Against the backdrop of a weed-clad lake and a slanting horizon of coconut palms, eight-year-old Kuttapayi stumbles upon a nest of birds. To Kuttapayi’s endless whys, whats and hows, his frail grandfather explains that migratory birds arrive year after year to lay eggs, hatch them and then return.
“What about the little birds who have no parents?” asks Kuttapayi, whose debt-ridden parents committed suicide. Acclaimed Malayalam director Jayaraj’s Ottaal (The Trap) is based on Russian writer Anton Chekov’s Vanka, and it is astounding that a short story written in the backdrop of famine and slavery in 1886 is still adaptable over a century later. Ottaal is being screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala in the Competition section.
In Vanka, the orphaned Vanka Zhukov writes a letter to his beloved grandfather explaining the turmoil of his everyday life as a slave under a shoemaker in Moscow. The basic framework of Ottaal is taken from Vanka. Ottaal is about the relationship between Kuttapayi and his grandfather, his only living relative. The grandfather rears ducks in the Kuttanad region. As his health worsens, he sends Kuttapayi to work in a cracker manufacturing factory with the mistaken belief that he has secured the boy’s future.
“I believe the biggest advantage of doing an adaptation is that you already have a solid structure that has stood the test of time,” said Jayaraj, who won the National Award for best environmental film as well as adapted screenplay in 2015. “It is renovating something that has a genuinely strong foundation, and the thrill is in uprooting this structure and putting it against a new geographical and cultural backdrop.”
Jayaraj is not new to adaptations. Kaliyattam and Kannaki are adapted from William Shakespeare’s Othello and Antony and Cleopatra respectively. He is finalising locations in Agra for his next film, an adaptation of Macbeth.
Even though Vanka had been close to Jayaraj’s heart for a long time, Chekov wasn’t the starting point for Ottal. It was the morning newspaper, which carried a photograph of a young boy during a flood situation in Assam, oblivious to the destruction and smiling on a bamboo raft along with his goats.
“I saw the picture of this kid in the flood and it immediately reminded me of the short story,” Jayaraj said. “The picture gave life to Vanka and also inspired the backwaters setting for this story which could, frankly, take place even in a crowded urban city. That was the sort of face I was looking for, mischievous and innocent at the same time.”
Like Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda (Like Father like Son, Our Little Sister), Jayaraj has a flair for directing children who are both adorable as well as believable. Neither Ashant K Sha, who plays Kuttapayi, nor Kumarakom Madhavan, who appears as the grandfather, has acted before. Madhavan, a fisherman, was plying his trade the day before the shoot commenced.
“Child or adult, I never find it difficult to work with a first-timer,” Jayaraj said. “The trick is not making them conscious. Madhavan was at ease in his hometown of Kuttanad. It is where he belongs; these are actions and activities that he has been doing all his life. I just made him repeat the things he already is comfortable with.”
Deshadanam (1996), arguably Jayaraj’s most memorable film, captured the agony of a child who is to be inducted into priesthood. The child is aware of his fate and witnesses the misery of his parents who had to give him up. In Ottaal, we are aware of Kuttapayi’s future from the moment we hear the grandfather’s first prolonged cough and yet, nothing prepares us for the maudlin sequences towards the end.
On one level, the film is replete with clichés – when the child looks up at the stars to spot his parents, when he waits outside a classroom window, when he makes a clay sculpture for his friend’s school art exhibition, when he sacrifices his dinner to make friends with a famished stray dog. Yet, Ottaal’s triumph is that it gets us to invest in its characters and their simple and rustic village life. The background score by Carnatic vocalist and composer Sreevalsan J Menon stirs a melancholy that only Argentinean musician Gustavo Santaolalla is believed to conjure.
Ottaal has picked up an interesting distribution model: it was released simultaneously in cinemas and on the website Reel Monk on November 6. The movie is still available on the website for Rs 180. In a country that speaks over 80 different languages, Jayaraj trusts that streaming will make it possible for movies to travel beyond regional and film festival audiences.