Prappeda is a bold Malayalam sci-fi anti-war film

The world seems to pass while a war continues in Europe. Closer to home, hardened identity politics pits man against man while some mainstream Hindi films twist history. Amid such contemporary history writing, Krishnendu Kalesh’s first Malayalam feature Prappeda (Hawk’s Muffin), criticizing patriarchy, greed, capitalism and eco-fascism, is more a need than a exception.

Starring actor Nithin George (who arrived with Tovino Thomas-star Luca, 2019, and has become an indie regular, starring in films like Paka and Pada), Kalesh brings the drift of his short to his feature debut. black-and-white footage Karinchathan (Bete Noir, 2017) – his response to the 2015 Charlie Hebdo terror shooting – an impressive dark satire about two men on a mission to kill the invincible Satan.

It is difficult to bracket the well-organized Prapeda into a genre. Imagine if the Kochi-Muziris Biennale had a cinematic life, this film is that. Man and nature are a likeness, the greens, browns and nude tones of the clothes are an extension of the moss and tree roots on the walls outside, and the beige complexion matches the earth. It’s a bit like Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam/Joyful Mystery (Best Synchronized Sound at Kerala State Awards last year), where the greens of the protagonists’ clothes match the nature outside their car, inside which the film takes place.

A photo taken in Prapeda.

Shot in 18 days, with around 20 people, on an estate in the Kottayam district, Prappeda was submitted to the NFDC work-in-progress lab in 2020. This year it premiered at the Rotterdam International Film Festival (IFFR) in the Bright Future category and at the Kerala International Film Festival, and last month won the Special Award for Promising Directorial Debut at the 52nd Kerala State Film Awards. “As a Netherlands-based film festival showcasing Indian cinema, we have to be aware and very careful about issues such as exoticism, hegemony and power relations, but that said, it’s not all about cultural representation. India is so many different and contradictory things at the same time, far too complex to reduce it to a single cliché image. Like every year, like Pebbles/Koozhangal (winner of PS Vinothraj’s IFFR Tiger Award), the films of this year’s program (IFFR) were not your typical festival films,” says Stefan Borsos, South Asia Programmer at IFFR, based in Germany.

Prappeda begins with a falcon (military aircraft) hitting its “muffin” (a large pile of junk) which releases a “broccoli” (nuclear mushroom cloud) into the air and shaves life (think Hiroshima A-bombs- Nagasaki). Chinook helicopters (reminiscent of the Vietnam and Iraq wars) patrol the skies. The military pilot was ordered to hide. In a dystopian and post-apocalyptic future, in the heart of an Amazonian jungle of Kerala, nestles a world with its own rules, like Churuli of Lijo Jose Pellissery, or a Tarkovskian “Zone” where stands a house, belonging to the dead pilot’s descendants.

The granddaughter of his grandson Ruby (Ketaki Narayan), the place’s youngest recruit and heiress to the empire, his mute and paralyzed mother (Neena Kurup), Xavier (Jayanarayan Thulasidas, also producer of the film), a insomniac military renegade hired to guard the place/people, who is an outcast to ward off other outcasts/intruders. There is also a trickster priest who dilutes the water tank, poisons the mind, controls beings (temporarily puts Xavier to sleep), and enters another man, allegedly the dead pilot’s descendant from another bloodline.

Prapeda Ketaki Narayan and Rajesh Madhavan at Prapeda.

A trained graphic designer, Kalesh brings his myriad interests to this gestalt—there’s art, busts/sculptures, still lifes brought to life, there’s theatre, non-dialogue acting and pantomime, advertising collages, industrial sound (conceived by Nithin Lukose, director Paka). Freshly imagined, the sci-fi fantasy drama is a technological marvel, Thoufeek Hussain’s cinematography, animation and special effects (consisting of 650 shots) soar.

The film is full of intertextuality. Kalesh dutifully gives credit to four masters at the start, which sadly colors our viewing. There is also a cult symbol that resembles the faun from Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) but references the Swedish symbol from Midsommar (2019), and there are obvious references to “elements from The Shape of Water (2017)”.

The setting is a Foucauldian heterotopia, where Ruby’s coming of age takes place in an attic. It is her secluded space where she hides an alien being (Rajesh Madhavan), whom she once met. Ruby, who has been confused about her emotional and physical needs, becomes attached to him; he gives her a toy that gives her an unknown joy. A symbol of both peace, perhaps, of an alternative faith, as it looks like a mini prayer wheel, signaling that only she can effect change, and pleasure, as it vibrates and defines static life so far from Ruby and the purpose of life, moving.

Prapeda Prappeda is helmed by Krishnendu Kalesh.

Here is a turtle (added to the film at the very end, on the editing table), an ominous creature that lived 200-300 years and carries history, having seen World War II; there are the anti-war meditations of writer-revolutionary Vaikom Muhammad Basheer. Kalesh emphasizes how “wars are an endless, never-resolved human enterprise.” The pandemic has only accelerated ethnocentrism, exclusion and expansionism. As the camera stops, the sound of the waterfall gives way to industrial sounds, excavations are underway somewhere.

Peace comes at a personal price, Ruby must give up everything that belongs to her: her love, her feelings, her right/home/land, a hotly contested male zone, where women are silent. Washed ashore, she is a refugee and a prappeda/pigeon who negotiates peace in a distant land, where, in a decisive fall, she gives birth in mid-air (suspended as a symbol of peace “Make Love, Not War of the Vietnam War) – a Tarkovskian transcendence – does it ring in life and hope or future destruction?

Prapeda A photo taken in Prapeda.

The film unfolds in layers, which reveal themselves over multiple viewings, which a single theater show may not afford, but OTTs do. Kalesh uses narrative to undo narrative. In Prappeda, Kalesh reconstructs too many threads, somewhere the particularities take precedence over the diegesis — it’s abstract but temporally linear. It’s an “interesting movie”, which, to quote Wong Kar-wai, is “something you can get an aftertaste of.” Sometimes when you watch the movie, you may not understand the first time, but somehow it persists. Prappeda, a hybrid film, leaves you with questions.