Filmmaker Don Palathara discusses the politics of ‘Everything Is Cinema’, which was screened under the Cinema Regained section of the recently-concluded International Film Festival Rotterdam 2021
The camera’s gaze in Don Palathara’s Everything Is Cinema is an outsider’s: Chris, a Malayali filmmaker who sets out to film a documentary on Kolkata and its people, a continuation to French filmmaker Louis Malle’s 1969 documentary Calcutta. Chris is as much an outsider to the city, though he is very much an Indian in spirit, as Malle was when he made a trip to India. It is this outsider’s gaze, the very idea of nationalism: how much these chest-beating nationalists are foreign to their own land and culture, that Everything Is Cinema seems to question. Such a contemplation, even if not implied, can be drawn from its opening sequence. But the documentary, as Chris says, is hardly about Kolkata but a “lockdown memoir” of a filmmaker struggling to find a subject to satisfy his creative thirst.
Chris (voiced by Don Palathara) travels to Kolkata to film the documentary along with his moderately successful actor-wife Anita (Sherin Catherine). A few months into filming, the nation-wide lockdown is imposed and the couple is rather trapped with each other where their worlds begin to collide, resulting in a tug-of-war situation. Chris’ project comes to a halt, thanks to the lockdown, and he instead begins to film his wife secretly. “She is unreal and plastic,” observes Chris from behind the viewfinder, as if the lockdown gave him the opportunity to notice her for the first time in years. We don’t see Chris, but Anita, or rather, her projection.
A struggling filmmaker who wants to “save cinema from capitalism”, Chris is arrogant, narcissistic, cynical and jealous about his wife, reflective of how he chooses to paint Anita for the viewers. At one point in the 70-minute film, Chris turns the camera away into a black screen for “bearing with her face for so long”. Which is why, if anything, Everything Is Cinema is perhaps the most honest portrayal of the twin words: toxic masculinity and male arrogance. And there has never been a more recent film that has explored into the mind of a “man”, in an ontological fashion where we truly get a deep dive into the narrator’s headspace.
The nature of cinema
Don Palathara had footage of Kolkata that he had previously shot with him. The idea was not to edit a documentary out of it, but to reflect the mood and mental state of people during lockdown. His friends and people with whom he was acquainted with were either living isolated or were locked with their partners. He began to think more about interpersonal relationships. The lack of space, or rather this intimate space, became the genesis of a film with diminishing lines of reality and fiction.
But the larger idea, Don says, was to explore the voyeuristic gaze of cinema. “Filmmaking itself is a very self-centred process; you are peeping into other people’s business. By hiding behind the lenses, you’re looking at people’s lives and judging them. I wanted to explore that aspect,” says Don Palathara over a phonecall, right after a screening of 1956, Central Travancore (2019) at Adelaide, Australia.
Everything… is almost like a character study of Chris, even though one could find similarities between him, Jithin (from Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, also shot during the pandemic) and Don himself, something the filmmaker agrees too. One way to look at Everything…is like a spiritual predecessor to Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, also about a disintegrating couple. “In my eyes they are two different characters, although there are some similarities with the way they look at the film industry. I do believe in personal cinema and there are personal elements in my work,” he begins, adding, “Santhoshathinte…happened a few months after Everything…In the latter the conflict starts but doesn’t go anywhere. Likewise, in Santhoshathinte… you are not reaching a solution but making peace with it.”
The docu-fiction is edited in such a way that it juxtaposes everyday instances of life in Kolkata, that Chris had shot, with monochromatic footage of Anita’s shared space with Chris. In that sense, Don agrees that he didn’t follow the conventional format of writing, shooting and editing. It was all done haphazardly with a commendable control over craft. “Sherin gave a lot of feedback and was constantly giving suggestions. Sometimes there were no dialogues and we would just discuss and improvise. While editing, I had some idea about a voiceover and then we started shooting that scene. The process actually was therapeutic for me,” says Don with a laugh.
All about Godard
The seed of thought about Chris has been in Don’s mind for a long time. He says he let it gestate and was looking to make it into a different film with a bigger budget and star cast. But he is quick to admit that Everything… would not have worked, had it been a straightforward narrative. Plus, the COVID-19 restrictions helped him study the character better, although Don says it was really hard to picture together Chris at first.
“I figured him out in bits and pieces during the course of filming,” says Don, “I was trying to know him and Sherin played a significant role in developing this character. At times, she would be like, ‘That is not how Chris would react or say’.”
Does the inclusion of a female writer help in undertaking the character dynamics better? “I wouldn’t call it ‘inclusion’ because we are seeing Chris’ view of Anita; his idea of relationship and priorities. He is basically looking at himself even though the camera is on his wife.”
That posed a serious challenge for Don: to construct a narrative where the true nature of the narrator is revealed through the camera’s gaze without him being the subject.
This experiment — with the form — is why Don says Everything… is an ode to French auteur Jean-Luc Godard, whose biography by film critic Richard Brody forms the title. Don had an overwhelming experience at this year’s International Film Festival of Kerala, where the man himself (Godard) joined for a virtual conversation, as part of the festival.
The filmmaker remembers applying no thought when he clicked a picture: of Godard lighting his cigar, a signature shot which went viral on social media. “A lot of people shared that photo without knowing the source. He [Godard] is someone who I look upto, even if I don’t entirely understand some of his recent films. I very much admire what he said during the festival,” adds Don.
Coming back to Everything…, the film is inherently violent. First, there is psychological violence and there is actual physical violence towards the end. Don agrees with its violent theme, though he says he wasn’t worried about normalising domestic violence. It is another thing that Don doesn’t show it on screen and has an explanation: “The violence had to be edited out because that is how Chris would have wanted it,” he says, “Though violence is not shown, Chris wants the audience to take part in it.”