Our friend Suresh Nellikode invited me to watch Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Malayalam movie ‘Pinneyum‘ on September 13, 2016 at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). I grew up watching classics of Adoor- Swayamvaram, Kodiyettam, Elipathayam and Mathilukal – which remain in my memory. In all these movies I was impressed with the use of natural sounds with minimum background score, unlike many Indian movies.
In his latest venture ‘Pinneyum’ (Once Again), he has captured the natural sounds and used it to convey the time and the environment to the viewer. Was it that effective like his earlier attempts? Has Adoor done justice to the natural sounds which obviously changed with the times in Kerala’s rural background spanning a timeline of over 17 years?
The first time I left Kerala was to join Sainik School Amaravathinagar, Tamil Nadu in 1971 at the age of nine. Every year I came home for the summer vacations. During this homecoming, I could not make out any changes to the ambient sounds of nature. The wind created music, caressing the paddy fields downhill through the tapioca and pineapple cultivation uphill to our home. A few notes changed with the swaying of the coconut trees and the tropical fruit trees – tamarind, bread fruit, jack fruit – that grew abundantly in our homestead. The air had the aroma of the flowers in bloom or the fruits that had ripened. The road in front of our home had scant traffic with a few cars and the hourly bus service, only connection to Kottayam town.
Only one or two homes in the village, of those who could afford, had a telephone and a car. Obviously we could not afford either. Even a wall clock and radio were rarities. We had a wall clock, a mechanical pendulum one, which struck once every half hour and the number of hours at the hour. This striking sound was a break from the sounds of nature – from the birds’ chirping and calls and the shrill cries of the crickets and the flying lizards – an evolutionary link between lizards and birds – which flew from one palm tree to another in search of insects. Every household in the village reared cows, goats, chicken and ducks. Their moos, bleats, rooster’s crowing and hens’ songs – filled the air all through the day.
The evenings marked prayer time and as one strolled along the road, one heard readings from the Bible, hymns and devotional songs – both from the Hindu and Christian homes. The nocturnal music of the nature was very much different with the owls, insects and dogs pitching in with their parts.
The artificial sounds that one heard once in a while was from the Chenda (drums) of the announcer who came along the road to announce the release of a new movie in the village talkies – a thatched theater. The temples and churches hired the Mike Set (Public Address system) and the Chenda Melam (ensemble of drums ) only on the annual festival days. A Gramophone was a vital element of the mike set. Luckily in those days the songs lasted only three minutes as one side of the gramophone record could only hold as much.
The early eighties brought prosperity to our village due to the increased salary of government employees, higher prices for the cash crops and spices the village produced and many seeking employment in foreign lands, mainly in the Gulf countries. Our eldest brother moved to Sultanate of Oman.
The natural music I was used to during my annual vacations started to be corrupted by the artificial ones. With every passing year, the changes were audible.
That was when the first Television came into our home beaming the national channel Doordarshan. On Saturdays they telecasted a Malayalam movie and all the neighbours congregated at our home. Our eldest brother brought in a digital electronic clock which chimed its musical notes every fifteen minutes. Now the old mechanical clock got pushed away on to the wall of the side room and its Japanese cousin took its place of pride in the family room. We also got a telephone connection and the metallic ringing sound of the rotor dial telephone also added to the milieu.
Exorbitant labour costs, pests and crop diseases turned the village to rubber plantations. Most tropical fruit trees were cut, tapioca and pineapple cultivation discarded – all to make way for the rubber trees. The herbal plants which grew abundantly became extinct. Many species of birds and the flying lizards disappeared as they could neither nest among the rubber trees nor could find any food. Rice cultivation disappeared too being uneconomical. Thus Kerala turned into a consumer state.
The traffic on the roads kept increasing manifold with new varieties of automobiles – from motorbikes to large trucks. The Churches and Temples procured their own Mike Sets and the competition to please their Gods with highest possible decibel levels all through day and night commenced. Thus the natural sounds now gave way for more synthetic tones. The noise of the wind passing through the rubber trees was no more music to the ears. Why, even the aroma in the air had disappeared.
The nineties marked the opening of the Indian economy and with it came telephones and televisions in every homes in the village. The rotor dial telephone made way for their electronic avatars. Cable Television came in without any government controls or regulations and in the absence of any red-tape, each and every home joined the cable yugam in a matter of few weeks. This resulted in the many channels reaching the homes and families getting closeted indoors glued to the television.
With the turn of the century, cows, goats and fowls disappeared from the cow-sheds and pens. Every house had a car parked in the porch. The era of Bible reading and hymn singing evenings ended as everyone got fixated to the tear jerking serials various channels beamed with vengeance to each other and to humanity.
This aspect of changing sounds was missing in Adoors ‘Pinneyum’ with the story-line spanning about 17 years. He, well known as a perfectionist in the art of movie making, has captured even the minutest sounds like the coconut leaf dangling in the temple rubbing the shoulders of the actors. It is a puzzle as to how Adoor failed to capture the changing sounds to depict the timeline in his movie.