On my current (as well as previous) list of the one hundred greatest films, Shadow Kill (Nizhalkkuthu,2002) appears, written and directed by India’s Adoor Gopalakrishnan. Earlier by two decades, his Elippathayam, also in the Malayalam language, is engrossing and beautifully distanced. Its study of a feudal property owner, in Kerala (the director’s own home state), whose social and political time is past, but who clings to its privilege in fear and denial, thematically reminds one of Satyajit Ray’s greater The Music Room (Jalsaghar, 1958). Gopalakrishnan’s film may be a tad too neat.
Unni, whose weak chin encapsulates his willful failure to embrace the times, has withdrawn into his decaying estate, where he lords over two unmarried younger sisters to compensate for his loss of station in the wider, outside world, burdening them with his constant demands, his desperate anxiety. Rousing Rajamma, Unni wakes up screaming, convinced that a rat has bitten him. Indeed, sister Sridevi is shown carrying to a nearby river or pond, and drowning, one rat after another, each caught in a homemade rat-trap. It is doubtful, though, that any of the rats has really bothered Unni, whose paranoia runs rampant. It is he, after all, who has shunned the world in favor of his mansion, the impenetrable darkness of which narrows its size, imprisoning him in a “trap,” both material and psychological, of his own making. Lest we miss the point, at the last Unni’s home is stormed by Indian citizens and carried along the same route that Sridevi had taken to drown the rats; now Unni is tossed into the water! Does this suggest his uselessness to fellow citizens in the new independent, democratic India, or is he being liberated from his bastion of fear and feudal reaction?
Incredibly, this film is described as “realistic” by a number of commentators, who must not know what the term means. Rather, Gopalakrishnan’s film is symbolical and expressionistic—and a delight. (Gopalakrishnan won for it the British Film Institute’s Sutherland Trophy for the year’s “most original and imaginative film.”) Particularly impressive are shots of Unni, indoors, enrobed in pitch darkness even as daylight rules outdoors. Unni inhabits his own fear-ridden realm, sensitive to every noise, every sound, for the danger it represents. His dream of the past has turned into a nightmare out to bite him.
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