredients in these popular experiments by George. In Mannu (Soil) he was able to raise the land question and reveal the caste Hindu feudalism that prevails in the Kerala village. Damu, played by Soman, is a powerful character, a tenant who fights against the oppressive caste hegemony and the feudal lords in his village, along with other superstitious beliefs besetting the land.  It is to be noted and recorded that George was able to identify the caste feudal order of society and create a narrative of challenge and change right in the mid-'70s.

 

In 1979, he came up with an illuminating adaptation of George Onakkur’s novel Ulkadal (The Strait). It is seen as the first prominent campus movie in the Malayalam film industry. It marked the debut of the legendary actor Thilakan, whom we find in exemplary roles and appearances in George’s later films. George's keen camaraderie with the theatre cultures in Kerala, both professional and amateur, enabled him to recognize and admire the thespian distinction of Thilakan, and earmark him for the silver screen.  A brief digression here: recently, we have seen caste Hindu cunning and conspiracy at play in the ouster of Thilakan from the industry, which led to his untimely demise. The reduction of the popular singer and actor Kalabhavan Mani through negative stereotypes and his  subsequent emotional breakdown and isolation as a person and as a member of the Malayalam film industry is another caste Hindu sabotage that we have witnessed in recent times. This growing caste Hindu hegemony, especially Nair chauvinism, lobbying and cliques in Malayali filmdom is assuming alarming proportions in the present. The recent abduction and humiliation of an actress by the quotation forces, or henchmen, said to be appointed by those in the social circles of another doyen of the film industry, whose multiplexes squeeze the people, also prove the absolute power and control that traditional caste Hindu patriarchal forces exercise in technocratic filmdom, which also happens to be part of the culture industry. It must also be remembered that they were exactly the same forces who burned down the silver screen at the Capitol Cinema House and the little hut of Ms P.K. Rosy, following a screening of the first Kerala film by J.C. Daniel Nadar. Ms Rosy was assaulted, ambushed and driven out of Kerala for being a Dalit Christian woman and playing the role of a Nair lady by the brahmanical and the subservient sudra patriarchy of Kerala in 1928.

 

Apart from the father figure in Thilakan, what is also interesting in Ulkadal ​is the presentation of Venu Nagavally as the protagonist Rahulan, a lovesick young man, but this has since become the stereotyped screen identity for Nagavally.  In the early 1980s, George hit the box office with Mela​, starring Mammotty and Anjali Naidu.  It is one of the earliest instances in Kerala cinema that a physically challenged actor like Reghu, a 'dwarf' in popular imagination, was made a full-fledged character, indeed the protagonist.  We find such bold and sensitive attempts only later, and in very few films in Malayalam, as in the case of Lenin Rajendran, or the subject is treated in a comic manner, as in the case of Vinayan recently. Such unique early attempts make George a master and pioneer in the Kerala film world. Mela is also the heartrending tragedy of a circus clown who marries a tall girl who loves another heroic bike rider in the same tent. George’s psychological introspection and realism come of age in this psycho-social drama and show his keen studentship of world cinema, and particularly the  masters of Italian neo-realism, De Sica, Antonioni and Fellini. 

 

His 1981 movie Kolangal (The Effigies) is a free-flowing adaptation of the renowned actor P.J. Antony’s short fiction. Kolangal is an intense family drama set in a village in middle-Travancore. Perhaps, George was interested in the immediate and the local while pursuing this project, it almost a next-door drama for him. In it, Thilakan, Nagavally and Sreenivasan excel as actors. The sum total of their screen presence is what is remembered by audiences even today. George’s keen sense of casting and portraiture, using close shots are evident in this work. This is another example of his keen psychological realism and insight.

 

K.G. George’s lifelong enthusiasm for and camaraderie with theatre finds its greatest expression in his 1982 film Yavanika (The Curtain). It is a suspense thriller yoking elements of crime, intrigue and the backstage drama of a professional drama troupe in Travancore.  It is about the mysterious disappearance of the percussionist of the troupe, Ayyappan, often known as the infamous ‘tabalist’. It won the State Award for the best film, besides being a huge hit at the box office.  Mammootty as the police inspector, and Thilakan as the production manager won laurels. Gopi, who played the notorious Ayyappan, was outstanding in the hands of a director like George. The film was praised by influential and leading critics in Kerala as one of the best mystery thrillers ever made. It manages to rivet viewers during its Doordarshan telecasts till date. It shows the command and craft of George as an independent and masterly film maker, and the level of mood, tone and tenor that he is capable of creating in his medium with ease, grace and élan. The movie is one of my personal favorites from the Kerala cultural context.  The portrayal of women in the film is remarkable and dexterous. The actor Jalaja, in particular, emerged as a major presence in the industry with this movie.  We find many other screen essays by her in George’s subsequent films.  The power of the screenplay by S.L. Puram Sadanandan is quite manifest in this film.

 

His partnership with S.L. Puram continued in the next film, Lekhayude Maranam: Oru Flash Back (Lekha’s Death: A Flashback), in 1983.  This detective thriller is based on real-life events. It bears echoes of the premature death or suicide of an actor Sobha, following a troubled relationship with a prominent director in the south Indian film industry. It is of note that George has attempted an ethical critique of the film industry from a feminist perspective. He used the film-within-a-film and flashback techniques in order to effectively communicate this critique of gendered power structures in the industry from within. Such an attempt made from within the boundaries of the popular film industry is a vibrant and organic one, even seen in retrospect today. By way of contextualization, it may be said here that other leading directors of the Malayalam film industry, such as Adoor Gopalakrishnan and T.V. Chandran managed to create pro-women narratives only several years after K.G. George.  This again shows the advanced and pioneering character of his film-making as an unconventional and radical auteur. His collaboration with the radical writer S.L. Puram is marked evidence of his pro-change politics. His trust in new talent and the breaks he provided to young women like Nalini by casting her in the title role of Lekhayude… is another aspect of his dynamism and subversion. The women moving past the director and his crew in a flood-like upsurge towards the end of the 1983 film, Adaminte Variyellu (The Rib of Adam), proclaimed as a feminist movie, and which depicts three women caught in a patriarchal world, strongly convey the politics of liberation and a self-critical assessment of the patriarchal institution of cinema and its theoretical phallogocentrism.

 

In his 1984 political satire, Panchavadi Palam or ‘The Bridge at Panchavadi’, he ridiculed the caste Hindu corrupt political leadership in Kerala with his sarcasm. It is a fine example of political caricature and lampooning in cinema, done with dollops of sardonic humour. Dussasana Kurup and his nasty associate Sikandi Pillai form the cinematic equivalent of the Nambudiripad–K.N.M. Pillai duo in The God of Small Things. They represent the caste Hindu camaraderie that thrives on public funds and institutionalizes discrimination in public organisations, using public infrastructure and funds. It has eerie parallels with the recent Trivandrum Law Academy issue in which a celebrity cook-principal called Lakshmi Nair calls students by caste names and uses Dalit students to clean and wait at her restaurants and pubs. The marriage between Kurup’s daughter and the bridge contractor’s son is the zenith of the lampoon. In the anti-climax, the bridge collapses under the marriage procession and the physically challenged vagrant played by Sreenivasan dies, showing the cost in terms of human tragedy of the corruption of the elite, who suck on public funds representing the tax money squeezed out of the common toiling people from their hard-earned savings.

 

Irakal in 1985 was a psychological thriller, containing a study of the psychology of violence in the form of the ruthless capitalist father figure Matukutty, a cut-throat rubber merchant and moneylender. The 1987 movie Kathakku Pinnil was a critical and commercial failure. In the same year he came up with another adaptation from C.V. Balakrishnan called Mattoraal (Another Person). Ee Kanni Koodi (This Link Too) in 1990 was another experiment in the thriller genre, and this time, in addition to Thilakan, the acting skills of Sai Kumar were exposed to audiences. In 1991, he experimented with Murali, a new face for him, but could not appeal to the public as he had done with Mammootty.  In 1998, he made his last directorial venture, Elavamkodu Desam or 'The Kingdom of Elavamkodu', starring Mammootty. Improvising within the genre of the period film, he created a historical fiction, using the history of a principality in pre-British Kerala allegorically. In it, the hero arrives as a man of medicine and liberates the kingdom from the plotters and their intrigues and conspiracies. 

 

We can well see that K.G. George worked across a variety of genres and themes in his films, collaborating with many writers and artistes, much like the Italian master Fellini who left a deep impact on his filmic personality. Suspense, born of a rigour of cinematic technique, has been the hallmark of his thrillers. He drew and entertained the crowds while winning state and national awards and critical acclaim. His was a unique cinematic voyage in Kerala’s cultural history and contemporary culture. He has addressed sharply the social schisms and graded inequality prevailing in Malayali society for several centuries. He has tried to critique the widespread caste camaraderie and various cultural nationalisms or regional elitisms on many grounds.  Unfortunately, he could not go beyond a certain extent and undermine the status quo as such. Though he has effectively articulated the feminist question, the degree to which he was able to depict critically the Brahmanical Savarna–Syrian Christian nexus and their leverage is a pertinent question, one that remains open to debate.  Perhaps his cinematic journey was nearing a close by the times of the Mandal and the Masjid (the proposal to initiate Mandal Commission reforms and the mobilization around the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1990–92). He was unable to pursue the post-Mandal democratic resistance to Hindutva fascism emerging in the country. But within the span of a few decades, he managed to create rigorous filmic narratives that challenged in subtle ways local power structures, besides regional, cultural and linguistic chauvinisms and totalitarian tendencies within the Malayali world. His concern with women’s issues, his championing of young and new women artistes, and his projection of actors like Mammootty and Thilakan are emblematic of his cultural politics and his keen sense of social justice and democracy. The lasting contributions and impact of K.G. George are yet to be recognized and textualized.