(One of my most pleasing recent discoveries is the cinema of Don Palathara [whose work can be found on Mubi India, for anyone interested]. I have watched three of his five films so far, most recently Everything is Cinema, which I loved for its cold, self-absorbed misanthropy and for the texture of Palathara's voiceover, which dominates much of the film. For now, though, here’s a piece I did for Money Control about Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam)
A tiny moment – lasting barely a couple of seconds – in the new Malayalam film Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (English title: Joyful Mystery) drew a surprised chuckle out of me. Maria and Jithin – an unmarried couple, not too secure financially, trying to get their careers on track – are on their way back from a clinic. They are facing the possibility that Maria is pregnant (the test result will come later in the day) and are trying to process what this might mean for their future, and what their options are – abortion included. For much of the drive to the clinic they have been arguing, exchanging recriminations or being passive-aggressive in the way couples often are in these situations. The air is thick with tension.
Then something shifts, if only momentarily. Maria – a tabloid journalist – is on a phone interview with a movie director who is pontificating on about his work. Even as he claims to be making “the first feminist Malayalam film by a man”, he decrees that there are some things only women should do since they excel at them. Such as making sambhar. What if my grandmother had become a revenue officer, he asks rhetorically. The whole family would have missed out on her amazing sambhar! As the director says these words (we can hear his voice on Maria’s speaker-phone), there is a split-second exchange of bemused glances between Maria and Jithin. It’s deadpan, not underlined, but very effective and funny.
Another amusing interlude: shortly before this scene, they gave a ride to an elderly woman who revealed that she was at a wedding attended by a hundred people – much to the consternation of Jithin, already displeased about sharing an enclosed space with a stranger in Covid-19 time. After the woman gets off at her destination, he exclaims, “She had primary contact with 100 people.” Maria looks pensively at the departing woman.
In the lead-up to both these moments, Maria and Jithin had been in sullen-silence mode – but now we see them bonding, however briefly. They get to step back from their fraught situation for a moment and become one “unit” again – a couple who is sufficiently attuned to each other (and have enough in common as broadly liberal young people) that they can share a wordless glance at the idiosyncrasies, irresponsible behaviour or posturing of others.
Both these scenes are in the second half of the film, and after all the angry, accusatory talk in the first half this represents the beginning of a return to some order, the calm after the storm. Which is not to say that the film is headed for a conventionally happy ending, or that the couple’s struggles are going to be over soon. But something vital about the relationship has been captured, adding warmth and plausibility to the narrative.
Much of the talk around this film, written and directed by Don Palathara, will understandably focus on the formal device at its centre: it is filmed in a single take that runs more than 80 minutes, with one fixed camera at the front of the car in which Maria (played by Rima Kallingal) and Jithin (Jithin Punthenchery) are travelling.
This means that almost throughout, we watch them up close as they talk or negotiate uncomfortable silences. With a couple of breathers here and there: Jithin stopping the car and getting out to bring Maria a lemon for her nausea, or to smoke for a while after an argument; Maria leaving the car for a few minutes when they reach the clinic.
There are bursts of conversation, explosions of anger, mood swings. And a few long pauses that are always risky in a film like this since all the viewer can do during these periods is to look at the two people on the screen, conjecture what they might be feeling or thinking. Watch Jithin keeping his emotions (mostly) under control and his eyes on the road, making a determined effort to be the Sensitive Male but with his mind probably ticking away under that composed exterior; look at Maria, more agitated and demonstrative, dealing with her current nausea as well as the possible bodily changes to come, worrying about career and societal judgement, frustrated that the man next to her can afford to be so unruffled since he isn’t as directly affected.
With most of the famous lengthy takes in film history (in classics like Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Touch of Evil, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope and Under Capricorn, or in modern films like Birdman or Russian Ark or 1917), the camera moves with the characters. A twelve-minute-long establishing shot in another recent Malayalam film, Malik, takes us through a large house, up and down stairs, into different rooms, as we meet some of the film’s protagonists.
The single take in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is very different from these. On the face of it, the unblinking and unmoving camera makes this film less “cinematic”, more stationary and theatre-like. But the technique works very well visually for the situation. During the driving scenes, Maria and Jithin are in fixed positions in the car, literally strapped in, while the scenery behind them changes subtly: the buildings, the greenery, the shifts in light as they pass under a canopy. They are in a private space – with each of them leaving it occasionally but soon returning – while other things orbit around them. People enter and exit (mostly as voices on a phone), there are conversations – with family, friends – that in subtle ways touch on the subject of what is conventional or unconventional, socially approved or frowned upon, and on aspects of the parent-child relationship; things that are relevant to Maria and Jithin’s current circumstances.
It’s one thing to say that a particular film is for a “patient viewer” – that’s a given in a case like this – but so much here hinges on the performances of the two leads; with the camera scrutinising them so closely, the slightest inadequacy or implausibility would make the whole film lose its moorings. Jithin Punthenchery and Rima Kallingal – who are constantly required to walk a tightrope between the mundane and the dramatic, between improvisation and a scripted narrative – are excellent throughout. Even when there is nothing particularly exciting or novel happening in the conversation, when the whole point of it is its banality, they kept me gripped.
Looked at in one way, this film’s structure is very simple: take a potentially dramatic development and use it to examine the quotidian workings of a relationship over the course of a long car drive. End with a measure of calm having been reached, even a little smile here and there, an affectionate touch. Some might even call it simplistic. But if you accept its slice-of-life approach on its own terms, and also see it as a work that is self-aware about the limitations of this kind of “experimental” cinema (there is a nod to this in the conversation with the pretentious director, who is voiced by Palathara himself), the staging and the performances add up to a lot. This is an absorbing view of how close relationships work; how two people, caught in a particular moment, interact with each other and with the world.