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

KG George Malayalam Director

KG George’s filmography vide the 80’s is unarguably one of the most important contributions to Malayalam Cinema. And his sprawling oeuvre encapsulates the muck and mire of contemporary Kerala society like no other filmmaker or writer ever has. In Kolangal (1981), George showed the audacity to break the pseudo-virtues of a Kerala village on-screen through some groundbreaking noir sensibilities. Yavanika (1982), Lekhayude Maranam oru Flashback (1983), Adaminte Variyellu (1983) and Mattoral (1988) essentially form a catalogue for an academic study of women’s position in 80’s Kerala society. While the other two standout works from the phase, Panchavadi Palam (1984) and Irakal (1986) are outright political films reflecting the social scenario, mapped and disguised in genre frameworks of mainstream cinema.

Almost every film of KG George examines timely social-politics and the marginalized section of women. His last film when knotting the 80’s decade, Yathrayude Anthyam (1988), a Tele-film done for Doordarshan, is also―focally if not primarily―a social perspective of the modernized Kerala. The plot follows a bus journey of novel writer VKV (Murali) from Thiruvalla KSRTC depot to Mandarathoppu; a remote village, since he has got an immediate telegram from his friend/mentor Abraham (MG Soman). Narrated through mind monologues of the writer, George uses the classic narrative device of the Bus journey reminiscent to Balu Mahendra’s 1983 film Yathra; for the flashback reveals. But the flashback is never about VKV or where the man came from. It’s about the spiritual and personal bonding between VKV and Abraham, about the previous journeys he has had to this place where he’s now headed. A 3 and a half year long standing friendship through letters and meet-ups (8 times, he reminds).

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.

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.

The second time death makes a resurgence, it’s not immediate. It is stretched with warmth. This time it hints at the universality; to feel for the void it has made in a stranger’s life. To prepare for an uncertain date in your life. Karamana makes a stellar cameo appearance as Kariyachan, he palpably registers a feeling of poise and tinge of melancholy a Father would go through before his daughters wedding. But a moment washes away his dreams. This time as well, the grief is thrusted upon a woman, who is psychologically infuriated with a complex dilemma of ‘marriage’ and ‘grief over Father’s death’. We are left vague. Whether the marriage would happen or not? The subplot reminded me of Sibimalayil’s Bharatham (1991) where a younger brother had to conceal the news of an elder brother to suffice his sister’s marriage. Bharatham emphasises the terrifying gravity of grief using eloquent 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

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.

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).

The film, set during the time when the BJP government was slowly establishing itself as a prominent third entity in the political landscape of Kerala, even raises some timely questions that one needs to think about. Abraham says to VKV, we are cursed of a newer generation who doesn’t know their roots. He stresses on the fact that electronic media is distorting history. The shot cuts to the present bus journey, a berserk group of college students clings over the door of the moving bus. The thoughts expressed by George weren’t just ramblings but ruminations on a forthcoming generation of pseudo-politically conscious youth who might even haven’t read Ambedkar’s Annihilation of caste to know the basics about their Motherland.

While over these years, influence or not, there are curious parallels that could be find with Laljose’s Puramkaazchakal based on CV Sreeraman’s short story, adapted as a part of the anthology film Kerala Cafe (2009)―that also was incidentally another story of Death and grief told in the backdrop of a bus journey. Lijo Jose Pellissery’s sublime EeMaYau (2019) opens with an image of Vavachan dreaming of his funeral on a Bus Journey, similarly reminded of a scene here.

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About the Author

Arjun Anand
CA Student who's enthusiastic about films.

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