This ambitious pic, winner of the best film prize in India’s 1995 National Awards, is an understated exploration of tumultuous political upheavals in the southern state of Kerala over more than 40 years (1937-1980) as seen from the perspective of one man. Indian audiences, aware of the events of the period, will have a far easier time than Westerners, though a lengthy opening title scroll attempts to explain the historical and political background. Commercial bookings are unlikely, but some tube airings are possible for this prestigious but at times perplexing biog.
Bookended with an old man speaking of Keralan legends of demons, the story proper kicks off with the birth, in 1937, of young Kunjunni, whose family is relatively high up the feudal pecking order but whose wayward father is nowhere in evidence. The boy, who turns out to have a permanent stutter, is raised by his sickly mother and tough-minded grandmother, but also is influenced by the servants in the family home. His best friend is Meenakshi, daughter of the family’s maid-servant.
As time goes by, independence is in the air. Kunjunni’s uncle, Vasu, is a follower of Gandhi, and the family is devastated when the leader is assassinated in 1948. Vasu turns to Marxism and becomes a hunted man, wanted for murder.
After the death of his mother, Kunjunni also embraces Communism; in 1959, the first-ever democratically elected Communist Party takes over the state of Kerala and land is redistributed. Kunjunni moves further to the left and joins the Maoist Naxalite Party, which in 1968 stages a violent uprising that ends with a state of emergency (1975-77) during which Kunjunni is imprisoned and, presumably , tortured (he has a limp upon release). Finally he marries his childhood sweetheart, becomes a father and writes a book about his experiences.
Gopalakrishnan keeps all the “big” events offscreen. This could easily have been a sweeping epic along “Doctor Zhivago” lines, but instead remains firmly rooted in the minor events of the hero’s life. The Naxalite uprising is portrayed only via newspaper headlines; Kunjunni’s prison experiences aren’t shown; pic moves forward in time via a series of abrupt cuts.
This rigorous style makes the film unduly sterile, and the rich settings and momentous events take second place to the sometimes stilted story of the protagonist’s private life. The film’s uneven flow and at times obscure politics will make it tough going for the uninitiated, and by severely reducing the emotion and sentiment inherent in the story, Gopalakrishnan doesn’t help his audience.
Pic is visually fine, though music could have been used to better effect.
Performances are acceptable, given the often remote style of the film.