Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Man, Memory and Mammootty: Watching ‘Bramayugam’

This note is an attempt to look at the context of Mammotty’s ‘Bramayugam: The Age of Madness’. Directed by Rahul Sadasivan, who impressed me with his neat horror flic ‘Boothakalam’, Bramayugam is a period drama set in the late seventeenth-century South Malabar, as inferred from the visual and narrative cues in the film. Starring Arjun Asokan, Sidharth Bharatan and Amalda Liz, along with Mammootty, the drama revolves around a haunted ‘mana’ in a tropical geography. It follows the story of Thevan, a paanan (played by Arjun Ashokan) who found his way to the mana as he was running away from his tambran. While greedily eating a coconut in hunger, he encounters the character of Sidharth Bharatan, who we later realise is the household chef. Koduman Potty, played by Mammootty, find out that Thevan has arrived in his place and invites him as a guest to his household. The story unfolds as the narrative moves around the complex intricacies of each character, frequently moving around their interactions and occasionally playing with their minds. As I do not intend to examine the narrative plot in detail, I won’t go further into the details. Instead, I would like to discuss specific larger themes that move along with the narrative rather in an underlying manner. 

Most of the reviews that came out after the release have tried to address these underlying themes in their writings. The fundamental problem they identify is the question of power and the idea of inherent corruption of it. Along with that, some of the reviews discuss the underplay of the subaltern question as manifested by the social/caste positions of the characters involved. Koduman Potty (Played by Mammootty) is a Brahmin, while Thevan is a lower caste. The chef’s caste position is ambiguous as the narrative uses this identity later for a crucial intervention. It is in this pre-setting that the seemingly exciting narratives of subaltern politics and the uprising against power are depicted. The reviews and observations revolve around how Potty, the visible representative of power, is utilising and exploiting it in order to restrict the subaltern bodies within his sphere of influence by using immoral means (the game of dice, for instance, is widely observed throughout these reviews as a game of immorality, drawing from the reference of Mahabharatha). It seems that these ‘thematic’, a prominent point of post-release discussion, are pre-assumed and visually curated through metaphors that embody them at face value. Here, the vitality of an antagonistic force that uses power, which is presented as an inherently immoral idea/virtue to possess, is the actual aesthetic theme of the movie. The inheritors of this power in the later half of the movie rightfully perish as the earlier possession of power by the supreme antagonist appears as the ‘loss of something right’, which the spectator has to agree with. These pre-assumed and rather simplified notions of power and violence effectively stimulate the spectator, who is prepared to experience and even take sides in the game of the ‘good, the bad and the ugly’. 

Here, it is the acting prowess of Mammootty which acts as the supreme force that facilitates this stimulation. Each and every speech-acts of the veteran is placed perfectly so that this aforementioned stimulation, which can also be assumed to be a late modern fascination for a pre-modern force or a prominent image of power, can be generated seamlessly. With his unparalleled brilliance, Mammootty regulates his body conservatively so that these vile gestures are expressed and executed perfectly. His bodily movements, along with his sense perceptions, are arranged in such a way that this force is presented as a fascinating presence of a folklore gale. Even the supposed presentation of his character as a viewee, where Thevan is the viewer/voyeur, does not put him outside the close frames in the 2:1 aspect ratio. The ease with which he shoulders this character through the ups and downs of the narrative, with all its masculine traits and vulnerable shadows, is a treat to watch. Thus, the earlier-mentioned fascination towards this force was made easy through his vast knowledge and experience of performing bodies.

There is a certain aspect of ferocity that Mammootty brings to the idea of an immoral character, which we usually call a ‘villain’. Whether in the much celebrated ‘Vidheyan’ or in ‘Paleri Manikyam’, the ferocity is embodied in its total vulgarity. In ‘Paleri Manikyam’, the power possessed by caste/class is not ascribed to him through external manifestation but inscribed in his body through his embodied actions and utterances. The body of Murkkinkunnath Ahammed Haji that he carried had inscribed the cruelty and the later crises of the caste at a complex historical juncture. The state and various movements had a prominent role in taming that ferociousness. While in ‘Vidheyan’, this inscription was rather unleashed in its banal, parochial form where he is the arbitrator and lawgiver in the absence of the state. Bramayugam attempts to set a similar terrain in terms of its narrative specifications. Mammootty unleashes himself as the provider and protector of certain ugly truths in this parochial private setting. The bodily movements (even the lack of it) allow the spectator to understand the dynamic in which the narrative intends to move. The intricacies and complexities of the identity he was carrying were perfectly executed not only at times of dominance but also at times of weakness and crises. With his body and voice, Mammootty is a standard historical archive in itself, already sufficient to produce any time and period.

But here, this preoccupation with setting the narrative as such somehow fails to bring forth the historical nature of caste dynamics which it intended to set. Instead, it renders a pre-assumed logic of caste and power, where they are depicted in their most peripheral function and form. What interests me is not the emptying out of the social by reducing the number of characters (social can be emptied out even with the presence of a mass), but rather the very intention in which this emptiness is designed to serve the narrative logic. The narrative ploy to play with the memory (where Thevan lost his memory/identity) and time serves this logic of peripherality very well. But it does not fall into the narrative trope which films like ‘Kuruthi’ or ‘Theerpu’ (though with totally unrelated treatments) tried to employ and failed miserably, thanks to the brilliant performances of Sidharth Bharatan and Arjun Asokan along with the topnotch technical perfection. Still, the larger thematic these films try to employ deserves more attention as a technique of genre production. 

In his famous seminar on the purloined letter, Jacques Lacan observes that ‘it is the symbolic order which is constitutive for the subject-by demonstrating in a story the decisive orientation which the subject receives from the itinerary of a signifier.’ For Lacan, a fable or fiction is the perfect terrain to execute this truth, where it has a narrative advantage of manifesting symbolic necessity more purely to the extent that we may believe its conception arbitrary. The world of ‘Bramayugam’ is an attempt to narrate a fable/myth with its gore nature with intended symbolic features, which at times fall short at their assumed significations. One interesting point in the movie was the entry of the colonizers (seemingly Portuguese), along with a reference to the slave trade at the Ponnani port. One might think of the need to set these historical markers in a drama that attempts to present a narrative that highly resembles a fable or a mythical narrative. When a Portuguese officer shoots a character down, the higher official asks: ‘What is it?’. ‘A madman’, the officer responds. And they continue their expedition. The chaos of emotional intricacies and violent manifestations of resistance and survival produced in front of the spectator were all reduced to the soothing flow of the river at that moment. That, the moment in which the ‘madman’ was walked past by the guns and horses of the coloniser without any trouble, was when I felt that the ‘Age of Madness’ had gone past and the ‘Modern Time’ had arrived. We can either choose to ignore the pre-modern chaos like the Portuguese did like a rightful modern, or we can choose to dwell in the intricacies, clash of moralities and the conflict of extraterrestrial and celestial bodies, like in a Homeric epic. That was also the moment I felt what ‘Bramayugam’ was attempting to do.

Afeef Ahmed, a graduate from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, is an independent author and researcher.

Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed, a graduate from the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Gandhinagar, is an independent author and researcher.
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