I caught Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-day Game), Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s acclaimed Malayalam drama, when it was released in Chennai last week. The story is set during an election day, a dry day, and it’s about five urbanites who just want to go somewhere and drink in peace. What better place than a forest where “even God wouldn’t know if someone was murdered here”? I was a little dismayed that I wasn’t responding to the film the way I thought I would, given the ecstatic reviews. Was it due to my reliance on the subtitles, which were proficient but also perfunctory? (The dialogues in Malayalam are said to be hilarious.) Or maybe it was my distance from the “Malayali ethos,” which makes itself felt in every conversation between these men. For instance, the State’s engagement with Communism even as its citizenry kneels before the capitalism embodied by the Gulf.
Shorn of these insights, the film plays out like a series of simple-minded messages. Men can be pigs with women who aren’t their wives. We are all corrupt. We still discriminate on the basis of caste, class, skin colour. And so forth. The ending is terribly contrived (even when seen as allegory), and the thesis points are bludgeoned home. Stylistically, though, the film is very interesting. Despite an over-reliance on static shots, some of the compositions are beautiful, and the post-interval portion is breathtakingly staged as one uninterrupted shot.
But the reason we are discussing Ozhivudivasathe Kali is the game that becomes the centrepiece of the second half. On the surface, it’s a children’s game, where players pick a part they will play: cop, robber, king or minister.
The person who ends up cop has to guess who the robber is, and so on. Sounds like fun, but it’s anything but. The game, ultimately, ends up revealing the ugliness inside these men, inside us. There is punishment. And there are bribes to escape this punishment. There’s even murder.
Something about urban folk heading into the wilderness makes filmmakers reach for games. One of the most celebrated sequences in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri (1970) — again, a story about four men from a city motoring away from the moorings of civilisation — shows the men meeting up with two women in the forest, and playing a “memory game.” The first player names a famous person (say, Rabindranath), the second player adds another famous name, the third continues and so on. The game functions like Jung’s word-association tests. As with Ozhivudivasathe Kali , the game isn’t just something that people play. It’s who they are.
John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972) plays out like an adult version of The Hunger Games . Four suburbanites from Atlanta — Lewis, Ed, Bobby, Drew — set out on a canoeing trip in “just about the last, wild, untamed, unpolluted, un-f****ed-up river in the South.” During the drive, one says, “I’m gonna have you back in your little suburban house in time to see the football game on Sunday afternoon.” At this stage, the notion of a game is still harmless, something contained in a television set. But slowly, the term acquires an edge. “Who has the ability to survive? That’s the game: survive.”
A little later, Ed and Bobby stumble upon a couple of hillbillies who tie Ed up to a tree and one of them sodomises Bobby, but not before sitting on him, riding him like a horse, and demanding that he squeal like a pig. Were it not for the rape, it could be a child’s game, like the one in Ozhivudivasathe Kali . Simple rules, shocking consequences. A few scenes later, Lewis, the self-appointed leader, is immobilised by an injury. Ed asks, “What the hell do we do now?” Gasping for breath, Lewis says, “Now you get to play the game.”
Finally, a nod to the 1997 David Fincher thriller, The Game , in which a city dweller is forced to deal with his inner savage when plunged into a metaphorical wilderness where the comforts of his ultra-civilised life are slowly stripped away.
It’s yet another spin on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness , that the line between civilisation and savagery is a thin one that gets thinner the more man heads into the wild.
Baradwaj Rangan is The Hindu’ s cinema critic.