‘Yaathrayude Anthyam’ ponders on Death and grief through the radical lens

KG George Malayalam Director

KG George’s cinematic works in the 1980s stand as an indisputably significant contribution to Malayalam Cinema. His extensive body of work masterfully captures the complexities of contemporary Kerala society, surpassing the efforts of any other filmmaker or writer. In Kolangal (1981), George fearlessly shattered the veneer of pseudo-virtues in a Kerala village, employing groundbreaking noir sensibilities.

Noteworthy films like Yavanika (1982), Lekhayude Maranam oru Flashback (1983), Adaminte Variyellu (1983), and Mattoral (1988) serve as a comprehensive study of women’s roles in 1980s Kerala society. Additionally, Panchavadi Palam (1984) and Irakal (1986), two standout works from this era, are overtly political films that reflect the social landscape, cleverly embedded within mainstream cinema’s genre frameworks.

Unveiling Modern Kerala: Yathrayude Anthyam in KG George’s Lens

Every KG George film delves into contemporary social-politics and highlights the marginalized status of women. Yathrayude Anthyam (1988), his last film from the 1980s, crafted as a telefilm for Doordarshan, provides a focused, if not primary, social perspective on modernized Kerala. The narrative revolves around the bus journey of VKV, a novelist portrayed by Murali, traveling from Thiruvalla KSRTC depot to Mandarathoppu, a remote village, prompted by an urgent telegram from his friend and mentor, Abraham (MG Soman).

Narrated through VKV’s internal monologues, George employs the classic narrative device of a bus journey, reminiscent of Balu Mahendra’s 1983 film Yathra, to unveil the flashback. However, the flashback isn’t about VKV’s origins. Instead, it explores the spiritual and personal bond between VKV and Abraham, detailing their previous journeys to the destination. This flashback unfolds a 3.5-year-long friendship, nurtured through letters and eight in-person meetings, adding depth to the narrative.

KG George’s Cinematic Exploration of Social Dynamics

The road has changed over the years, the woods are no more, concrete buildings have erupted on each side. VKV says. Through the Bus journey, George carves the picture of contemporary 90’s Keralam in a nutshell. The journey accompanies an NRI from America, a middle-class family gently skipping their 5-year old daughter’s bus ticket, a newly wed couple chit-chatting, a local political leader with his fellow arrays and finally a troop of family members accompanying a bride. The intricacies of the journey is outstanding, of course, detailing has always been George’s forte. But he specifically pans through landmarks, A Railway bridge tunnel, river bridge, the marketplace junction and a hotel near the Busstop, to give the consummated and tiresome visual impact of a long Bus journey. Not to mention the contribution that cinematographers Venu and Sunny Joseph have made to the film.

The Universality and Uncertainty of Death

Death first enters halfway into the film on a Christmas night. We are known that Abraham’s Son-in-law has passed away due to a plane crash. George is hesitant to linger over the melodramatics. After the revelation, we are up to the repercussion, the grief. But the director’s approach towards grief is pertinently different. Grief is not an emotional baggage as per George, it is the transition to life post a person’s death. The pathos that are thrusted by the society as opposed to the departed soul. Even though Death is known as a prospective figure of impartiality in films―in Bergmen’s seminal classic The Seventh Seal, death says he is indifferent to all―the aftermath of ‘grief’ comes as an anarchy (only) to women. In one of the early scenes a Barber casually says he’ll dump his wife and marry another woman if he wants. Does the same apply for women.

KG George’s film Chronicle of 1980s Kerala

Perhaps, in a broader sense, yes. But take the film, the christian backdrop (where polygyny is more accepted than polyandry), in which the orthodox family of her husband throws a choice to the women―whether to live as a widower in their family or leave the school-going daughter with them. She opts the second choice not wanting to live as a “burden” in their house. Her Father (Abraham) tries to instigate a second marriage but she’s not willing to marry a person who comes forward with a sympathetic gaze for a widower. Grief is not often subjugated to death, it’s attuned with moral and social circumstances.

A Tale of Universality and Uncertainty

The second encounter with death is not immediate but unfolds gradually, imbued with warmth. This time, it hints at universality, urging empathy for the void it creates in a stranger’s life and preparing for an uncertain future. Karamana delivers a remarkable cameo as Kariyachan, portraying the poised yet melancholic emotions a father experiences before his daughter’s wedding. However, a fleeting moment shatters his dreams.

A Moment Shattered

Once again, grief befalls a woman, grappling with the complex dilemma of ‘marriage’ and ‘grief over father’s death.’ The outcome remains uncertain — will the marriage proceed or not? This subplot evokes memories of Sibimalayil’s Bharatham (1991), where a younger brother conceals the news of an elder brother’s death to facilitate his sister’s wedding. Similar to Bharatham, this narrative underscores the profound gravity of grief through cinematic melodrama.

Death as an omnipresence

The denouement profounds the arc of death and reveres it’s entity as an inevitability of Life. This time Death is connoted as a non-partial phenomenon. Early in the film, VKV tells the theme of his upcoming novel to Abraham. The climax of Yathrayude Anthyam mirrors that particular insight. The imagery is a cemetery. Intellectual or alcoholic, rich or poor―Death hits with the same gravitas. The grief, here as well, is subsumed to his daughter. What would be her state? And, how would VKV handle the trauma of his mentor and Brother-like figure’s demise? After a heartbreak it’s all left ambiguous.

Vague Outcomes

Yathrayude Anthyam is the most simplest film of the writer, it almost feels like a stretched out slice-of-life episode. But the filmmaking is quietly engaging. Death is a very melodramatic subject. If his contemporaries, Padmarajan in his Moonnam Pakkam, Lohithadas in Bharatham or Dennis Joseph in Akashadoothu among others, treated death and grief with melodrama and exuberant poignance, KG George’s take on the subject―just like any other work of his―is subdued, objective and intellectual. The profoundness in his writing is not literary like MT/Lohi, it’s rather rational.

The frantic revelation either, is unlike Lohithadas; who imbibes truckloads of character driven tension, or Padmarajan; who clings on performative poetry, or Bharathan; who creates visual impacts. George’s filmmaking is minimally terrifying, the anxiety is induced by a more shaking Camera and regurgitation of early established visuals―the result is unsettling and heartbreaking.

Grief’s Terrifying Gravity

But besides his excellence in craft, the screenwriting doesn’t even think of going overboard. More often filmmakers place an artist as their central protagonist to take the liberty of self-expression and intellectualism as granted. But expression outstages with indulgence most of the time. This is right for many popular writers of the new millenium, like Ranjith and Anoop Menon. But here George does a miniscule masterclass in writing exchanges that are deeply rewarding and brilliantly clutched to the narrative. From topics ranging from cultural evolution, man-women relationships, racial discrimination and technological renaissance, Yathrayude Anthyam has the aroma of both radicalism and humanism that i have only felt before in John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (1986).

Generational Reflections

The film is set during a period when the BJP government was emerging as a significant third entity in Kerala’s political landscape. It raises timely questions, with Abraham telling VKV that the newer generation is cursed for not knowing their roots, emphasizing how electronic media distorts history. The scene transitions to the present bus journey, where a group of college students clings to the moving bus’s door. George’s thoughts reflect on the impending generation of pseudo-politically conscious youth, possibly unfamiliar with essential works like Ambedkar’s “Annihilation of Caste.”

Over the years, whether influenced or not, curious parallels emerge with Laljose’s “Puramkaazchakal,” based on CV Sreeraman’s short story and part of the anthology film “Kerala Cafe” (2009). Incidentally, both narratives involve death and grief set against the backdrop of a bus journey. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s “EeMaYau” (2019) begins with an image of Vavachan dreaming of his funeral during a bus journey, reminiscent of a scene in this film.

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About the Author

Arjun Anand
CA Student who's enthusiastic about films.

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