The new movie by Malayalam director Don Palathara is set in a devout Syrian Christian community. In this verdant corner of rural Kerala, as monsoon clouds cluster in the sky and occasionally send down showers, there are pre-wedding rituals and deaths, attempts to flee and efforts to fit in, public expressions of piety. A leopard lurking in the adjoining forest stirs things up. How might members behave if they knew of a two-legged menace lurking in their midst?
Palathara’s Family, which follows Everything is Cinema and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam from 2021, is an elegant study in elision. The screenplay, written by Palathara and his frequent collaborator Sherin Catherine, reveals as much as it conceals, refusing to confirm the suspicions viewers might have about its themes and instead leaving a trail of bread crumbs for them.
The movie draws from Palathraa’s formative years in the Syrian Christian group known as the Knanaya. The film features a stripped-down version of a public groom beautification ritual. Elsewhere in the film, prayers and the counsel of nuns and priests exert a hold on values and behaviour.
“As a child growing up in that community, there was the feeling that you were always supressed,” Palathara recalled a phone interview. “In very religious communities, this is a reality.”
The protagonist, the teacher Sony played by Vinay Forrt, is both a beneficiary and victim of a strict moral code. “He is a conformist, he doesn’t raise his voice against anything,” Palathara said.
Sony is currently out of a job and supports himself by giving tuitions. He is the happy-to-help type, always around to lend a shoulder or share his views on the latest local scandal. Sony’s sedulous ways are observed by other members of the community – notably Rani, played by Divya Prabha – as well by Palathara himself with an eye both curious and enigmatic.
Family was premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam held earlier in the year and is among the titles selected for the Bengaluru International Film Festival (March 23-30). The formally rigorous movie, suffused with sensuous visuals by cinematographer Jaleel Badusha, attempt to explore the “larger structure of society as well as the role of the family in that society”, Palathara said in a phone interview.
“How are individuals formed and controlled and manipulated within this system? How much freedom do individuals have?” These were among the difficult questions Palathara and Catherine set out to explore when they began writing the novelistic screenplay between late 2021 and early 2022.
“These individuals get both the benefit and disadvantages of being a part of the system,” Palathara observed. “As soon as you question something or try to raise your voice, you are treated as an outsider. As long as you support the community, you are free to do whatever, and most crimes are ignored.”
This stratified and codified world contains unknowable elements, a flavour of unease that is created through an accretion of detail. The precision to the long takes and frames captured from a distance contain the quality of obscurity, a sense of that you may learn something through careful observation but may also never know the truth of a situation with certainty.
“Even though you are holding the camera almost steady and you feel that you are seeing everything in a wide angle, you miss out on many things,” Palathara pointed out. “In life too, it is like that. This distance gives a more rational look at the structure of society. I had attempted something similar in my 2019 film 1956, Central Travancore, but I felt that the film was more talkative. Here, I wanted to find a balance between talking and communicating things more visually.”
The script was entirely storyboarded, with sequences being shot and actors taking the positions that had already been decided for them. “We spent a lot of time on the structure of the script,” Palathara said. He has also edited the film, hewing a 112-minute final version out of a 160-minute rough cut.
“We had a very specific need in terms of cinematography – we used mostly natural lighting and elevated the mood in certain scenes,” the 37-year-old filmmaker added. “We didn’t want too much sunlight, so the exterior shots were shot in the mornings and late evenings.”
The creeping sense of darkness was what attracted lead actor Vinay Forrt, whose credits include Kammatipaadam, Kismath, Unda, Churuli and Maalik. “Vinay had a lot of experience in theatre as well, so he brought in his own ideas,” Palathara said. “We had been thinking of doing something together for a while, and he wanted to explore a darker side of humanity, something different from his image.”
In Don Palathara’s cinema, ‘questions rather than statements’