Krishnendu Kalesh makes it evident from the very first frames of Prappeda (Hawk's Muffin), his debut feature, that he has no interest in conventional storytelling. The experimental effort, part of the ‘Bright Future’ section of this year’s International Film Festival of Rotterdam, eludes singular categorisation. It’s a combination of several, running the gamut from silent cinema to dystopian sci-fi to black comedy to surrealism, all the while incorporating elements of the theatre and pantomime.
In a time when filmmakers with a distinct identity are hard to come by, Krishnendu makes his presence known with a work that is sure to elicit polarising responses. Viewers will be either mesmerised by its strange energy or put off by its densely abstract quality. I must admit I couldn’t comprehend everything the film threw at me, which is okay. Prappeda is one of those films that one might feel compelled to revisit to discover new things—if the first experience wasn’t off-putting, that is. The fun lies in attempting to figure out the significance of each gesture or visual detail.
The two female characters, played remarkably by Ketaki Narayan and Neena Kurup, don’t have a voice. However, the characters in the film can hear them. Their dialogues appear to us like subtitles in a silent film. The men do all the talking when they are not constantly trying to assert dominance over the opposite gender.
But Prappeda doesn’t resort to the typical macho display. In some places, it forays into satire. The only comic relief comes as a preacher (Mano Jose) whose occasional chants sound like gibberish. His attempts to handle a problematic guardian (Jayanarayanan Thulasidas) make up some of the film’s funniest stretches. The preacher is, presumably, someone of a dubious personality. Does he have the best interests of the two women at heart, or does he share an unpleasant history with them of which we aren’t aware? A ‘privileged’ policeman (Nithin George) raises his suspicions about a mysterious character who could’ve been responsible for the misfortune that has befallen the older woman.
An apocalyptic scenario is supposed to bring people together. But in Prappeda, the men are still talking about what rightly belonged to them and not tolerating outcasts. There is talk of an ancestor, a pilot rewarded a large piece of land for detonating a bomb when the world was in the throes of a debilitating virus attack. It’s this inheritance that’s on the verge of being split or taken by force. The few characters we see in Prappeda could be among the last remaining survivors on earth, but they don’t seem to have mended their ways. In that respect, their world is not too different from our own.
Among the film’s most striking images: An army of robots descending momentarily from the sky; a colony of tortoises on a sandy beach; the dreamy vision of a girl walking over a waterfall. At one point, the girl falls in love with a character referred to in the credits simply as ‘the unidentified’. Rajesh Madhavan, who plays the (alien) visitor, uses his lithe frame to behave like a mechanical, life-size toy. We also encounter a ‘limited edition’ tortoise that’s a prized possession—a good luck charm, if you will—for some and a curse for others.
Prappeda is like that giant monolith in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. We haven’t seen anything like it before. It’s certainly a novel experience compared to anything made in Malayalam cinema before. It’s the closest someone has come to making an Andrei Tarkovsky film in Malayalam. Not even Lijo Jose Pellissery, that maverick usually celebrated for conjuring up out of the box ideas, has attempted something of this magnitude yet. It’s a film that defies explanation. It tries to make use of almost everything in the cinema toolbox. It experiments with colours, aspect ratios, sound, music and performances to give an otherwordly experience.
I believe anyone who makes a film like this should steer clear of explaining what it all really means because doing so would defeat the whole purpose. In terms of its sheer imaginative and convention-breaking prowess, it cuts through the clutter of numerous so-called ‘cinematic’ works from recent memory devoid of any distinct personality. Its ideas can be baffling, but not once did I feel that they were there just for the sake of appearing different.