By Kunjila Mascillamani
When I was working on making a music video during my graduate degree, I used to watch “Thakathara”, a song made by the band Avial for the 2004 movie Sancharram. I found it beautiful and thrilling; it gave me goosebumps. If asked why, I wouldn’t have been able to give a reason. The visuals had the kind of cinematic aesthetic 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 organise my hard disk this year during my postgraduate study at a film institute 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.
It’s a film directed by Ligy J. Pullapally about two young women, Kiran (Suhasini V Nair) and Delilah (Shruthi Menon), who realise their sexuality as lesbians. They begin a relationship but are hunted down by the people around them. While Delilah is hounded by the conservative Christian principles of rigid heterosexuality, Kiran is under pressure from her casteist mother who believes in the ‘tradition’ of her warrior ancestors and her ‘intellectual’ father who thinks his daughter has failed him because she grew up to be a lesbian.
I watched it with inbuilt Spanish subtitles, and that is why you will find them in many of the screenshots I am going to use here. You can watch the film here. In this piece, I dive not into a review of the film, but into shots and scenes that I loved, and why Sancharram is way ahead of a lot of lesbian films that were made after it.
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When telling a story in the medium called cinema, repetition comes handy. In most commercial films you see this employed in a way that I think is boring. For instance, if you have a character that follows a routine, most filmmakers speed through the actions, like waking up, brushing teeth, eating breakfast and so on. Pullappally, on the other hand, repeats spaces and actions to create lingering, deeply moving emotions.
The film begins with an atrocious looking graphics butterfly, a motif through the film, and a place that we return to several times: a waterfall, the site of key recurring actions. There’s also a glass bangle that belonged to Kiran’s grandmother, which Kiran receives from her mother. She takes it off her hand and gives it to Lilah, whose mother smashes it on finding out about the girls’ relationship. Along with the broken bangle we immediately think about the broken dream of Kiran’s mother who wanted the family legacy to continue through Kiran.
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When young Kiran comes to her tharavadu (ancestral home), her mother tells her the legacy of her family. How the “upper” caste 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 in the framed photographs of ancestors on the wall. The camera tilts down, and we see young Kiran stepping inside the house. Her journey or sanchaaram is beginning.
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In a scene that is highly nuanced and evocative, we see the two girls, Kiran and Lilah, falling in love gradually. It is instantly romantic without even a hint of physicality. Kiran seems to know about it. Lilah seems unaware. Still, everything is made clear on that night of rain. Through light, lighting, shadows, 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 Lilah dancing. It is mysterious, exactly in the way Kiran once described Lilah.
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This scene at the pond where the girls bathe is where they acknowledge each other’s love. This is also the first time in the film where they get physically intimate. For them, physical intimacy is not sex. We are not shown explicit scenes of plain sex, like in, say, 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 that begin and end with the lovers. The scene’s end note may look a bit contrived when Lilah’s arched foot beats against the water, but then the camera moves further ahead in the water and we have just about time to register a school of fish in there. Simply beautiful.
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The lovers arrange to meet at night. Kiran paces up and down on the top floor of her house. Lilah signals with a burning lamp from her house. They meet in the woods. The rendezvous is lovely. It happens in a sequence with music that shows us how they loved. Again, it is not about sex. They spend time together, laugh, read, talk and look at the moon together. This is how the director portray being lesbian as normal. It is shown using all the things ‘normal’ people do when in ‘normal’ love.
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This scene is one that I liked because of its politics. After the vicar and another man, who I am assuming to be the sexton/Lilah’s uncle, come home and decide that the best solution to the ‘problem’ (of being lesbian) is to get Lilah 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 girls’ 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 Lilah’s half of the frame.
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Wikipedia tells me that Pullappally made Sancharram based on her own short film Uli. 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 Sancharram 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 help admiring the politics and poetry of the film. Nobody dies in it. It is a common device in popular films, where anybody who travels an unconventional path, like being in an extra marital relationship (Cocktail) or being gay (Mumbai Police, Rithu) are killed, made the villain, or given some kind of 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 that is definitely not death. Kiran is also seen questioning her mother’s casteism. In fact, it is she who comes out as lesbian and states that it is her mother’s blood – of which her mother is so proud – running in her that makes her rebellious. Her rebellion is not killed.
I am really tempted to make a sequel to this film with the same actors. I would like to set it in Kolkata where Delilah has come out of her marriage and Kiran is in a relationship with another woman who is a film student. Delilah and Kiran meet again and talk of the paths of love that they trod together and catch up on the slices of each person’s life they missed. They still love each other but have come of age, and realise their butterfly skies are now distant, united only by a thin silver line of a shared past in Kerala.
You two beautiful actors, please wait for me to make some money. Until then, happy Sancharram to all.
Kunjila is pursuing a PG diploma in direction and screenplay writing in SRFTI, Kolkata. She is originally from Kozhikode, Kerala. She likes cats and books.