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August 27, 1999


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Camera d'Or?

Anil Nair

Marana Simhasanam Marana Simhasanam or The Throne Of Death is an evocative title. It is especially redolent of the Kurosawa classic, The Throne Of Blood, a Japanese take on Macbeth by cinema's Shakespeare.

Irony, not tragedy, though, is the purported genre of Marana Simhasanam which, earlier this year, won the prestigious Camera d'Or at Cannes to a lot of French fuss and a fistful of fudges. Purported because, after sitting through the special screening of the movie at Film City in Bombay, one was no longer sure.

The best thing in times of such confusion is to approach the throne itself. Murali Nair, the director, appropriately goateed and pony-tailed, was distractedly patrolling the lobby of the preview theatre. He seemed an affable man, game enough to field some contrarion questions. Pigeonholing him, however, would take some doing given that he had an early morning -- which was not many hours away -- flight to catch and couldn't humanly ignore a whole bunch of nubile things in tank tops who were drooling compliments.

First thing that strikes you in the movie is the near absence of background music -- but if you listen closely, you hear a constant drone, somewhat like the catarrh of an idling engine. ''Music to me,'' explains Nair, ''is not important in itself. It is supplementary, I value it for its effects.''

In this case the effect, or rather the lack of it, is strange and one suspects certain influences at work. Nair appears a bit uncomfortable on the question and ponders over it a bit before replying dismissively, ''I don't think I can acknowledge any deliberate influence.''

Marana Simhasanam The movie, in a nutshell, is about a labourer, Krishnan, in an island in Kerala, who is caught stealing a few coconuts. The powers-that-are in the scenic backwaters-village use the opportunity to implicate him in a long-unsolved murder. Krishnan is convicted and sentenced to death.

Coincidentally, it is election time in the village and Krishnan's impending death becomes the main issue. At the same time, a World Bank-funded electric chair -- ''to make death for convicts more comfortable'' -- is introduced in the state and Krishnan has the dubious fortune to be its first 'beneficiary.'

The politicians and the people, both, are thrilled by the attention all this confers on their tiny village and they rope in Krishnan's distraught wife to join the celebrations that are to mark the condemned man's moment of truth.

Nair agrees that this story ''can be interpreted as an extended metaphor on the distortion and ultimate demise of the Left and the resultant ironies.''

The theme of the Left and its alleged death throes has been so flogged to death by Kerala's filmmakers -- from the late Aravindan to the internationally acclaimed Adoor Gopalakrishnan -- that it has become risible to the serious cinegoers' ears. But these autuers, at least, treated the theme with a consummate, if ultimately futile, mastery.

Marana Simhasanam, by comparison, is clearly amateurish. Nair has squandered the possibilities that his inspired and novel image -- of an electric chair in a Third World village -- afforded by trying to be too clever by half.

The way the movie builds towards a climax is so awkward you can't believe it is real. Nair's stab at black humour morphs into something cheap and garish: the final and formal dinner -- complete with silver cutlery, lighted candles and ornate chandeliers -- the condemned labourer has along with his wife and small son; the crowd's football match-excitement during the execution; the way the remote is used to snuff out a life like in switching TV channels...

If Nair was trying to give a Chaplinesque touch to what is essentially a tragic denouement then he has botched it and the outcome is pathetic.

Marana Simhasanam The film, to be sure, has its classy components. The camera work for example. Some of the scenes of the picturesque countryside transcend mere prettiness: the Kodachrome orange and petrochemical sunsets seem to have been printed on ancient nitrate stock about to catch fire.

The way Nair has used the non-professional cast, especially the protagonist's wife, a low-caste woman with her balding crown, retrousse face and stroked-out look, to convey psychological shading and emotional restraint is also noteworthy.

But, in the end, what we get is a film that isn't dark or dramatic enough to be a satisfying noir; neither does it have the latent optimism and faith that solid political films have made us expect. It isn't even decently convoluted the way eminently forgettable but sincere art films are.

If only Murali Nair had come out of his post-modern closet and committed himself he could have made a meaningful movie.

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