|CINEMA: MARANA SIMHASANAM
The Malayalam feature film made on a shoestring budget fetches London-based Indian filmmaker Murali Nair the coveted best film award at Cannes.
By Anupam Chopra
Fifteen days, -- 40,000, a cast of non-professionals, and what do you get? If you're Murali Nair, then the Camera d'Or award at the 52nd International Cannes Film Festival. On May 23, at the Palais des Festivals in Cannes, Murali's Marana Simhasanam (Throne of Death), an under 60 minute featurette, won the coveted best first film award. An Indian director walked away with the prize 11 years after Salaam Bombay's Mira Nair. The pony-tailed 33-year old London-based director, who calls his production company Flying Elephant Films because he still remembers the stench of elephant urine in the temple of the Kerala village he grew up in, has finally arrived on the global film map.
Murali spent the day after winning the award playing with his 16-month-old daughter Maya. The past fortnight had been a flurry of screenings, meetings, parties and photo-ops and Murali was still reeling from all the limelight. For unlike the other Malayali director Shaji Karun, whose French producer poured in money into marketing Vanaprastham, Murali's was a one-man show. Playing director, producer, press attache and marketing man, he handed out publicity material guardedly and ran between meetings, official luncheons and parties chasing the elusive distribution deal as wife and producer Preeya helped out. "It's really, really tough," Murali said, "today half of filmmaking is marketing." Now he is only looking "to relax a bit".
Actually Murali can relax a lot now. Production offers are pouring in, Marana Simhasanam has been sold for French distribution and Murali is receiving invitations to prestigious film festivals like Edinburgh and Toronto. Even before the Camera d'Or, the film had wooed critics. Variety called it a "surprisingly potent item" and even Le Monde lavished praise.
Marana Simhasanam is a complex tale simply told. Shot entirely on location in Kerala, the film is the story of a poor labourer Krishnan who is driven by poverty to steal a bunch of coconuts. He gets caught and becomes the prime accused in a murder, which happened on the Kerala island where the film was shot several years ago. With elections round the corner, politicians jump into the fray. Events spiral out of control and Krishnan finds himself in the pathetic position of being the first man in the country to die by electric chair, developed with a loan from the World Bank and technological help from the US. Ironically, Krishnan dies a hero and a statue is erected in his honour.
Thanks to a shoestring budget, Marana Simhasanam is lean. But its slow- paced simplicity hides profound truths and exquisite irony. Murali exposes the corruption and political opportunism with dry wit. The dialogue is kept to a minimum, relying instead on expressive close-ups. He has managed to extract commendable performances from his cast of non-professional actors, especially Lakshmi Raman who plays Krishnan's hapless wife. Clearly Murali's own background has given him insight and an empathy so often missing in the usual art-house takes on rural suffering.
The story originated in Murali's memory. As a child growing up at Anandapuram in Kerala's Thrissur district, he remembers one Onam festival when a man was caught for stealing coconuts. "He was really humiliated," Murali recalls. From that one visual Murali developed the script. Having had an earlier script rejected by nfdc, he simply decided to use his own funds. Raising money on his credit cards, he shot the film on 16 mm using only locals for cast. He placed an advertisement asking for people to audition and got surprising response. Viswas Narakkal, who plays the labourer, does make-up for the village theatre. And Raman is a basket weaver. "She went to a public phone booth and asked someone to call me," Murali says. "I don't know how she got the courage to do it."
Marana Simhasanam is Murali's first feature film but the geology graduate has been struggling with celluloid since 1991 when he gave up a secure job to do a filmmaking course at the Xavier's Institute of Communication in Mumbai. Murali's father was not amused. "I had retired from my job,"says Vellayathu Krishnan, "and there were two more sons to be educated. Being the eldest son, he was supposed to take responsibility of the family. Instead, he chose an uncertain profession."
Assistantships with directors Pavan Kaul, Nandan Kudhiyadi and Mani Kaul and a short film, The Tragedy of an Indian Farmer, followed. Tragedy was selected for the Indian Panorama in 1993 and won the special jury prize. And then, says Murali, "I thought I'm doing the right thing." Murali's third short film, A Long Journey, premiered at Cannes in 1996 in the short film competition section. Thus the Camera d'Or honour isn't surprising. Says film historian P.K. Nair: "He has a certain vision that is different from other filmmakers. He captures visuals and mood rather than being stuck in dramatic development."
Meanwhile, the filmmaker is winging his way back to Middlesex, where he will do TV serials for London's Channel 5 -- "my bread and butter" -- and eventually, after resting, another movie. Murali need no longer worry about raising funds because the award comes with 300,000 francs (about Rs 20 lakh) At least the credit card companies will be paid off now.
-with M.G. Radhakrishnan
© Living Media India Ltd