Malayalam language movies have won prestigious Indian national film awards in recent years but they are rarely ones that stand out as some did, three or four decades ago.
At last, there is an innocuous debut film from a young director that would make a sleepy cineaste sit up to savour its whiff of freshness. That’s director Sudevan’s CR No.89--a little, big film which premiered in 2013 at the Intentional Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK). It is “little” because it is an 80 minute film made with an incredible shoestring budget of Rs 700,000 (about US$11,000) pooled by the director’s well wishers (read “non-internet” crowd funding).
It is “big” because the film, with its odd title, devoid of sex or participation of mainstream actors, and with minimal violence, has scooped up a slew of regional Indian awards including Best Film of 2013 at the 2014 Kerala State Film Awards, the NETPAC award for the best Malayalam film at the 2013 IFFK, the Aravindan award for the best debut film by an Indian director from the Chalachitra Film Society, the John Abraham award (in memory of the talented late Malayalam film director, not the living Bollywood actor) for the best debut director from the Federation of Film Societies of India (FFSI), the Padamarajan Puraskaram (award) for the best film of 2013 from the Padmarajan Memorial Trust and an acting award for Asok Kumar (for the role of the automobile mechanic) from the Kerala state film awards. Unfortunately, the only international film festival this film has been invited to, thus far, is the minor Colombo International Film Festival. Marketing remains the bane of quality Indian regional cinema while what does get showcased in countries outside India are the semi-commercial films.
What is the odd title of this movie? The title ought to be expanded to Crime (or Criminal) Report no. 89. “CR no.89” is the jargon used in a regular Indian police station. The title has a subscript as written in Indian police files “under section 323, 324, 379 of the Indian Penal Code, read with 25(1)(b) of the Arms Act.” It refers to an unsolved criminal report relating to an illicit transportation of deadly weapons in a stolen jeep and other felonies. The weapons, transported in a jeep, are hidden in crates under heaps of tomatoes. When the law does catch up with such consignments as depicted in this movie, the transporters are rarely caught or brought to justice. Further, the haul of the weapons by the law enforcers is merely reported in the news and subsequently buried in dusty files as a ‘cold case.’
The brevity of the title inadvertently describes the young director Sudevan, who has evidently not considered how a different and more attractive title could have marketed his debut film beyond the confines of Kerala state, but is more concerned about the reality of frequent illicit arms transportation in Kerala, the violence such weapons inflict on innocent rural folk, and the apathy of the law and order machinery to resolve such cold cases.
|Interactions and reactions of rural Indian characters|
However, the film is not about arms transportation. It begins with a focus on engines in hardly roadworthy vehicles that ply on Indian roads. The movies then gradually explores how five or six Indian rural characters interact with or react to the shady arms transporters by happenstance or when they stumble on the abandoned vehicle, because the jeep carrying the illicit consignment has broken down on an unpaved, rarely used road, cutting through a hardly inhabited rubber plantation. The illegal arms transporters chose that odd route to avoid detection. What follows is a credible edge of the seat entertainment for the viewers with an unusual ending as a bonus.
What Sudevan has accomplished, with the help of three cameramen utilizing very basic camera equipment simultaneously, is to realistically depict varied reactions of average Indians to the goons in distress. How Sudevan has achieved this is truly praiseworthy, especially in creating the final sequence, in which the bad guys are absent. The entire concept is Sudevan‘s own, including an interesting credit sequence. The end-product is a delectable mosaic of how Indians behave.
There is wry humor sprinkled throughout the film—a game of rural checkers played with nuts and bolts, odd hairstyles, attitudes towards work by a not-so-busy small-time automobile mechanic, who is quite skilled in his trade, and the intricacies of social etiquettes of distribution of marriage invitations for middle-class Keralites. There are interesting shots of chameleons cleverly edited into the narrative to allude to social parallels. Sudevan ducks the popular lure of spoon-feeding his audience with unnecessary details in the narrative—he forces the linear details to be assembled by the intelligent viewer. That is rare in Indian cinema.
CR No.89 opened a week-long FILCA international film festival in Trivandrum a week ago. Even the noted Indian filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan stayed through the screening to watch the film that he had heard about but not seen. Young Sudevan had a history of persistently following up with film societies, such as FILCA, to enter his short films in competitions and in film society screenings. The quality of his short films and the resulting sales of the DVDs of his short films helped fund each subsequent Sudevan film, culminating in the award-winning low-budget feature film CR No.89. The success of Sudevan is partly due to the role of film societies in encouraging young film makers, an unusual scenario that is alive and laudable in pockets of India, such as Kerala.
CR No. 89 is a film, with English subtitles, that deserves to be widely seen and appreciated by film-goers who hanker for good Indian cinema in India and abroad. Most of all it is amazing that a lovely, quality film could be made with Rs 700,000 by a young man committed to cinema without any compromises or a political subtext. Most importantly, the film makes the viewer reflect on the varied reactions of ordinary citizens to a similar situation. And it is a movie relying considerably on diagetic sounds picked from the natural environment, something quite unusual for soundtrack management in Indian cinema. Sudevan is able to capture rural Kerala milieu without the unrealistic but popular dramatic inflection of tones used by professional actors, often associated with the better Malayalam cinema.
While quality Malayalam films enjoy widespread viewership within Kerala, it is truly sad to note that well-made small-budget films, such as CR No. 89, and major works of Malayalam cinema, such as M T Vasudevan Nair’s Nirmalayam (The Offering) (1973) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Anantaram (Monologues) (1987), are rarely seen or discussed beyond the borders of Kerala, either nationally or internationally.
(This review was first published at www.dearcinema.com at http://dearcinema.com/review/cr-89-malayalam-movie-different-refreshing/2730#comments)
P.S. This film is one of the author's best 10 films of 2014