Allegory as short, sweet and pointed as “A Dog’s Day” is rarely seen these days, and particularly not in Indian films, better known for being long and declamatory. Here Murali Nair, who won the Camera d’Or in 1999 for his first feature, “Throne of Death,” crafts a political fairy tale around a small village where the gift of a local lord’s dog leads to disaster. Thoroughly embedded in the South Indian culture of Kerala, its people and music, the story has universal ramifications and appeal. Nair’s direction has a light touch that could carry pic beyond the festival rounds, where it should be a favorite choice, to niche venues.
In a formal ceremony full of pomp and music, the region’s beloved lord (wonderfully impersonated by K. Krishna Kaimal, behind heavy glasses and a mustache) turns over power to a democratically elected leader (Sudhas Thayat). As an afterthought, he gives the royal dog Apu (shades of Satyajit Ray) to an aged couple to take care of at his expense.
The old woman (Lakshmi Raman) reverently spoon-feeds the dog porridge while hungry children and the increasingly irritated villagers look on. When Apu kills a duck and fatally bites a young boy, dog and the old man (Thomas) are carted off to the police station. This opens hostilities between the lord and the leader, with devastating consequences on the population of the once-peaceful village.
Nair has a disarming way of filming the villagers (whole cast is non-pro) with their strongly etched faces, spending most of their time just staring or walking. This simplicity, along with wisely pared-down dialogue, gives the film its universal quality. Pic humorously injects notes of encroaching modernity into the exotic locale, as when the men in their dhoti skirts play cards under the palm trees with a sexy Western deck. Nair’s use of traditional folk songs and additional tunes by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, all recorded on the spot, are important in anchoring the film to Kerala.
Special kudos go to editor Lalitha Krishna, who ably abbreviates the action to speed up the story and keep audience attention focused. Cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan adds texture to the village’s abundant natural color with nicely shadowed interiors.