The Babusenan Brothers examine the ‘Painted House’ of identity

Satish and Santosh Babusenan (the Babusenan Brothers) have brought back subtlety with astounding finesse to Malayalam cinema.

Not that they really yearn for fame and acclaim, but the Babusenan Brothers, with their 2016 film Chayam Poosiya Veedu (The Painted House), have joined the ranks of the greats of Malayalam cinema like G Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shaji N Karun, Sethumadhavan, Shyamaprasad and others.

Also, forget that they had to fight for a year to get an imbecilic Censor Board that wanted to cut out some delicately shot yet sensual nude scenes played by Maharashtrian actress Neha Mahajan to clear the film without cuts. What really matters is the film itself!

Vishaya burns the writer’s manuscript. The three central characters in the film.

The Painted House is a film that returns to a certain classicist mould in that, as art, it holds up a mirror to human nature. But it is also modernist, even minimalist, in its treatment of form and content. It investigates the world of the word and the world of the image, combinatorial yet collisive, in its relentless pursuit of unravelling the chimera of individual identity.

Whether it is the script, the cinematography, direction, acting or locations, the film has been lovingly and carefully sculpted.

There are just three characters. Gautam the ageing, rather well-known writer played by K Kaladharan; Vishaya, the sensual, vivacious siren (Neha Mahajan) who bursts into the unmarried, lonely writer’s life to mess with it, and the mysterious Rahul (Akram Mohammed), heir to an estate on a hill with a sprawling house atop it and a twisted soul, perhaps.

Gautam is writing a story in which the central character is Nachiketas, and one knows instantly that the story involves a meditation on death. And if death is the stripping off of the illusions, delusions, masks and assumed identities of an individual, apart from it being literal, The Painted House is a sort of modern-day Kathopanishad.

Vishaya, her name simply means ‘theme’ but is also too close for me to the Malayalam word ‘visham’ or poison. She comes into Gautam’s life offering him a respite from his loneliness and the possibility of erotic experience, But, to attain her, he has to suffer her destroying his manuscript. All that a writer has are ‘empty words’, she informs him, suggesting as she seduces him with kisses and nudity that sensuality is the louder art.

He tolerates her because her eros is too powerful for him to recognise that thanatos or Yama has already entered his ‘painted house’ to strip him bare of his notions of ‘self’ and purpose.

Rahul injects himself into Gautam’s life next. The story takes a bizarre, horrific turn when Rahul abducts Gautam and incarcerates him his estate bungalow. Gautam is abused by Rahul and, to his dismay, realises that Vishaya and Rahul are in cahoots. She too is no longer exactly kind to Gautam who is angry about her erotic relationship with Rahul with whom she conspired to put him in his damned situation.

The duo’s objective is to get the writer to confess that his ‘superior’ notions about his humanity, literary prowess, gentlemanliness, ability to love, doing what is right and so on are but a mask and that he is actually as base and corrupt as anyone else is, with an innate propensity to hate, rape and even kill. And, yes, in a way they are right. Gautam’s lust and anger make him attempt to rape Vishaya.

Later down the line, after an aborted escape attempt, precisely in the moment when he is finally poised to smash Rahul’s head in — Akram’s performance as ‘No more Mr Nice Guy’ is riveting, as riveting as the perfect naked body the conniving Neha Mahajan brings to screen - Vishaya shouts out ‘No!’

Gautam looks around. Nobody is there. His world crumbles. Was it all dreams and illusion? He looks at himself in a mirror, suffers a heart attack and dies in Rahul’s bungalow. Interestingly, he had died once earlier too in the film, in his own house.

In the Bible, there is the idea of the Second Death. The first death is physical. The second one pertains to the death of self following the judgement over one’s own delusions brought about by G-d or inner enlightenment or by outer forces like people or circumstances. The kind of death that reveals to oneself what one really might be, apart from assumptions of what one is.

The Painted House offers its viewers the inevitable yet unpalatable truth that each one of us is a ‘painted house’ whose ‘coatings’ must and will peel off, one way or the other.

What remains?

A single empty chair on the shoreline of an ocean, its waves lapping at the sand and receding into the horizon.

Chayam Poosiya Veedu is a film that will make one reflect on the ‘painted house’ of one’s own identity or existence. Watch it.