Funeral Farce

Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Malayalam film, Ee Ma Yau has already earned tremendous acclaim in its home state and now won Best Director and Best Actor (for Chemban Vinod Jose) at the recently concluded International Film Festival of India (IFFI), in Goa.

Pellissery, with films like Amen and Angmaly Diaries behind him, is a much-admired in the cinema-literate state of Kerala, that boasts of masters like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shaji Karun, Santosh Sivan, Priyadarshan (when he is in his element) to name a few. The stories they tell in their films are redolent of the soil, air, of their ‘God’s Own Country’ beautiful state.

Ee Ma Yau(short for Jesus Mary Joseph), the words uttered to the dead—like RIP—is set in a fishing village called Chellanam on the coast of Kerala.  (The name of the village translates as a place where nobody goes.)

In a splendid opening sequence, under a clear blue sky, an empty frame is gradually filled up with a funeral procession to the soundtrack of a band. This is followed by a man in a bus, lost in a reverie—others hope for grand weddings, this one dreams of a memorable funeral for himself.

The man is Vavachan (Kainakari Thangaraj), an old carpenter, who has been wandering away from his family all his life and returns one day, carrying a duck as a gift, and some cash in notes that are obsolete. While his garrulous wife Pennamma (Pouly Valsan—she won a Kerala State award for her performance), daughter Nisa, and daughter-in-law Sabeth (Arya) get busy cooking the duck, Vavachan and his son Eeshi (Chemban Vinod Jose) drink together. The old man expresses the desire to have a royal funeral and Eeshi promises him that. A few minutes later, Vavachan drops dead, but the impoverished son is not prepared to make good on his promise so soon.

What follows is in the best tradition of dark comedy, though Pelliserry is too accomplished a director to make a one-note film—it’s absurd, poignant, surreal and realistic all in one. Even as the audience laughs at the farcical scenes, the film is about death, so there is also mounting unease at what is going on, and the fear that the son will eventually lose his head—which he does.

Like in happens in a village, the neighbourhood gathers around the grieving family, as the bereaved wife wails with tremendous lung power, as madness unravels around, exposing a plethora of human quirks. Through it all, a card-playing duo calmly observes the chaos, like an abbreviated Greek chorus, occasionally throwing in a cryptic comment.

The local priest (Dileesh Pothan), a fan of detective stories, suspects foul play, walks around the house looking for clues and putting up hurdles for the hapless Eeshi. The doctor who could confirm the death is passed out drunk.

Everything that can go wrong does—as if the universe were conspiring to stop Eeshi from giving his father a decent funeral, leave aside a royal one. Eeshi’s friend Ayyapan (Vinayakan) rallies around to help, but the odds are against him.  Another family turns up to claim the body, the gravedigger suddenly dies and is buried in the pit he had dug for Vavachan.  If that wasn’t annoying enough, nature unleashes its fury, and a large portion of the film is shot with the wind and rain beating down on the village.

With meticulous detailing, Pellissery takes an iron-glove-in-velvet-fist approach towards portraying class, religion and relationships in the village, and lines up a cast of eccentric characters, who would be unique to Kerala—such a film could probably not be made anywhere else. The screenplay by PF Mathews is astute, and the director’s vision is aided by and Shyju Khalid’s outstanding cinematography, Renganaath Ravee spare but effective sound design and exemplary work by the technical team. The film should be seen by cinema buffs all over the country to admire a filmmaker at peak creativity.