Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The colours of Vagamon: a memory from six years ago (and a tribute to Kerala's dogs)

Reading about the appalling measures that have been taken against stray dogs in Kerala - the mass culling, the antics of local politicians - has been all the more painful given the memories I have from my one visit to the state in 2010, to see part of the shooting of Anup Kurian’s film The Blueberry Hunt. Here’s a little travel piece I did for M magazine back in the day. So much naiveté in it, I feel now - especially in that line about “shy-faced” local dogs walking about as equals with their humans. Stupid. Anyway, Vagamon was a lovely place with its meadows and dogs and cows and flowers and butterflies (and occasionally its dreadlocked Naseeruddin Shah), even if the memory has been somewhat sullied now - so here’s the piece, with a couple of photos.


A Dilli-wallah traveling to Kerala for the first time is supposed to head for the backwaters and stay in houseboats and such – that's simply what you do. But my wife and I have a history of gravitating towards mainland terrain even though we keep talking about coastal vacations (two years ago we contrived to spend a week in Sri Lanka without getting anywhere near a major water-body). True to form, when the writer-director Anup Kurian invited me to a small Keralite hill-town named Vagamon to chronicle some of the shooting of his feature film The Hunt, we grabbed the opportunity. As an armchair film buff and reviewer who’d never been at a movie shoot before, I figured this low-budget location set would be more interesting than visiting a studio in Mumbai’s Film City. Besides, there was the prospect of spending time in conversation with Naseeruddin Shah, who was playing the lead role in the film.

And so it came to pass that on a fine February morning earlier this year, Abhilasha and I reached Vagamon, which is around 100 km from the Cochin airport – a drive of a little over two hours, the final 45 minutes uphill. Over the next five days we would experience the special pleasures of a hill-town that hadn’t yet become commercialised beyond repair.

To begin with, the shoot itself was fun. We stayed in a guesthouse with most of the cast and crew, including Shah – it was a communal, egalitarian set-up, and the evenings after the day’s work would be spent eating together in the cafeteria and talking movies and other things. Most of the filming was being done in the area around Kurian’s family home, located only 500 metres from the guesthouse as the crow flew, but a good 15 minutes away by jeep on a very bumpy road. For the first couple of days, I opted to trek up the hill: it was nice and bracing the first time around, but on the second try I was panting so hard I couldn’t  hear myself think.

“At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses,” Marquez wrote in One Hundred Years of Solitude. “The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.” We were entranced by Vagamon’s pristineness. There was a running joke on the set about the belligerence of the region’s cows, but the reason for this un-bovine temperament was probably that they weren’t used to seeing so many humans around; this was their terrain, after all. The shy-faced local dogs seemed startled too, though they were much politer. Many of them are pets, but they aren't kept on leashes; dog and human walk about together, dare one suggest it, as equals. On one occasion, a man followed closely by his pet threaded his way through the film unit on a narrow path, but the dog, being alarmed by this surfeit of people, nimbly climbed up on a rock to assess the scene. His man-friend walked some way down the road before realising he was unescorted; he returned, we coerced "Jimmy" down, and they bounded off together, both of them grinning from ear to ear.

Much more worldly-wise was Tipu, the dashing German Shepherd who played a key role in the film. He’s a hardcore professional, veteran of fifty movies, and he earns up to Rs 5,000 per day, but Vagamon turned him into a poet and a libertine. One of the outdoor locations was near a stream, and between shots Tipu had a jolly old time leaping from rock to water. Brightly coloured butterflies, including one painted a dazzling green, flitted about his head and he wagged his tail at them.

Most of my time was spent observing things and doing interviews, and I looked at this as a work trip, even if it was the pleasantest sort of “work” imaginable. We didn’t expect to find time for sightseeing, but this changed late one morning during a relatively dull interlude in Vagamon town. Naseeruddin Shah was doing a scene with an elephant and a nervous human actor who kept fluffing his lines, and it looked like the scene would take all day. “Let’s hire a cab for a few hours and see Vagamon!” said the ebullient Aahana Kumra, who was playing the female lead – it was her first off-day in a long time – and that’s what we did.

Our jeep-driver was Shaji Fernandes D’Souza, who must be among the most poker-faced men in Kerala. A practical joker, he caused much outrage by proclaiming at regular intervals that he would charge Rs 500 for waiting at a spot for a few minutes or Rs 200 for playing a particular radio channel. He turned out to be a fine guide, though, and it was a very well-spent afternoon. We visited a resort called Vagamon Heights, had tea and biscuits by a villa and went boating on the nearby lake. We sauntered about a large and awe-inspiring pine forest on the border of another resort, and Aahana coerced us into striking filmi poses next to the tree-trunks and generally indulging her camera in ways we wouldn’t have done if the setting hadn’t been so seductive (and if we hadn’t had a future movie star for company). We also learnt that every major tourist spot in Vagamon is called “Suicide Point” – there are possibly as many of these points as there are jeep-drivers in the vicinity, though
most of them have such breathtaking views that death quickly loses its attraction once you’re standing on the precipice.

Towards late afternoon we went to a nearby Belgian monastery that doubles up as a dairy farm and supplies thousands of packets of milk to the region every day, courtesy specially bred cows that look more Swiss than Indian. It was a quiet, dignified place, its garden bedecked with flowers of every hue and shape, and drunken honeybees. However, the highlight of our excursion came when Shaji dropped us to what looked like the entrance to a large park. “Paragliding centre,” he said, quietly adding, as we walked towards the gate, “Also best suicide point. Twelve hundred rupees only!”

We walked down the path he had indicated – serendipitously, it had become cloudy and the weather was now perfect – expecting to reach another cliff-edge. Instead, we soon found ourselves at the centre of one of the loveliest, most idyllic places I’ve seen.

The Vagamon Meadows is an expanse of grassland straight out of a child's picture book, dotted with little hills and no trees, so you get a clear view for miles around. Though we saw a few people on a distant hill, there was hardly another soul in the immediate vicinity – we may as well have landed on an uninhabited planet. I also enjoyed the illusion the place created of being at sea level, even though the hillocks and the meadows were all situated atop a mountain range (we were 1500 or so metres up to begin with).
Much as I love mountains, I get a little bored by “vertical” landscapes: endlessly winding roads where all you’re doing is climbing up or going back down. This was a completely different vista, and it turned us all into characters from mushy movies, murmuring softly to each other, lazily taking pictures and videos even though no camera could do justice to the place. We didn’t get any paragliding done, but that didn’t matter; our minds were in a state of ascension anyway.

Back to Delhi, back to the “real” world with its whooshing deadlines and traffic snarls and busy malls stacked end to end with human bodies. I thought Vagamon was in our past, but a few days ago I discovered that my wife was using her Twitter account to narrate a serialised story – 140 characters per instalment – about a dog named Tipu and a bright green butterfly named Mantra who live together near a little stream and set out to foil the plans of a monster who wants to drain the world of its colours.

I hope Vagamon never loses its colours. I hope it stays the way we remember it and that its dogs remain forever shy and its cows unsocial.

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