Sunday, December 3, 2023

Sounding spaces and walking spirits: Watching Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam

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How do you understand sound? How do you negotiate with the contrast between sound and what is conventionally perceived as noise? How do you make that distinction? Watching Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam demands to hear also. Starring Mammootty, Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam takes us to a day and an afternoon of divinity, departure and the possibilities of distinguishing the Other. This note attempts to look at how this triad is visually and spatially distributed through the course of the narrative and how it is mediated through an overarching presence of sound(s).

Noise is what is unbearable to the ears. But is that unbearable-ness purely pathological? Or is it historically and socially mediated? That point of unbearable-ness is where we start distinguishing the ‘sound’, which was till ‘sacred’, into noise and then to nuisance. That is also the point where we start recognising the presence of the Other as the undesirable voice. As Mladen Dolar regretfully notes, our ‘vocabulary is inadequate’ to describe ‘all those voices (sic) shouting, whispering, crying, caressing, threatening, imploring, seducing, commanding, pleading, praying, hypnotising, confessing, terrorising, declaring’.

Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam starts from the sounds of Vellankanni, a popular Christian pilgrimage site in Tamil Nadu, the south of India. Starting from the announcements at the church in various languages, it slowly moves into the sounds of the socials surrounding the site. Then it moves past to the continuous honking of the drama troop bus, waiting for James (Played by Mammootty) and his family to arrive. James has brought his family and his troop members (some of them overlap also) to Velankanni. It is their return journey that the narrative is built upon. This return journey in that small bus is filled with various sounds; the sound of music, the sound of people talking and singing and the sound of the wind that hits the window shield, which distinguishes the geography across the ghats. The sounds and acts of the pilgrimage site don’t convince James, a sceptical Christian. The ‘loudness’ of the Tamil Songs and the sound of others on the bus singing is also unbearable for James, who shuts his ears using his fingers. Like the loudness of the songs, he doesn’t trust Tamilians also. He gets annoyed when he listens to ‘their’ music; he finds their food disgusting and their land inhospitable.

The moment of (mis)recognition starts when a Mammootty movie is screened on the television inside the bus. James is visibly annoyed and does not recognise it while all others on the bus look at him in a particular way, while some laugh at him. This event leads everyone to sleep, the most spectacular event recurring throughout the cinema. Sleeping is not always the absence of sound. From snoring to various other biological and natural processes, sleeping cannot be seen as the total absence of sound. But here, sleeping is accompanied by an external sound of music, the overflowing voice of T.M Soundararajan.

James breaks this moment and wakes up (goes back to) sleep to enter into this strange world of Others whom he had no regard for, surprisingly as an other himself. This is a crucial point where the otherness collides with the everyday functioning of society. Alasdair MacIntyre would call this one of the most important roles of a society to play for the proper functioning of the society; that is the role of the ‘stranger’. McIntyre would describe this stranger as ‘someone from outside the community who has happened to arrive amongst us and to whom we owe hospitality, just because she or he is a stranger’. But the hospitality demanded by Sundaram is not of any strangers. But rather, he claims that he is one among themselves though none of them agrees. He tries to shed his otherness by calling out names, the basic identity marker. He identifies humans, non-humans and the surroundings they inhabit. But identifying is not enough for inhabiting and, therefore, for giving hospitality. The sheer difference is physicality denies others any possibilities of doubt regarding the claims posed by him. Surprisingly, the vision is what denies him the claims of hospitality. It is his mother, who is blind, only the one person who accepts him without any such demands or questioning. This is not just motherly affection but mainly the absence and the impossibility of recognising oneself by his physical appearance. Immanuel Levinas would demand us not to look at the face necessarily, but rather a face which is pre-formed ‘which resists possession, and resists power’. He urges us to ‘welcome’ others where hospitality is perceived as a human condition and a virtue. Thus, the necessity of seeing to establish an affective relationship is destabilized and further opens up the possibilities of various other sensory elements, such as sound, touch and hearing, in establishing and sustaining this affect. Remember the moment of Mother’s call and how Sundaram answers it by lying on her lap while she slowly caresses his hairlines.

The soundscape in the village is constantly accompanied by the sounds of radio-dramas that deals with the moral questions of intimacy, affection, failure, vengeance and various other possible feelings in human relationships. The interiors and the exteriors are filled with the sound of radio-dramas and television. The constant backdrop of the dialogues creates a constant terrain of sounds, flowing into the narrative even when we despise the presence of it and desires absolute silence at some points. This forceful overflow is mediated through various situations, where either the dialogues from the radio-drama or the television consciously collides with the situations in the narrative. At one point, it may feel very animated. But when you look closer, this very animated-ness and the overarching presence of drama is present throughout the film. In one particular scene, Sundaram delivers a long speech-like dialogue where he claims and asserts his identity and affinity towards his place. The performance is very dramatic in nature by the overdominance of gestural acts and emotional cries. The lights, the setting and the way people watch his performance is very much dramatic and feels a lot more that that of such a scene in a cinema demands. This overlap is present in various other scenes in the way people talk, walk and come to deliver a dialogue in a particular scene. Another scene is where you could see the two mothers and their children in different lighting in a wide frame which very much resembles a theatre setting with props and placement. This cinema, as a homage to the theatrical group owned by Lijo’s father Jose Pellissery, looks back into the historical evolution of cinematic form as a gesturally, vocally and performatively less-demanding by providing a series of dramatic sequences in the course of narrative.

The various affects of sound prevailing throughout the physical markers of the village gives out an entire sonic geography for us. The major contestation of sound in the cinema for me was between these ever-present sounds and the voice of Mammootty, always an overdominating and distinguishing feature. Mammootty’s voice or long dialogues are often accompanied, and therefore diluted by the presence of some sort of sound. Except for a few moments where emotional outbreaks happen, his voice is either accompanied or overpowered by the musical and sonic elements. This is a bit surprising as Mammootty’s voice is often identified as something remarkable and unique, which is powerful enough to make anyone cry in the elevations and depressions he takes in sounding those characters. Dhyan Sreenivasan makes one such remark about his famous scene in Kadha Parayumbol in the final emotional speech, which he elevates through his dubbing performance. But in the contrary, Nanpakal is completely produced in sync-sound. In one of his recent interviews, Mammootty himself remarks that he loves sync-sound these days, where he is able to perform well. He describes that ‘our body has a particular sound and a language, which is mediated and heavily influenced by the situations and premises we are in physically and mentally. The possibility of sync-sound captures these nuances well, while it is difficult to reproduce these exact situations in a dubbing studio’. This working of sound ‘in the age of mechanical reproduction’ is crucial in providing the aura, which can be called a specific form of embodiment actualised in a particular space-time. This embodied voice of Mammootty is not over-dominating the natural or the surrounding social as his voice always does, but rather collaborates or mutually corresponds with it, and sometimes even fails to mark in the influx of the sound. Thus, the afternoon dream is as much a sonic experience as it is a visual experience.

In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, interestingly revolves around another collective experience of pilgrimage; there’s an instance in one story where a cock and a hen debates about the validity and invalidity of dreams. When Chanticleer, the cock sees a dreadful dream and wakes up from it, his partner Pertelot mocks him for his lack of masculinity to understand dreams as ‘vanity’ and as a ‘pure error’. In defence of his position, Chanticleer gives out various anecdotes from the Old Testament to Homeric Iliad where dreams ‘mattered’ to claim that dreams are much more than ‘vanity’ and ‘a pure error’. Perhaps, ‘Nanpakal’ would be a moral imperative for us to ‘welcome’ others not through what we perceive by our conscious eyes but through various means of affection and sensations. Without the exceptional spectaculars or the primordial parochialism, both an inevitable presence in Pellisery themes, this is a call for humanity to transcend parochial rigidities to embrace the Other. 

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Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed
Afeef Ahmed is a student of English literature at Hindu College University Of Delhi.

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