A generation or two ago, marriages among the Muthuvan tribe in Kerala were celebrated over a few days with a ritual called penneduppu . As part of the celebration, the bride, with approval from elders, was playfully hidden in the forest by her friends for the groom to ‘seek or find’. The groom’s friends helped him in his ‘quest’, and the marriage would be solemnised after he ‘finds’ her.
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Now, a short film on the forgotten custom, Muthuvan Kalyanam, was uploaded to YouTube recently as part of filmmaker Bharatbala’s Virtual Bharat , a 1,000-film project that chronicles India’s culture, telling them through human stories, literature, folklore, dance and music among other things. Bharatbala read a line about the tradition on an in-flight magazine that piqued his interest; that one-line idea was expanded into a nine-minute short film, which was directed by Kochi-based filmmaker Shawn Sebastian.
Sebastian had his work cut out — he had to first find the Muthuvans and learn more about the custom. “They live in the area beyond Thattekad. The elders I spoke to are from a settlement in the Kuttampuzha panchayat,” says Sebastian. Therein lay a challenge for him. Since there were no conventional sources that could be used as first-person account in a documentary format, Sebastian had to find a couple from the present generation who was getting married according to this custom.
By speaking to the tribal elders, the filmmaker learnt that the custom was no longer in practice and that the younger generation was unaware about it. “The elders remembered the custom from their youth, some of them had even got married this way. Their recollection was our primary ‘source’,” he says. And since Sebastian did not want the film to be in a documentary format — as he wanted the narrative to be engaging visually — he settled for docu-fiction.
Bharatbala’s creative input and experience guided him in approaching the story differently, “I am glad that we, as a team, have been able to meet his expectations.” The story is told in under 10 minutes, which was not difficult for Sebastian, who is primarily a short documentary filmmaker.
The story is told through a grandfather telling his grandson about how he got married. The couple Kalyani and Aji, who acted in the film, are newly-weds from the Muthuvan tribe. “The custom was news to them. They didn’t know their ancestors got married that way. Had they not been part of this, they perhaps may not have come to know about it,” Sebastian says. He says he likes to involve the people whose stories he is telling, rather than indulge in ‘exoticisation’.
Two short films he earlier — Afsana and Balak Times — also featured locals from the Haryana village the stories were located in rather than professional actors. Those were true story-inspired. Sebastian’s first documentary film was In the Shade of the Fallen Chinar . The filming was done at Kunchipara in Ernakulam district; the five-member crew travelled by road, crossed a river on rafts and had to go off-roading for two hours before reaching the location. The film would not have shaped this way if not for Sudeep Elamon, the cinematographer, and editor Appu Bhattathiri, adds Sebastian.
“Sudeep took care of the visuals, he shared the responsibility with me. He captured the topography — nature and the forest — in such a way that it made the story gripping. While Appu gave form to the film and music director Ashish Zachariah also with how he used traditional music with recorded music.” Elamon’s striking visuals capture the forest, its mood and sounds.
Lives and livlihoods have changed in the Muthuvan tribe and they may have even forgotten their old ways of life. “I wanted to juxtapose the past and the present. Not only have customs changed now, but gold has also come in, in the form of dowry. Today, marriages have become expensive affairs amongst the Muthuvan tribe. We wanted to show that through our film.”
The narrator of Muthuvan Kalyanam sums it up eloquently, “The forest is gone. So have the traditions of the Muthuvans.”