‘Guli’s Children’: Tracing Kerala’s connection with China

Guli’s Children, a 43-minute documentary made by a professor from IIT-Madras, traces Kerala’s connections with the Chinese

A MacBook cover made of cardboard, the sides stuck with acoustic foam, made up for a recording room; this is where the voice-over was done. There were also instances where interviews had to be redone owing to glitches in the memory card of the camera. As Joe Thomas Karackattu, the director of Guli’s Children and an assistant professor in the Humanities and Social Sciences department, IIT-Madras, narrates his experience of producing a 43-minute documentary almost single-handedly, he does not forget to add that it is the content of the film that kept him going. “I had to practise in the parking lot here, before I could even start filming. I used to do dummy interviews with my colleagues to equip myself,” laughs Karackattu.

The skill sets developed through this process, helped him understand how a production with a visual vocabulary that has longevity and reach can completely change the way in which a research-based academic content is viewed. Guli’s Children, Karackattu’s debut film, follows his journey in tracing the genealogy and physical artefacts that survive today that speak volumes about the presence of Chinese in Kerala.

‘Guli’s Children’: Tracing Kerala’s connection with China

“The strength of film lies in the research, the craft is something that I learned through this process. In fact, the visual element that was evidently present in the research topic is what made me go ahead with the idea of filmmaking,” says Karackattu.

Guli’s Children was the product of a two-year-long research by Karackattu whose interest was bolstered by the accounts of diplomats who had frequently travelled from Calicut to China between the 14th and 15th Century. The fact that the China connection is almost diffused into the day-to-day lives of Malayalis in the form of a ‘cheenachatti’ or a ‘cheenavala’ further intrigued Karackattu, who has done extensive studies in diplomatic history and international relations.

“During my research, I came across various accounts of people and families who have moved from from Kerala to China and the thought of what could have happened to them remained with me,” says the professor.

Finally, he was able to locate one family settled in Southern China in the province of Wangshi. The film highlights his journey to Wangshi to meet the 14th generation descendent of the first Malayali who travelled to China from Guli (Calicut), who goes by the name Ma (Guli’s Ma). “Ma’s wife looked at us and said, ‘you both are Lao Xiang’, meaning fellow hometowners. It was a very endearing experience,” says Karackattu, reminiscing the moments he had encountered during the journey. Ma’s family had preserved ‘jiapu’, a carefully collated record of ancestral history containing extensive records on inter-family marriages and so on.

In one of the scenes, Karackattu is seen having an interesting conversation with an elderly fisherman from Kerala, who incessantly claims that Kublai Khan from the Yuan dynasty was the one who made the fishing nets. “Though we know that these stories are untrue, it’s always interesting to add a narrative element,” says Karackattu. To break the monotony of the film, he has constantly tried to incorporate these small yet interesting stories engraved in the minds of people through generations.

Such subtle tactics primary to the art of filmmaking and storytelling is something that Karackattu acquired through his experience of making the film. The film, which was targeted at university students, was also meant to imbibe interest in various aspects of inter-group exchanges, movement of people and their bigger implications.

When Karackattu talks about his next work, his eyes gleam with the same kind of excitement he had while reminiscing about Guli’s Children. Having had a taste of filmmaking and the challenges that inevitably come with it, he does not wish to revert to doing paper presentations. His next work which would also be a film, he says, will explore the Chinese connections in India that still materially exist today.

As we steer away to other unrelated conversation, I look around Karackattu’s office room to find a mini replica of the airplane ‘Air China’ which was featured briefly in the film as well. Though his interest in China is a consequence of his research through the years, it is evident that the extensive study has paved the way to an indelible connection waiting to be explored. One such connection, for him, was meeting Ma’s family. “We were just two Malayalis holding different passports,” says Karackattu with a smile.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 2:26:20 AM |

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