Saturday, October 18, 2008

Velipadukal: Biography of a Sacred Cow

A rare film, made on something as selective as dystopia, and that has the temerity of asking questions about religion and cult, is Shahul Ameen’s Velipadukal. This Malayalam film, subtitled in English, was shot on a low budget of 4.2 lakhs (a running time of around 70 mins), and is yet able to force the viewer to reexamine many of the issues that he might have completely missed so far. The reason is its powerful script.

As with the usual films or literature on the subject, the film is not from the perspective of an outsider to a dystopian society, but from the insider’s (Lintu) who begins to question himself and the society. A society which follows a “scientific religion,” with the only divisions left now between “rightists” and “leftists.” Wherein ancestors are worshipped, to the extent that even the ancestor who made a chair is thanked before settling in it, and wherein women are only meant for sex and procreation: the religion believes in passing on ancestors’ attributes, even fleshly attributes, so that no one dies as such, but keeps on living through descendants. Thus, “eternity.”

An interesting premise, though I still do not understand why would such a religion get invented in the first place. Important, since for a fiction to work, it has to be as much believable as possible. In Shahul Ameen’s own words:

There are actually two storylines in the movie. One is obviously Lintu’s story. The second one is that of the creators and perpetrators of Scientific Religion, which goes like this – in the present times, majority of people who say they are religious are hypocritical, as they simply follow the rituals and do not follow the major teachings of their respective religions. In times like this, one clever fellow/a group of people devises the Scientific Religion. They use an innovative USP - that of surviving death and attaining eternity. Gradually, the religion spreads, and people start living more morally, with the aim of attaining eternity. Then, few centuries later, someone proves that the religion is wrong, and people go back to their innate sinful lives. The arbitrators of the religion are still satisfied that they were able to curb the entire human race at least for a few centuries.

Curb from what? Women at the beck and call of each and every man for procreation? The movie in fact fails to convey the second storyline, that of the creators of scientific religion, much effectively: the viewer very soon becomes obsessed with Lintu, and how he could fight such a totalitarian system, in which no one is ready even to hear him, forget understand him. Where people are already so much satisfied. Though in Shahul’s words, “I did not want the audience to develop so much sympathy for Lintu that they do not notice the satire, and I decided to use a nonjudgmental and objective camera language, avoiding close shots and shots parallel to Lintu’s eye-line as much as possible.” But, it does become a story of Lintu vs. the system, and maybe the film should have been treated more like an essay, a question.

Another one of my questions for the director and his subsequent answer were:

Me: If I might continue the discussion a little forward on religion itself, is it all really a totalitarian state, reducing human emotions to rituals? In spite of all the religions, I don't think so: and actually think it a necessary evil, if left to flourish only to some extent. For the simple reason that I've observed people being mad to find something to bow to: if you take away one thing, they will find some other thing or being. Even if your “scientific religion” won't be there, what would take the place of void? Can you suggest a society where people are not following any customs, any rituals, any religion? All religion proceeds from some of the primal instincts of man, like fear and sympathy and love for things one gets used to, or even a love of beauty. It isn't as detestable when one views it in this light, and believe me for a lot of people religion is more love (maybe not for people but for their own little habits and oddities) and habit. A cushion in a world where anyway they soon find out that even love is bought, sex is bought, and knowledge itself is bought, at least that knowledge which is apparent to the world. Religion affords to these people something of themselves that isn't bought by someone, nor did they buy it of someone. Yes, you would argue that they did buy it of their ancestors, but so did probably you your unbelief from your education, or even from whatever inspired you to dare to think existing things wrong.

Shahul: I agree that many people find solace in religious faith and rituals, and I don’t find any harm in it. And I myself am envious of people who are able to do that. But, many of those like me who start thinking think more objectively and critically as they grow up soon realize the flaws in the underlying beliefs, and hence become unable to find solace in those rituals/beliefs. Lintu himself initially tries to fight his doubts by trying to immerse himself in spiritual matters, and even attends another internalization with the hope that faith will gradually follow. He even asks the Psychiatrist whether all his problems are a result of his intelligence, and even tries shock therapy to get rid of the doubts he has about the religion. In one scene he looks at the ladies who find solace in The Book played in the stereo (though they do not understand a single word of what is being said), and slowly walks out, unable to share their pleasure. It is only after all these failed attempts that he comes out openly against the religion, first to his friend, then to the Principal, and then to the whole world through the TV interview. But, the world does not allow him his rights to not-to-believe. And exactly this is one of the criticisms of organized religions the script tries to make – those who find solace in absurd rituals have the right to do so, but unfortunately most of them don’t stop there, and start harassing those who see through it all.

Quite an interesting discussion, which I would like to carry forward one day with him and other people as well, maybe through some of my own work. Since work speaks the best. The film does disappoint on one or two scores of art direction and lack of an effective color scheme for such a subject, but then lack of budget also entails lack of extras, lack of several other small things each of which costs money when you finally add up those. Of course, the production quality is superb. You can read the director’s views and about the whole crew and the film on

The real pleasure that I had was that thinking is alive, and people are making films--here in India itself--which are not merely song & dance routines or high-stakes thrillers.

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