Dir: Murali Nair. India-Jap. 2003. 90mins
Director Murali Nair's Throne Of Death and A Dog's Day were feted at Cannes, the former with the coveted Camera d'Or for best first feature. But Arimpara, which screened in Un Certain Regard, has not gone down so well, and it certainly has its problems. Like most South Indian productions (co-financed by the Japanese), it will have a hard time gaining even arthouse audiences in the West if they are at all impatient. But for those who love Kerala it will afford considerable pleasure, even if doubts remain.
The plot is certainly original. A farmer in Kerala, 'possibly a long time ago, possibly now' finds his crops failing, his labourers scarce, his boy down with fever and the wart on his chin getting bigger and bigger, until it starts to have a life of its own. A fable' Yes, of course, and taken from a well-known and much-admired South Indian author.
The meaning is clear. The farmer cannot divorce himself from the dead, traditional ways, which the wart represents. His doctor tells him he ought to cut it off but the farmer won't hear of it. Instead, he tries herbs and praying to his God; nothing works. Eventually, even his hitherto loving wife leaves him ' for the doctor, of all people ' and his trusty servant goes too. He is virtually killing himself by his refusal to change and adapt.
The film has several problems. Firstly, wallowing in this summation of what may well look to Westerners like a semi-paradise, deflects from the film's message, which is that everything is changing and nothing will ever be quite the same. And if the farmer does not admit it, he is metaphorically a dead man.
The second and more profound difficulty is that what were impressive final passages in the book do not make very convincing cinema. What, for the first hour of this 90-minute film at least, is a naturalistic study (and a very good one) becomes something so entirely different that the drama starts to jar. When the huge wart begins to scream with wicked laughter, you cannot help giggling too.
On the credit side, however, there is a marvellous performance from Nedumudi Venu as the farmer, lights years away from the often melodramatic style that stymies so many Keralan films. The detail of his portrait of a kindly, but deeply conservative man is both precise and believable. You understand what a stick-in-the mud he is, but you have sympathy for him too. Sona Nair as his wife is excellent as well, and so is Bhagyanath as his young son.
The painting of Keralan life deep in the countryside is quietly impressive, the more so because Nair and his cinematographer MG Radhakrishnan clearly love the slow rhythms of their homeland and have paid great attention to the sounds of the place. When a door of the farmer's house opens, you hear the birds, the rustling of the wind and the sound of a servant sweeping the terrace. It almost puts you into a state of trance. In this way, Nair has never done anything better and Argentinian Fernando Benadon's spare music score adds to one's pleasure.
As for the ever-growing wart, it is pretty well-directed too. Audiences might, though, turn a hair or two when the wart becomes a hideous appendage to the farmer's face and the film turns into what is virtually a horror story. Then again, that is when some impatient people may begin to like it.
Prod co: Flying Elephant Films
Int'l sales: Nfdc, NHK
Scr: Murali Nair, Madhu Apsara
Cinematography: MJ Radhakrishnan
Ed: Lalitha Krishna
Prod des: CP Padmakumar
Music: Fernando Benadon
Main cast: Nedumudi Venu, Sona Nair, Master Bhagyanath, Rajan Sithara, Bharathan Njarakkal, Kochu Prem