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Polandine Patti Episode 16

In this episode, we continue our exploration of the supernatural in Malayalam cinema by looking at two very different faith traditions and how they are depicted, in Sarpakadu/Sarpakavu* and Ezra.

*note that this film’s title can be transliterated into English in two different ways, and finding the film might require you to search on one or the other.

Download Episode Sixteen

Episode Sixteen Highlights:

Spoiler Alert! We try to remember to alert listeners to spoilers, but just in case, know that we talk about the films in-depth, so be sure to watch them first if you’re concerned about spoilers!

[00:00:28]  We return to our discussion of the supernatural in Malayalam cinema, with films that explore two different traditions:  Ezra (based on Jewish religious folklore around the dybbuk), and Sarpakadu (“Snake Grove”).

[00:01:43]  Sarpakadu is a film from 1965.  Harsha notes it’s one of those movies that played on Doordarshan and Asianet all the time. 

[00:02:22]  The film features a young Sukumari – we were both happy to see her so early on in her career.  Sukumari plays the second heroine, and Ambika plays her sister (they are cousins in real life).

[00:03:02]  There is a supernatural element to the story, but a lot of it is about tradition versus modernity.  The central conflict is between the father of the heroines, who is part of a clan that traditionally worship snakes (not uncommon in Kerala, even if the film exoticizes it a little), and the father of the hero, both of whom are doctors and scientists, and who come to the forest to look for an antidote to snake bite.

[00:03:48]  Katherine notes that we talked about this juxtaposition of modern/science-y stuff and traditional beliefs.  She goes on to discuss snake movies, and how the online community has become familiar with the genre.

[00:04:25]  Harsha notes that the family god in parts of India is often *not* a snake, but in Kerala – especially among Nair families – they will have these snake groves, where the deity is the snake.

[00:05:15]  When you read Dalit authors or Scheduled Tribe writers about religious observances, you realize what is happening is extremely localized and non-Braminical (ie, not Vedic Hinduism) observance that has woven itself into many local and village gods.  What you see in Kerala, then, are animistic beliefs, apart from mainstream Hinduism.  And these traditions can be very specific to various families or villages that worship snakes.

[00:07:17]  We understand in the film that this particular snake grove is a family grove that they manage.  The implication is that the area was once thriving, but modernity has encroached, and now the family is somewhat isolated and now it’s only a family of three people who are responsible for taking care of the snake goddess.

[00:08:00] The doctors bringing guns into the forest is seen as something that provokes nature against humans.  And we see this play out in the film, especially in the scene with the giant flower.

[00:08:25]  Katherine notes that films from the 1950s and 1960s reflect some of the innocence of the time, a much more innocent kind of humour, and a much more innocent type of fear.  She was fascinated with how they shot the segment with the giant flower.

[00:09:00]  The sequence can seem a little corny, however, but it does reflect one of the ideas in the film that the doctors with their guns come in to the forest to find a specific snake, but they’re not particularly thoughtful in their actions.

[00:09:25]  Harsha notes the doctors are dressed in old-fashioned safari gear, in contrast to the man and his daughters who are dressed in extremely vedic looking outfits.  Again, modernity versus tradition.

[00:10:20]  Madhu is dressed very elegantly in his safari suit and detailed boots, at least until he has to roll around on the ground when attacked by the giant flower.  Harsha notes the film invites you to just go along for the ride.  Like one of the YouTube comments said, just enjoy the innocence of the movie.

[00:11:00]  Harsha reminds us that what we might call “bad acting” today really doesn’t take into account the style of acting in that era, which was much more theatrical.  Madhu, especially, was not known to be a naturalistic actor.  Sukumari might be an exception in this period, and we have the benefit of having seen her more recently, but she still had a more naturalistic style even in this film (contrast this, perhaps, to Sheela working in the same period).

[00:12:37]  We know we’re not supposed to be laughing, but some scenes – like the bear attack – just provoke that today.  However, for us, the film is just a good time that way.  The nature attack scenes are fun!

[00:13:35]  The print on Eros Now cut out the bear attack.  You want to see the bear attack.  A note:  since we recorded this, Eros Now’s streaming service seems to have come to an abrupt halt, so nothing is currently available.  So, be sure to check out the film on YouTube to make sure you see the bear attack!

[00:14:25]  Swallowed harmonica comedy!  It’s silly, but we loved it.

[00:15:30]  We note that the harmonica does have a legitimate place in the film apart from comedy, in that it’s used to mesmerize the snakes.

[00:16:25]  Harsha helps to clear up several plot points that Katherine could only guess at, having watched the film unsubtitled.

[00:16:40]  Towards the middle of the movie, we realize that the father understands that his daughters have been spending a lot of time with the doctors, and he’s trying to protect his daughters from being charmed by them.  And he’s concerned that the doctors are only doing this to try to get the snake they need, and will leave the daughters heartbroken.

[00:17:15]  Love requires a great sacrifice.

[00:17:50]  Katherine wonders if there are any other Malayalam films that have snakes and snake worship as part of the plot – this is the only one she could seem to find.  Harsha suggests Anandabhadram as a possibility – this is a film we’ll discuss in our next episode.

[00:18:45]  Katherine notes that the songs were pretty, and she always enjoys a film that explores the clash between tradition and modernity.  She also enjoys older films, and found this one entertaining.

[00:19:15]  Harsha also found pure enjoyment (apart from the bear attack scene) in the dancing of the two sisters.  The actresses of this generation came up with classical dance (especially the family of the Travencore sisters).  It was also fun to see Sukumari in a very young role, not playing a mother or an aunt.

[00:20:00]  Katherine also finds it a joy to go back and watch older films and seeing people who are now elderly or who have passed away when they were quite young.

[00:20:30]  Harsha also thinks the film is a little bit different from some of the films you’d see from that era.  A lot of those films aren’t tackling the supernatural, or struggling with modernity.  They’re much more “human level” movies.  The kind of “cosmic interplay” we see here isn’t common for that period.

[00:21:33]  We move on to the second film today, Ezra.

[00:21:40]  Ezra is from 2017, so it’s a much slicker film in some ways than Sarpakadu.  For Harsha, it’s not a great film – it has Prithviraj as the lead character, Priya Anand as his wife, and Tovino Thomas as a police inspector.  For Tovino Thomas, this is a role that’s a kind of stepping stone on the path to the star he is now.

[00:22:25]  The film also features Sudev Nair, who was a Kerala State Award winner, for the film Life Partner, one of the first same-sex romances in Malayalam cinema.

[00:22:40]  Katherine notes that some reviews suggested the film suffered from the “curse of the second half”, but for her, the second half of the film is much better.

[00:22:55]  The film is set in Kochi, with the backdrop being the death of the last Kochi Jew.  This, combined with the move of Prithviraj and Priya Anand’s characters moving from Mumbai to Kochi, sets off a chain of events that starts a haunting by a dybbuk, this kind of evil spirit from Jewish lore.  Often this is the spirit of a person who died in such a way that their spirit is unable to move on to the afterlife.

[00:23:32]  Katherine talks about Jews in Kochi, specifically about Sarah Cohen, who ran an embroidery shop that made things required for Jewish observance and ceremonies.  She was looked after by a Muslim caretaker and a Christian cook, who also started learning the business near the end of Sarah’s life.  Katherine notes that even though she was aware of the Jewish Kerela community, she hadn’t really seen their stories in film.

[00:24:17]  Harsha notes that the Jewish community in Kerala is much smaller, and that’s probably why we don’t see more representation of their stories in film.  But there are a lot of similarities between Abrahamic faiths in Kerala, so you do see those similarities reflected in some ways, for example in clothing.

[00:25:00]  The whole idea of the “death of the last Jew in Kerala” is somewhat fictionalized in the film, as there are still Jews in Kerala.  In the film, an antiques dealer gets hold of a dybbuk box from the house of the fictional last Jew.

[00:25:30]  Priya (Priya Anand) is an interior designer (Harsha notes that’s a very Bollywood kind of job), and fills her time after the move from Mumbai shopping for antiques.  She’s very different from the type of wife you usually see in Malaylam cinema, she’s very much a kept woman.

[00:26:20]  The film deals with inter-faith relationships.  Ranjan and Priya are a mixed faith couple, something that’s also at the heart of the story behind Abraham Ezra.

[00:26:50]  The inter-faith relationship in the film between the Jewish Abraham Ezra and the Christian Rosy is perceived as a problem from the Jewish side.  The Jewish family is wealthier than the Christian one, but they are also Zionists, so their intention is to go to the state of Israel once it’s been founded.  That means there is no point with keeping ties with people in Kerala.

[00:27:26]  Abraham Ezra ends up dead, and his father, who practices Kabbalah, makes him into a dybbuk to wreak havoc on the place that wronged his son.

[00:27:35]  Katherine has issues when the film returns to the present day.  If the idea is that the dybbuk will possess someone, then we expect the spirit in the box to be that of Abraham Ezra, but Priya, after bringing the box home, sees an image of a girl.  This is not the dybbuk, and things happen in the house where it makes you feel that there is a haunting, rather than Priya is being possessed.  There were a lot of small details that didn’t seem to connect properly to how the whole dybbuk thing was supposed to work.

[00:28:20]  Harsha skimmed through the Hindi remake (Dybbuk) as well, and she felt the explanation might be more clear in the Hindi version.  In the Hindi version, Norah (the Rosy character in Ezra), is trying to stop the dybbuk, because she’s trying to pull Ezra back.  For Katherine, that makes more sense. 

[00:28:55]  The Hindi version is set in Mauritius, and everyone speaks Hindi, instead of Creole or French.  It’s odd that they placed it outside India.

[00:29:15]  Katherine feels mixed about the ending of the film.  They have to do an exorcism to put the dybbuk back into the box.  The dybbuk transfers itself into Ranjan at some point.  If you go back and watch the film again, you’ll see indications that Marques, who is going to perform the exorcism, realizes that this has happened.

[00:31:10]  Harsha watched a documentary about how synagogues in Kerala work now, and often what they have to do is find Jewish tourists to attend holy days for prayers, so asking random Israelis visiting Kerala to come help with the exorcism is not as far-fetched as Katherine thought it was.

[00:31:55]  In her review of Dybbuk, Anupama Chopra compared it to Ezra a lot.  Harsha felt that she seemed to think that Ezra was a higher quality film.

[00:32:15]  The movie definitely exoticizes (especially in terms of presenting the mystical elements) Cochin Jews in a way that feels a little uncomfortable. 

[00:32:50]  The rabbi in the film has blue eyes, which could feel off (however, note that there are blue eyes in the Ashkenazi Jewish population).  The film may be accidentally and unintentionally playing into things more familiar with European anti-Semitism. 

[00:33:50]  In a general sense, it can be challenging to meld the supernatural with religious tropes, it can come off as cringe-y.  For Katherine, the film Grandmaster did some of that.

[00:34:00]  Kabbalah as a not mainstream form of Judaism.  They call it “black magic” in the film, but it’s more of a mystical tradition.  Harsha suggests it’s more comparable to something like Sufism rather than “black magic”.

[00:34:30]  Katherine found herself doing a lot of reading to better understand the film and what it was trying to portray.  This was the same for Harsha.

[00:35:10]  The song in the middle of the flashback section, “Thambiran” was really haunting, and they didn’t recreate that in the Hindi version.

[00:35:30]  Parts of the film were *really* scary, and people who are sensitive to violence against animals.  There are neighbours with a Black Lab that Priya befriends, and it doesn’t turn out well. 

[00:36:25]  Priya’s pregnancy is important to the plot in the sense that the foetus might be considered an empty vessel for the spirit to possess.

[00:37:00]  Katherine can’t decide how she feels about the end of the movie.  They perform the exorcism, which she thinks is kind of neat on the one hand, but it also seems kind of corny with Prithviraj shooting up in a chair and hanging in the air.

[00:37:23]  Harsha notes that it’s not a great “acting” movie for Prithviraj.  It’s been a long time since she’s seen Prithviraj act in something good.  She doesn’t find him a flexible actor, and finds the “lovey-dovey’ scenes uncomfortable.  Katherine does, too.  We’re not sure why that is, though.

[00:37:55]  Harsha thinks Prithviraj cannot be a sexual being, but when Katherine suggests maybe he was in Aiyyaa, Harsha notes that everything about that comes from Rani’s perception.  All he had to do was brood, and he’s amazing at brooding.  Neither of us can pinpoint what about the canoodling makes us uncomfortable.

[00:38:30]  Harsha notes that sometimes she feels that way about Mammootty, too, but there are times when he can be in the intimate moment, but Prithviraj doesn’t seem to have found a way to make his stoicness into something intimate.

[00:39:20]  Maybe the solution is just to let Prithviraj go back to playing cops.  As Harsha says, that’s his wheelhouse, and he can’t go wrong playing cops.

[00:39:30]  Harsha enjoyed Prithviraj in Vaasthavam, for which he was the youngest recipient of the Kerala State Award for Best Actor, where a lack of believability in his romancing actually works.  Maybe he should lean into to being a user of women? 

[00:40:00]  We did note in Nandanam that his attempt to romance was uncomfortable as well.  We don’t want him to romance.  But we also get tired of him playing cops, so he can’t win.

[00:40: 17]  He’s not a bad actor, we don’t want to leave that impression.  He just doesn’t seem very moldable to us.

[00:40:25]  Katherine had forgotten that Tovino Thomas was in the film, but it’s a really small role.  But she always finds it fascinating to see actors starting out, in tiny roles, and then see where their careers go.

[00:40:48]  You have to give respect to Prithviraj, because, as Harsha notes, he seems to have fully supported Tovino Thomas on his journey to stardom.  They seem to both have a similar world view, it’s just that Tovino is a more flexible actor.  But Prithviraj was definitely a generous senior actor.

[00:41:35]  Harsha closes out our discussion with some more thoughts on Dybbuk, Ezra’s Hindi remake, and where it diverges from the original.  The story is more defined, and many more things that are more explicitly detailed.

[00:44:35]  If you decide to watch Ezra, go in with your eyes open and think about what some of the things they depict and what they can imply, in particular the idea of the Jew as an outsider.

[00:44:55]  Summary!  We talked about two films in this episode that explore the supernatural through two different types of faith traditions in very different and sometimes problematic ways.

[00:45:15]  There is some aspect of making a supernatural movie that exoticizes people from whom those traditions come and makes them somewhat of a curiousity rather than “one of us”. 

You can connect with us on Twitter: @PolandinePatti

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