Alternately harrowing and poetic camera work of Nikhil S. Praveen, who bagged National Award for Cinematography, succeeds in transporting viewers into a microcosm of war-torn village. A lonely village ravaged not by aerial bombing but by news about the many lives lost.
Modern cinema has spawned such a long spate of war movies that we’re no longer sure if there is anything we need to be told about. In “Bhayanakam”, a First World War casualty dons a postman who has many letters to deliver. The stories of wartime fear, illusion of grandeur, pride and loss have come to pass in these letters, the contents of which nobody dares to read. The postman is the most qualified person to tell these stories because he once lived through the unspeakable experiences of war. “The biggest war is taking place right inside my bag”, says the petrified postman, who has ridden himself to the brink of breakdown. But he bloody well carries on because it’s his duty.
“Bhayanakam” might just be the only anti- war movie that depicts the most dehumanizing aspects of war without even the sound of a single gunshot. Besides a few passing references to the futility of war, there is no conscious attempt to capture the war crimes or other graphic details. With a minimalist approach, Director Jayaraj expresses the big ideas in feelings as opposed to words. And in doing so, the film manages to strike, if not with the familiar effectiveness of classic war movies, at the very heart of the war machinery. Based on two chapters from Malayalam author Thakazhi’s much acclaimed epic novel Kayar, “Bhayanakam” is set in the idyllic Kuttanad against the backdrop of World War 2.
The uneducated youth from working class background are seen joining the army en-mass. The village has a new post man (Renji Panicker). Having severely injured his right leg in the First World War, the post man now has the task of delivering letters from new army recruits to the villagers. He stays in the house of Gouri Amma (Asha Sarath) about whom we learn very little other than the fact that both her sons have joined the army. The first half shows the postman aided by his crutch, visiting the addressees, delivering letters and money orders. As the postman slowly hobbles up and down the social hierarchy in 1930’s Kuttanad, handing out money allotment, you see markedly different people, all of whom sharing the same emotion for their sons.
Wide-eyed as they are, none of these kids is signing up for the Army to get their 15 minutes of fame. Nor are they trying prove their precocious manhood, though one may easily find among them those who are exception to these rules. They all have their own reason for taking that leap in the dark. For some it is a doorway into the unknown, for others it’s the only means of aiding their financially struggling families. As they bid good-bye to teary-eyed loved ones, you wonder how many of their stories will have denouement in postman’s shabby bag. Soon the war intensifies, and the news of dead soldiers reaches the postman. Now the postman, who initially brought the villagers good news, plays the messenger of death. As the death toll rises, we see people deliberately shunning the postman for fear of being the next one to be delivered the news of their dead son.
The postman grows increasingly weary, confused and as disoriented as most men would be in a battlefield, except that here in the rustic setting of Kuttanad, it seems like he is caught in a crossfire. A type of surreal crossfire involving faceless soldiers on one end and the parents of the dead on the other. Quickly, he resignedly takes the form of the proverbial punching bag for the parents to vent their rage over the loss. At some point in the movie, we can almost see him turn into the grim reaper whose long black robe has been replaced with Khaki attires, and scythe with a crutch.
The movie is rich in its use of metaphors and symbolism. But they are almost subliminal in their character. A case in point is the scene where the distraught looking postman tries in vain to deter local youth from enrolling for the war. Erected beside him is a scarecrow. Suddenly it crosses your mind that the postman is as ineffective in convincing the youth to stay as the scarecrow is in warding off the birds. Whether it was there in the original novel, or it was director’s creative variation on it, you may decide as I haven’t read the book. Without resorting to powerful monologues from the lead, the movie says things about war that are as poignant and complex as any movie on war could possibly incorporate in its narrative. The film establishes its emotional core by letting you relive the experiences of the grievers in their most unadulterated form imaginable. If the emotionally loaded second-half scenes move you, then it attests to the fact that it is possible to express the most profound thoughts about life in the simplest of actions and forms.
Original Story – Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai (Kayar)
Adapted Screenplay- Jayaraj
Cinematography- Nikhil S Praveen
Music- M K Arjunan