Malayalam filmmaker Sanju Surendran’s Aedan (Garden of Desire) opens with an image of newly minted life that proves to be misleading: a litter of puppies snuggle together in a pit and smell the rain-soaked ground beneath them, unaware of their impending destruction.
Death haunts the inter-linked chapters in Aedan in direct and indirect ways. In one of the episodes, friends Hari and Peter play a game of deathspotting. They cut out obituary notices from the newspaper, fold them into chits, and shuffle them in a bowl. Whoever picks the chit with the older deceased person wins small sums of money. Considering the overall macabre universe of the film, where death or a reference to death is present in nearly every frame, the game fits right in.
Life, death and sexual desire also intertwine in the strand about a young woman whose father has died, and who is driven along with the body to her village by her suitor.
“You have a couple making out in a car that also has a dead body in it; a mother instructs her son to bury the puppies alive but at the same time cries copious amounts when the cow dies,” Surendran said. “The human mind is a mysterious thing. We have all sorts of facets. Acts of kindness and cruelty exist alongside each other.”
Surendran’s debut feature will be screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala between December 8 and 15 in the International Competition section. The 130-minute film is based on three short stories by Malayalam writer S Hareesh. A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India and director of the National Film Award-winning documentary on Kutiyattam artiste Kapila Venu, Surendran first discovered Hareesh’s writings when he was teaching at a film institute in Kottayam.
The first story Surendran read was Niryatharayi, is the one about the game of death. “I just fell in love with the story and immediately wanted to turn it into a film,” Surendran said. “But I felt it wouldn’t provide enough material for the long feature that I was planning. Then, I found that two other stories that Hareesh had written, Manthirikavaal and Chappathile Kolabathagam, connected with the first quite well. There was a theme of death and desire that seemed to run through all three of them.”
Hareesh’s writing style didn’t only influence Surendran’s screenplay, but also guided the rich and evocative visuals. “Hareesh is one of the best story writers in contemporary Malayalam especially in the short story format,” the director said. “I am wonderstruck by the way he writes – it is so beautiful and different. His stories involve real-life incidents, but what he does with them is interesting. He has this ability to quite easily transform them into surreal and magical narratives full of symbols, fascinating encounters and locations.”
The movie makes full use of its Kottayam setting. The beautiful and the beastly, Eden and Hell, co-exist but also get easily confused for one another. “Nietzsche had written about this – the idea that if you want to say something, you explain it by picking up a concept that is the exact opposite of it,” Surendran explained. “Take a filmmaker like Robert Bresson – his main concern was spirituality. However, all of his characters were pickpockets or murderers. In a way, that’s what I’ve tried to explore with this film.”
Kottayam, which is also the setting of Hareesh’s stories, also supplies the mood of anticipation and dread that marks the stories. “This film is like a tribute to Kottayam, especially with the way we have tried to explore its different spaces, such as the Upper Kuttanad area and the plains,” Surendran said. “I was greatly helped by Yesudas, an artist and a friend of Hareesh who knew just the right places. They immediately brought the story alive. Even the cameraperson, Mahesh Madhavan, knew the right mood for the stories – just a little amount of light to lightly flesh out the characters while creating an overall mood of an Arabian Nights story or a folktale.”
Aedan is dedicated to the renowned Indian arthouse director Mani Kaul, whom Surendran describes as his mentor. Surendran has also dedicated his documentary Kapila to Kaul, whose Uski Roti (1969), Duvidha (1973) and Siddheshwari (1989) broke new ground in terms of its exploration of the language of cinema.
“Mani Kaul, to my mind, is one of the greatest filmmakers,” Surendran said. “He was actually a filmmaker of the future especially with the way his thought process worked or the way he discussed cinema. When he came to FTII, he conducted a master class and that’s when I discovered the kind of insights he has on cinema as a craft. He was very particular that as filmmakers, we realise our own true nature. Imitating a technique is easy but an artist’s true mark is to be able to find your own self, he would say. This film is my attempt to pay tribute to cinema and to find my style.”
Among the elements that Surendran uses to draw the viewer’s attention to cinematic form is repetition and doubling. Characters repeat their actions in Aedan, providing different perspectives on the same action and creating a sense of unease and rupture.
“Repetition is a key technique in Kutiyattam, actually,” the filmmaker said. “I observed it when I was making the documentary. Kutiyattam artists generally first use their eyes to detail a situation or a scene. Then, they employ their hands to do the same. There is something beautiful about how a single idea is repeated and explored in that art form. I was thinking of a way to incorporate that into cinema.”