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Article Malayalam

G Aravindan's Kummatty: A breathtaking ode to childhood innocence and nature's splendour

The Malayalam classic was recently restored by the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project, Film Heritage Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji

Shoma A Chatterji

One of the tragedies of media history is that many have forgotten G Aravindan, who maintained a very low profile, and his rich contribution to Indian cinema since his passing away at a relatively early age in 1991.

Govindan Aravindan was one of India’s greatest filmmakers and a leading light during the golden age of Malayalam cinema in the 1970s and 1980s. He was a man of many talents — painter, cartoonist, musician, theatre director and filmmaker.

The autodidact's films were marked by an entirely original approach to cinema. He has been described as a poet-philosopher with a vision, and he made mystical, transcendental films that showed deep compassion for the eccentric, the marginalized and the alienated. In a career spanning 1974 to 1991, he made 11 films and 10 documentaries with almost all of his works receiving national or state awards.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji

The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project — a programme created by Martin Scorsese in 2007, Film Heritage Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna have recently restored the legendary filmmaker’s classic Kummatty (Bogeyman). The restored Malayalam film, which was restored at the L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory in Bologna, Italy, had its world premiere at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in late July.

Kummatty, which was released on 12 July 1979, had reached a state of almost total decomposition. Fortunately, it has now been restored to its original quality for international film buffs, reviving the unforgettable creation of this great master who began as a cartoonist, graduating to a wonderful music composer and an artist with a gift for the use of bright colours.

The film is a figment of Malabar folklore about a partly mythic and partly real Pied Piper-like magician called Kummatty. This being materializes from nature one day to mingle with and weave a spell of carefree abandon on the children of the village. Kummatty travels from place to place and entertains children with dancing, singing and performing magic.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji

Kummatty is a normal human who possesses magical gifts that help create a mesmerizing rapport with the children of whichever village he happens to visit from time to time. The villagers are surprised while the children, initially scared of the weird sight he presents, gradually warm up to him and grow fond of him not knowing that his visit is temporary and he will move on, perhaps to another village to enchant the children therein.

But unlike the Pied Piper, his story has a happy ending. His entry into the village is both colourful and filled with music. He wears a bright red loin cloth below, is bare-bodied above and balances a stick across his shoulders from which hangs a series of animal and human masks. He sings a paean to nature and the peacocks flying in the sky and urges everyone to listen, carefully, if one wishes to hear their ‘voices’ and sounds.

The main quality of the film lies in the way cinematographer Shaji Karun captures the picturesque landscape of the place, including its sunsets and sunrises and the panoramic frames of the greenery, the old and young trees and a small tank in which everyone bathes using his camera like a paintbrush drawing generously from the colourful palette of nature.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji

There is very little music in the film other than that which accompanies the rituals and the movements of Kummatty and it is suffused with the ambient sounds of the children running, playing hide-and-seek and the sound of the temple bells which is synonymous with the figure of the very old woman who lives alone outside the shrine and sweeps its floors.

His human-ness emerges when he sits under a tree, removes his artificial white beard and shaves before putting his gear back on. The small group of children are very scared by his presence but slowly, he beckons to them with a smile till they warm up to him and become his close friends. The use of nature in all its splendour seeps into the lives of the children whose naivete blends into their friendship with a man who arrives one day from nowhere and disappears only to return the following year.

The school where the children attend classes is shown thrice over the course of the film. This makes a sly sarcastic comment on the system of education where the same teacher teaches them about elections and the right to vote in one lesson, about elementary zoology in the next and in the third asks the children to pick up their respective copies from his table. This time, the children hear the bells and the song of Kummatty and though school is in session, they rush out to see him.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji

Chindan, who leads the small group of children who get close to Kummatty, finds the latter running a raging fever and calls for the village doctor who comes and nurses this man back to health. As if in a gesture of gratitude, Kummatty displays his magical powers to the boy by producing two dates out of thin air and Chindan merrily shares this tale with his friends of whom, some believe and some do not.

One day, Kummatty goes a bit overboard and with a swing of his stick, turns the children into animals – a goat, a mare, a monkey, an elephant, a peacock and a dog. Chindan is the dog. Before Kummatty can reverse his magic and bring them back to their human form, Chindan is chased away and out of the village by a real dog. As a result, Chindan remains in his dog avatar but only outwardly. He is then rescued by a young girl from an affluent family and given shelter in their home. His desperate parents along with the villagers go through several rituals to bring him back. When all rituals fail, in the dark of the night, the entire village march out with just the torches lighting up the night sky filled with desperate cries of “Chindan, Chindan” which offers a deep glimpse into the feelings of solidarity among the villagers of Malabar.

The tell-tale signs of Chindan in his dog form is that he never barks, lies down quietly in one corner and does not either mingle or fight with the pet dogs of the family. His newfound masters treat him well and also summons a vet to tend to him. The vet says that he is a country dog and nothing is wrong with him. Chindan returns home but all the petting and feeding and cuddling by his mother and sister fail to lift his spirits. Then his pet parakeet begins to flutter its wings in excitement and Chindan as the dog, suddenly wakes up from his stupor to look at the parakeet as if communicating with it. But nothing happens until the sounds of Kummatty’s singing reaches his ears and he runs towards the music and his friend who, recognizing him at once as Chindan, restores him to his former form.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji

The boy, however, returns to his former masters' home to set his pet parakeet free. He silently opens its cage, catches its claws and releases it. The sky is filled with birds in flight, which silhouette the azure sky, spelling out the essence of the film — freedom. When Chindan turns into a dog, he is trapped in a body in which he never belonged and feels imprisoned. This makes him understand that freedom is more important than anything else.

Scorsese said, “Aravindan was a visionary director and Kummatty is considered among his greatest works. The Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project will share this film with the wider audience it deserves, making it a true cinematic discovery."

The cultural awakening of the 1970s in Kerala also saw a cashew exporter and producer, Ravindranathan Nair, patronising both Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The most memorable and remarkable films by Aravindan and Gopalakrishnan were produced by Ravindranathan. Most of Aravindan’s films, including Kachana Sita (1977), Thampu (1978) Esthappan (1980) and the unique musical Pokkuveyil (1982), were all funded by the generous producer. 

 G Aravindan and Shaji N Karun (Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji)

Cecilia Cenciarelli of Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna said, “Only two 35mm prints (one with photographed English subtitles) of Kummatty survive and are the result of a not-so-distant past when film negatives were copied and then discarded, sometimes leaving behind only projection prints. The two copies were naturally worn-out, very dirty and deeply scratched, one containing a consistent vertical green line on the right-hand side of the image, which required painstaking frame-by-frame work to remove.

“The film's natural environment, which could be considered one of the main characters of the film, was lit by master cinematographer Shaji N Karun and had completely lost its rich palette that illuminated the skies, grass, foliage and fields, becoming instead a homogeneous magenta. Thanks to Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, L'Immagine Ritrovata laboratory was able to be in contact with G Aravindan’s son, Ramu Aravindan, and Shaji N Karun who helped recapture, as much as possible, the original aesthetics as well as the magical dimensions of the film."

Tadao Sato, one of Japan’s foremost film scholars and critics, described Kummatty as a masterpiece and stated that he had not seen a more beautiful film in his whole life.

Kummatty is about children and their innocence and how a wandering middle-aged man who, more than creating magic, can win the hearts of little children who hardly know him. The film is also about a man who lives life on his own terms but holds on to his innate humaneness. But above everything else, it is about freedom.

Courtesy: Film Heritage Foundation via Shoma A Chatterji