After a long wait, one of Don Palathara’s earlier films has finally made its way to Indian digital platforms. Vith, which preceded the filmmaker’s critically acclaimed 1956, Central Travancore, has been picked up by Mubi India and Mainstream TV. Those who are only familiar with 1956 and its follow-up, Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, but not Don’s two earlier films (Shavam, Vith), will see a notable evolution in the filmmaker’s narrative style. Though Don’s films boast of a singular visual sensibility, his storytelling has grown more coherent and accessible with each film—at least this viewer feels so.
The opening portions of Vith have the energy of a ritual, making us experience the mundane activities of its central characters belonging to a Christian milieu, most notably a middle-aged man who unexpectedly finds his seemingly employed (or college-going?) son back home telling him he is not interested in going back. The father doesn’t react as most Indian fathers would. You are not bombarded with an intense confrontation. This is not that kind of film. It expects us to fill in the blanks—in more than one place—after showing us a certain reaction, albeit a subtle one.
The father is seemingly a patient man, judging by how he performs his daily duties: morning prayer, working in the fields, preparing cattle food and then feeding it to them, preparing his own food and feeding himself while enjoying a television soap, and so on. Those lacking the patience for an austere and languid filmmaking approach might start pondering the significance of it all. Some might ask why some shots seem to go on forever. You might find the answer if you’re willing to stick till the ending. However, don’t expect the film to clear all your doubts.
When the man’s son enters the picture, you see that the latter is not as disciplined as his father. And once the son gets his hands on a mobile phone, there is a breakdown of communication. One gets a sense that somewhere down the line, someone is going to do something harsh. While the father engages in every monotonous task as though he enjoys it immensely, the son’s lethargic behaviour annoys the former. (By the way, any man who finds household chores boring might find inspiration in the former.) The son’s disposition is at times evocative of Ganesh’s character from Irakal, but Vith is neither trying to be that film nor Joji. (One will find moments in Vith that films such as Joji or The Great Indian Kitchen did much later.) There is an act of violence, but the victim is an animal. Though it takes place offscreen, it’s a haunting moment, nevertheless. It’s just one of the moments in the film for which there is no explanation.
The tone of its closing moments is diametrically opposite to that established in the beginning. Some might find this sudden shift jarring. Perhaps that is the intention —heightening the impact of its chaotic moments by imparting a strong sense of serenity to the preceding circumstances.
I have to admit, though, that I was not completely sold on the way things concluded. The finale feels like a weirdly put together mosaic with some pieces missing. This could be deliberate. For example, a scuffle between two characters is stitched together in a way that makes it appear as though it is happening in reality and a character’s imagination at the same time. I’m assuming it’s the latter. Perhaps the film would make more sense on repeat viewings. That said, it’s an experiment worth a gander, minor oddities notwithstanding. If anything, it might compel aspiring filmmakers to think outside the box instead of following a rigid pattern.
Director: Don Palathara
Cast: Pradeep Kumar, Jain Syriac Babu, Jay Kish
Streaming on: Mubi, Mainstream TV