And Moses and Aaron went in unto Pharaoh, and they did so as the LORD had commanded: and Aaron cast down his rod before Pharaoh, and before his servants, and it became a serpent. Then Pharaoh also called the wise men and the sorcerers: now the magicians of Egypt, they also did in like manner with their enchantments.
Exodus 7:10 and 7:11
‘The Lord works is mysterious ways’, sang the nineteenth century hymnodist William Cowper and the eminent filmmaker of Kerala, Aravindan, was probably aware of those ways. He sculpted his films with the ardency and the ambiguity of a mystic. Esthappan was a crudely made film, encumbered by shoddy production values and the episodic nature of the narration hindered the film’s natural flow. Aravindan cast non-actors in the movie, which is always a risky proposition. Performance of non- actors might feel ‘natural’ but their inability to emote on screen can work against the characterization of the film. Despite these obvious drawbacks, Esthappan is a work of art that explores spirituality and sainthood in more ways than one. Esthappan is one of most intellectually moving Malayalam films produced.
The setting is a Catholic coastal village in Kerala inhabited by poor fisher folks and Esthappan, the protagonist, is the local weirdo. The movie opens with the scene of Esthappan emerging from the shimmering waters of the ocean, under the setting sun. The scene evokes the Biblical event when Jesus Christ walked on the surface of water and is suggestive of the divine leanings of the character. The fisher folks, mending their nets in the sweltering heat, is not really convinced. The priest at the local church sermonizes to his congregation that as Christians they are expected to earn their livelihood by honest labor as Jesus had done two thousand years ago. But Esthappan does not work, he just wanders around the village swinging the thurible. This contradiction does not escape the villagers and many are suspicious of his putative sacredness.
Esthappan gets on with his life, sketching biblical scenes on abandoned walls with charcoal stubs and confounding children with cryptic proverbs. He irritates the rich contractor who builds seawalls along the coastline by reciting satirical verses aloud, ostensibly to embarrass him. Lopez, the man who drives the contractor’s truck is not amused by Esthappan’s antics. Aravindan probes into Esthappan’s credibility through many episodes in the film. The viewer has to draw his own conclusions about the nature of the protagonist, whether he is a saint or a charlatan. The filmmaker utilizes nighttime shots to illustrate the idea that sacredness itself is obscure in nature and man has to wade through darkness to comprehend true spirituality.
In one interesting scene, Lopez and his cronies take Esthappan to the priest accusing him of stealing a stalk of bananas. When the priest asks Esthappan to narrate his side of the story, he tells a very strange tale. He says that he was strolling around the beach at night when a thief, chased by a mob, approached him with a stalk of bananas. The thief appealed for help, lamenting that he was forced to steal the bananas to feed his starving family and if caught, the mob would lynch him. Esthappan, in the dark of the night, purchased the stalk of bananas from the thief and let him run away to safety. Around that time, Lopez and his friends who led the mob, caught Esthappan with the stalk of bananas. The version narrated by Esthappan sounds like a parable and its authenticity is as good as that of one.
The sexton reports to the priest that he had seen Esthappan hanging around the cemetery at night with a bunch of people. The sexton gives the impression that Esthappan is a graver robber. The same man, when gets drunk at the hooch stall, puts a mysterious spin on the story. The sexton claims that she saw Esthappan capering around the graveyard in the company of awakened dead souls. There are numerous instances in the film where Esthappan is presented as a man inspired by divinity in the Biblical sense. Nevertheless, in all those occurrences, a skeptical viewer has enough reasons to cast doubts on the protagonist’s supposed sainthood.
The film ends on a note that tips the scale in favor of Esthappan, the saint, though not very convincingly. Towards the end of the film, Esthappan goes missing and the rumors of people sighting him at different places at the same time spreads. On the night of the church fair, performers enact scenes from the Bible in a miracle play, donning glittering costumes. At dawn, Esthappan is seen lying dead on a bed of jagged rocks, accompanied by cycles of crashing sea waves. Esthappan had to face the truth of death, like all human beings, transcendental or mundane.
Esthappan was adjudged the best film and Aravindan the best director at the Kerala State Film Awards of 1980. The film was and still is maligned as pretentious by most Malayalee film goers. It is also seen as a movie that epitomizes highbrow or arthouse cinematic culture and therefore, thought to be far removed from the sensibilities of the so called common folk. Esthappan might not be for everybody and that can be true for all artistic expressions. But for the people who are willing to put in the effort and be patient, it is a deeply satisfying and rewarding motion picture experience.