In Geetha J’s Malayalam-language movie Run Kalyani, patience is its own reward. Kalyani is a working-class cook who lives with her bed-ridden aunt. Her routine includes bathing and feeding her aunt breakfast, stirring up delicacies for her two employers, and returning home to pass out in the arms of Morpheus.

And yet, there are small variations in Kalyani’s average day. The details add up to a series of stirring portraits of romance, violence, and a yearning for freedom. Kalyani’s employers live next to each other. One of them, Vijayan, is in love with Nirmala, the woman from the house across the street. He writes poems to Nirmala that Kalyani tucks into her handbag. When Kalyani hands over the poem to Nirmala, she gets another in return. Nirmala is being mentally and physically abused by her husband, but her hand doesn’t waver while returning her neighbour’s love.

And what about Kalyani’s own desires? Geetha’s arthouse drama, which is being screened at the virtual edition of the New York Indian Film Festival until August 2, depicts Kalyani as both witness and participant. “I have always been interested in [the figure of] the cook – she knows everything that is happening in the house,” Geetha told ”Kalyani is the core of the film, its spine, but on the other hand, she has to be this shadowy person.”

Run Kalyani (2019). Courtesy AkamPuram.

The tender and touching film unveils its surprises gradually. We learn of Kalyani’s great love for her aunt, her debt situation, her dreams of being somewhere else. As Kalyani walks from her modest house to her employers’ better appointed homes, the city of Thiruvanthapuram goes about its business. A man who has lost his mind stands in the same place every day, yelling out gibberish. The walls are plastered with political graffiti. Protests rage here and there. And every now and then, Kalyani’s world moves ever so slightly out its orbit.

“I am very struck by the patterns that we all live in, and I am sure that all of us think that there is going to be no change in our lives at all,” Geetha said. “But things do change, patterns do change ever so slightly to give you the power to break free. I wanted to transport the idea of agency, the cyclical nature of life, onto the screen – the same thing but slightly different. Change for ordinary people happens in small measures every day, through a network of empathy.”

In the film, this empathy is expressed in almost invisible gestures – a half-smile here, a pointed look there. Madhu Neelakandan’s cinematography evocatively translates Geetha’s vision of relaying information through the language of the cinematic narrative, rather than through dialogue. “The film is entirely in the present – nobody is explaining anything about anybody, there is no narration in terms of dialogue,” Geetha said. “Things happen, and I wanted to see if that would work”.

Neelakandan’s intimate framing depicts the firm bond between Kalyani and her aunt. His camera rests on their intertwined faces as Kalyani bathes and dresses her relative. Very little is spoken, and it doesn’t need to be.

Elsewhere, Neelakandan’s camera follows Kalyani on her daily trudge to her workplaces. The houses of her employers are larger and better lit than her cosy home. Here, Kalyani is a distant figure, working away in the kitchen as various domestic dramas unfold around her.

Run Kalyani (2019). Courtesy AkamPuram.

“Madhu brought the observational documentary element to the whole thing,” explained Geetha, who directed and produced documentaries for several years before making her feature debut. “He immediately got the pattern. I was very particular about the three locations. One is the agraharam, Kalyani’s old, traditional run-down place. Vijayan’s high-rise flat is the new thing happening in Kerala. And then there is Nirmala’s big house, which Thiruvanathapuram has lots of. Madhu captured all of this in a beautiful way.”

The film looks at the city and its denizens through Kalyani’s sensitive eyes. The actor playing the cook is a first-timer – she has never been in a movie before. Garggi Ananthan was in the final year of her acting course at the School of Drama & Fine Arts in Thrissur when she was cast. “She went for her viva during the shoot,” Geetha recalled.

Ananthan’s finely tuned performance captures what Geetha calls Kalyani’s “sweetness and steeliness”. For her audition, Ananthan chose a scene in which Kalyani confronts three debt collectors who have landed up at her house.

The cast includes the legendary Malayalam actor Madhu, who plays Nirmala’s father-in-law. Among the recognisable faces is Sathi Premji, who plays Kalyani’s aunt and expresses a great deal without saying a word.

“Sathi is the daughter of the legendary Premji who was in Shaji N Karun’s Piravi, and she is now coming back to acting in a big way,” Geetha said. “She is very expressive.” Also in the cast are Nandu and Tara Kalyan, as Nirmala’s uncaring relatives, and Ramesh, a well-known Kathakali artist, as Vijayan.

Run Kalyani (2019). Courtesy AkamPuram.

The movie derives its quiet power from its subtly expressed themes of repression and liberation, particularly for the female characters. “Kerala is unique – people call it the riddle of Kerala,” Geetha said. “We are very progressive but also very patriarchal. We are out there in our protests but we are also very repressed. We are very educated and exposed to literature and cinema, but at the same time, we have the highest rates of suicides and madness. We are exposed to the best of ideas and we write and think out loud, but the opportunities are limited. This creates a certain kind of feeling in Kerala, and I have tried to capture that.”

Run Kalyani was premiered at the Kolkata International Film Festival in 2019. Geetha was supposed to travel to New York City for its screenings there, but the novel coronavirus pandemic forced the event to go online. Instead, the film is available for pay-per-view screenings through the website MovieSaints.

Geetha J.

Geetha hopes that Run Kalyani will be picked up by a streaming platform. This screenplay is one among many she has written over the years. Her experience in documentary includes producing and co-directing her husband Ian McDonald’s acclaimed film Algorithims (2013), about blind chess players.

Making observational documentaries prepared her for Run Kalyani, Geetha said, especially since “we dismiss people and think they don’t have anything interesting to say but they actually do – they are full of dreams and desires and debates and conflicts”.

So it is with Kalyani, who wakes up every morning, lovingly tends to her aunt, steps out into the world, and then returns home. Along the way, something clicks, something changes. Kalyani gets a leap in her step, and finally, she begins to run.

Run Kalyani (2019).