In May of this year, Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation launched its virtual theater, Restoration Screening Room, with a beautiful digital version of I Know Where I'm Going! (1945) by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, which was followed the next month by Federico Fellini's La Strada (1954). Showing next after these mid-century classics of Western cinema is Kummatty (The Bogeyman, 1979) by Aravindan Govindan, a selection in keeping with the foundation's World Cinema Project, which endeavors to preserve and restore neglected films from around the world. Nevertheless, the selection is an unusual choice, as the Indian filmmaker, an avant-garde artist at the vanguard of the Parallel Cinema movement in his native state, is relatively unknown outside of Kerala, let alone the country. Tadao Sato, one of Japan's foremost film scholars and critics, saw Kummatty for the first time in 1982 and stated that he had not seen a more beautiful film.
Kummatty’s road to restoration started with the World Cinema Project partnering with India's Film Heritage Foundation (FHF) for the restoration of the Indian classic Kalpana (1948) by Uday Shankar, which subsequently premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012. On being asked by Scorsese and his team to collaborate again on a restoration, FHF's founder, filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, was quick to suggest the name of Aravindan, whom he regards as one of the most poetic filmmakers in the world. Dungarpur and Scorsese zeroed in on two of Aravindan's films, Kummatty and Thamp (The Circus Tent, 1978), and teamed up with Cineteca di Bologna in Italy to restore both films at its reputed laboratory, L'Immagine Ritrovato.
Although the master negatives of all of Aravindan's films have been lost, as is the case with many Indian classics, the surviving prints are stored at the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) in Pune. From positive 35mm prints of Kummatty and Thamp, dupe negatives were struck, and the arduous journey of restoration across continents began. While the restored version of Kummatty premiered last year at the II Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna, the restoration of Thamp screened this year in the Cannes’ Classics section. Along with a new print, Thamp has a new name too. The black-and-white film has been spelled Thampu for years. Ramu Aravindan, the director's son, suggested that the title should actually be Thamp, the way it is pronounced in the Malayalam language. He also revealed that his father's name is Aravindan, while Govindan is his surname. Thus, the posters of Thamp at Cannes credit the director as Aravindan Govindan. Upon its release in 1978, the film was admired by such luminaries as Satyajit Ray and Indian New Wave filmmakers like Mani Kaul, and Chidananda Dasgupta (India's first film theoretician and actress-filmmaker Aparna Sen's father).
The existence of the filmmaker Aravindan cannot be celebrated without mentioning producer K. Ravindranathan Nair—a wealthy cashew export trader. Nair played a significant role in the evolution of Malayalam New Wave cinema producing landmark films under the banner of General Pictures, like Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Elippathayam (Rat-Trap, 1981) and Anantaram (Monologue, 1987), and several of Aravindan's films. So on being approached by Dungarpur for the 4K restorations of Kummatty and Thamp, Nair was quick to grant him permission. Dungarpur partnered with Saiprasad Akkeneni of Prasad Corporation in India to partially restore Thamp; the remaining was done at L'Immagine Ritrovata. In addition, there have been talks about restoring Esthappan (Stephen, 1980), which might be the next Aravindan project for Dungarpur and his partners.
An eminent cartoonist and theater director before he turned to filmmaking, Aravindan made his feature debut with Uttarayanam (Throne of Capricorn) in 1974. After that, he directed ten acclaimed features and seven documentaries. He died in 1991 at the age of 56, right before the release of his final feature Vasthuhara (The Dispossessed, 1991). In a world rapidly embracing modernization, Aravindan was a primitivist whose work was rooted in the ethos of his native land and its inhabitants. His filmmaking sensibility is characterized by precedence for visual poetry over narrative prose, with meditative silence, contemplation, and reverie being motifs. He maneuvered his way around skeletal plots with intuition and improvisation, relying more on visceral moments of aural and visual stimulation. An autodidact and iconoclast filmmaker, Aravindan—along with Adoor Gopalakrishnan and John Abraham—was part of the triumvirate that revolutionized Malayalam cinema by introducing realism and lyricism.
Kummatty, Aravindan's fourth feature, is inspired by ancient folklore of Kerala's northern Malabar region and follows the eponymous vagabond (Ambalappuzha Ravunni, a folk artist) who roams around like the Pied Piper, captivating children with his songs, dance, and magic tricks. He materializes from nature in a village and, with the change in season, disappears into the wilderness, only to return after a year. This dualistic existence of the protagonist can be attributed to Aravindan's fascination with the Samkhya philosophy of Hinduism, which explores the interplay between Purusha (consciousness) and Prakriti (nature). The inseparability of man from nature also forms a pivotal notion in his second feature, Kanchana Sita (Golden Sita, 1977), and later in Esthappan, which also traverses the same realm of magic realism as Kummatty.
One other commonality connecting the three films is the moral indefinability of the principal characters. Their personas are subjected to differing judgments by the various characters perceiving them. In Kummatty, the protagonist is an affable magician for the children of the village, whereas the adults look at him with suspicion and consider him a worthless nomad. The identity of the eponymous oracle in Esthappan also remains in flux, as his legend is constructed by the varied interpretations of the village folk. Kummatty reaches a turning point when the bogeyman performs one last magic trick on a bunch of children before leaving the village. He transforms every child into a different animal and then turns them back into their human form, but a boy, Chindan (Ashok Unnikrishnan), who is converted into a dog, escapes. Chindan has to wait one whole year for Kummatty to return and restore his human form.
With the exit of the mythical magician, the playful and carefree aura of the film gives way to a fable-like passage evoking the fragmentary nature of happiness and the ephemeral nature of relationships. The disheartened parents of Chindan offer prayers to God and turn to holy rituals, but in vain. Meanwhile, the old lady of the village passes away. Finally, after a year, Kummatty returns and restores Chindan to his human form, to the delight of everyone in the village. Chindan, who, as a dog, had come to realize the suffocating feeling of being trapped, releases the parrot caged at his home into the sky. With the closing shot of birds flying in the pristine blue sky, Aravindan mounts his philosophy of freedom and liberation. The arrival and departure of Kummatty with the changing seasons, shots of the rising and setting sun (a prominent motif in Aravindan's oeuvre), and the harvesting of crops are all attestations to the auteur embracing the transience of life and existence.
Aravindan filmed Kummatty in a quaint north Keralan village, capturing its wide-open landscape, clear skies, and a stray pond amid verdant fields. Cinematographer Shaji N. Karun delicately captures the soft lighting to lend the film an ethereal coating that enhances its mystical charm. Karun, who has shot most of Aravindan's films, is the primary architect of his revered visual language imbued with golden-hour shots, sun-dappled frames, intimate close-ups, and painterly lensing of nature's magnificence. He also served as the long-distance consultant on the film's restoration project. To get as close to the original colors as possible, the restoration team showed Karun recent photographs of the movie's location shot by Ramu Aravindan. Karun then guided the colorists on the appropriate color tones for various frames.
The legacy attained by the film owes a great deal to the endearing and enduring soundtrack by M.G. Radhakrishnan and Kavalam Narayana Panicker. The euphony of the song "Maanathe Macholam" still resonates among children in Kerala. Karun's tracking shot of the bunch of children singing and dancing with Kummatty through the grass fields is one of the most picturesque sequences in the film. Panicker, a doyen of Malayalam theater and a long-time collaborator of Aravindan, also penned the lyrics of some lilting melodies in Thamp, which is also centered on the theme of transience. Temple festivals and socio-religious processions are integral to Kerala's culture, and Aravindan's films are embellished with traditional song-and-dance rituals and local customs. Kummatty features some stunning moments of Theyyam—a ritual art form of north Kerala that enshrines mythological stories of the land.
Thamp, Aravindarn’s third feature, is a partly documentary, partly fictionalized location film with the script developed alongside the production. The maverick filmmaker brought a roving troupe of ten to fifteen circus artists to the village of Thirunavaya, on the banks of the Bharathapuzha river in the Malabar region of Kerala. The troupe set up its tent and put on shows to entertain the village folk, many of whom had never witnessed a circus before. Karun's non-intrusive camera captured the performances and the quotidian rhythm in the hamlet like a passing visitor observing the locale, inhabitants, and their nonchalant approach towards life. One is tempted to draw parallels with Jacques Tati's Jour de fête (1949), especially during the film's opening passages. Later, the unrushed fragments are interwoven with a thin plot of the circus facing competition from the local temple festival, leading to the waning of interest among the locals. In the end, financial losses compel the circus troupe to wind up and leave the village in their truck.
Beneath the simplistic facade of Thamp is an acute ethnographic portrait of Kerala's socio-cultural heterogeneity—vignettes of the labor class coming out of a factory are contrasted by the elitist attitude and lifestyle of the bourgeois repatriate, Bidi Menon, who has returned from Malaysia; the excitement of children witnessing the promotional parade by the circus members is juxtaposed with the latter's funeral-like drudgery; hierarchical suppression and oppression are layered in the patriarchal attitudes of Bidi Menon and the circus manager, Panicker (Bharath Gopi), making the members of their clans feel trapped. Aravindan shines an empathetic light on the rootless existence and plight of the circus performers who are expected to enthrall the audience even at the cost of their own suffering, reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin's The Circus (1928) and Raj Kapoor's Mera Naam Joker (My Name is Joker, 1970).
Karun's ingenuity in capturing evocative close-ups results in a number of scenes being etched in the collective memory of Keralan viewers. The cutthroat nature of showbiz is brought to the fore when a couple of aging performers break the fourth wall and express their anguish. The most memorable sequence in the film sees Aravindan intercutting between the circus performances and the audience, who were witnessing such bewitching and dangerous acts for the first time in their lives. Their virginal reactions of amusement, wonder, and delight are antithetical to the stoic expressions of the seasoned performers and create some of the film’s most magical moments. Aravindan would repeat this dynamic in Esthappan, which also captures the wonderment of the village simpletons—young and old—while watching a mythological play.
A man of deep sensitivity, Aravindan's heart sided with the marginalized and alienated. His compassion peaks in Pokkuveyil (Twilight, 1981), which explores the descent into madness of an individual unable to cope with personal loss and loneliness. But it is the sublime quality of the mystics—such as Kummatty and Esthappan—free from worldly attachments and possessing the courage to walk alone that lured Aravindan to take the road less traveled. Thus, it isn't surprising that he had great reverence for the spiritual philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti and titled his documentary on him The Seer Who Walks Alone (1985). Profoundly engaged with the culture of his land, yet detached from the material world, Aravindan’s enigmatic personality eschewed categorization and definability, elevating his legend into the realm of transcendence.
Aravindan Govindan's Kummatty is available to stream free on July 11, 2022 at The Film Foundation Restoration Screening Room.