Don Palathara’s IFFR-showcase Everything is Cinema is a hat-tip to Godard

Everything is Cinema, screened at the recent International Film Festival Rotterdam, is a double bill with Don Palathara's Joyful Mystery and pays tribute to Louis Malle structurally and Jean-Luc Godard stylistically.

After Arun Karthick’s Tamil film Nasir last year to PS Vinothraj’s Tamil father-son story Koozhangal (Pebbles) winning the prestigious Tiger Award early this year (first won by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Malayalam film Sexy Durga in 2017), among the latest entrants at the recent International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) was a Malayalam visitor.

Filmmaker Don Palathara’s first-person narrative Everything is Cinema was screened in the ‘Cinema Regained’ section. The film opens with what looks like a documentary of the Bengal capital – a slice of life of a city that French filmmaker Louis Malle had catalogued in his 1969 documentary Calcutta (it went to Cannes Film Festival the same year); scenes like potters making kulhads and men bathing in the river do hark back to the older film. Moments later, we realise the drawl voice-over belongs to the protagonist Chris, a filmmaker – whom we hear, not see, whom we bear with, not feel for. Chris comes to Kolkata to make a film, cut short by the pandemic, and is stuck with his wife indoors.

Palathara’s experimental film alternates between the colour “outdoor” (Kolkata) documentary and black-and-white “indoor” fiction-making (shot in Kerala). The colours that we social beings put on, our curated selves for the world are stripped of in our most intimate encounters and spaces. Everything is Cinema is a relationship drama, but a much darker one than the single-take Rima Kallingal-starrer Joyful Mystery (Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam), also made during the lockdown. The two – with their takes on conjugal relationships – work as a double bill. If the couple is stuck, motionless, abhorring each other, in a house in Everything is Cinema, they are stuck inside a moving car, the camera as static as the pair’s relationship in Joyful Mystery, which premiered at this year’s International Film Festival of Kerala, along with his 1956, Central Travancore.

“We’ve been locked inside for the first time for so long, and mentally I wanted to get out. I started editing older footages of Kolkata (shot from four years ago, when he’d returned from Sydney with a film degree and a Western gaze), and wanted to make a fictional film out of it,” says Palathara, 34. Everything…, which drags to a point of no return, was shot before Joyful…, which has no finality, no closure – both are a “commentary on relationships”.

“In the lockdown, so many people started living with their partners, while talking/meeting friends and other people was restricted to social media. So many people started introspecting, and analysing their relationships differently. That aspect needed to be explored,” he adds.

The micro-budget film is told through Chris’s point of view. The handheld camera pointed at the woman – his budding actress-wife Anita (played compellingly by Sherin Catherine) – throughout. The voyeuristic lens is a tool of surveillance, eavesdropping, accusation, imposition and torment. She is the object to be desiccated, poked at, and rattled by a classic male chauvinist-antagonist for a husband, whose insecurities and frustrations take the form of fault-finding in everything she feels, does, says, and believes in – be it applying make-up, doing yoga, “women talk”, baking for a neighbour or praying to god. Days pile on days, the gaslighting and mansplaining pushes her little by little to the edge until the ties snap – cinema should make us uncomfortable. When life isn’t always hunky-dory, why must relationships – and their cinematic projections – be seen through rose-tinted glasses?

 

“There’s a little bit of me in all my characters – a bit artificial, a lot honest,” says the director, whose voice makes a cameo as another Chris-like “claims-to-be-feminist-but-is-chauvinist” director in Joyful Mystery. The audience, like the two who inhabit the frames of the interior film Everything is Cinema, are breathless with the claustrophobia.

The film demanded excessive jump cuts, but that’s also a hat-tip to Godard, as is the elliptical editing – keep the parts he liked, chop off the rest. “So much image-making is unnecessary, new meanings appear during the edit (he’d to “think like Chris” while editing). Edit what you have instead of what you shoot,” he says. The contrast between the binaries of fiction and reality, colour and greyscale, public and private, beautiful pretence and ugly truth, high art and low art is a meditation on the nature of cinema. With just a camera and anything for a subject, filmmaking can be freed “from the hands of capitalism”. Everything is Cinema, which moves by deceit, pays a tribute to the master – Jean-Luc Godard, in his 90th year – and from whose biography, by Richard Brody, comes the title for this film. “I was working with the form of cinema, hence the title,” Palathara says.

“If Everything is Cinema, then approaching Godard’s vast work…means being prepared to deal with everything: politics, art, philosophy, history, nature, beauty, lust, torment, money, love, and the random element,” Brody writes. Palathara has attempted to present “the intersection of personal stories and political history”. From the very first scene, his critical lens works by acts of omission and commission – like how Malle shows the Missionaries of Charities work but leaves out the celebrated Saint Teresa – and, as Brody writes of Godard, “At the cinema, we do not think, we are thought”, Palathara has thought of us in deep focus.

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