Beyond the Gravel Road
Reviewed by: Hassan Muthalib
'Don't tell me the moon is shining.
Show me the glint of light on broken glass.'
- ANTON CHEKOV
Deepak Kumaran Menon's digital feature, Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road, 2005), is about growing up on a rubber plantation in the 1960s. It is about dreams and aspirations, toil and drudgery, hardship and tragedy. It tells of a young girl whose only desire is to leave the rubber estate and go to university. Family and friends rally around her regardless of their own troubles so that she can achieve her dream. She makes it at the end, but at what financial and emotional cost to her family and friends. Obviously, Deepak's inspiration has come from Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali. In the words of U-Wei Hajisaari: 'with such a mentor, how can one go wrong?'
But is the story really about the girl, Shantha? What does the writer really want us to see? Whose story is this anyway?
The Foreground Story and the Background Story
There are always two stories in a film - the foreground story (what we see on the screen), and the background story (its deep structure). The foreground story of Chemman Chaalai is about a teenage girl, Shantha, whose only dream is to go to university. The plot shows the chain of events that finally result in her success at getting a place in the university. The background story is all about the people around the girl who want her to achieve her dreams. The audience is introduced to all of them and we see what it is they want - or do not want. 'A character's dreams are most important because almost always what their dreams are will help to motivate the story. It's something they want.' Deepak cleverly has not shown this side of the characters to Shantha. And so she stubbornly holds on to her desire to leave the estate.
The Characters of Chemman Chaalai.
Character is destiny - HERACLITUS.
Character is plot' - ROBERT McKEE.
Analysing the characters of Chemman Chaalai reveals a plethora of information about them. Shanta's immediate family consists of her father, mother, an elder sister, a younger sister and a young brother. Other relatives are an aunt, a younger and an older uncle. Then there is the teacher, the Chinese seamstress, the shopkeeper, and the boy who loves Shantha. The 'outsiders' are the estate supervisor, the health inspector and the marriage suitors. And to cap it all off - the Chinese ghost. Once we discover these characters, we will also find the background story.
THE TEACHER: He unwittingly provides the motivation for Shantha to break free of the vicious cycle in the estate. He takes the trouble to correspond with the university and get the application papers for Shantha. He walks miles to Shantha's house to deliver the papers and offers to be a guarantor for the study loan. He is a teacher in the real sense of the word (and has probably walked the gravel road before in another estate). He quotes a sage's words: 'A big tree grows from a small seed. He who is determined will achieve his goals.' He tells his students to make a list of achievers. But like a true hero, forgets that he is also an achiever. The teacher's death at the end of the film is not the end. His efforts will live on in the success of Shanta who has vowed to return and teach the estate children.
NARAEN: He likes Shantha and is not happy that she is leaving the estate. Though he has driven along the gravel road many times, he has no aspirations to go further than the estate (his motorbike that frequently breaks down is a strong signifier). His only desire is to be a shopkeeper like his father. His death at the end of the film will be of no loss to the world, but to his father, he is everything. There is no one to whom the business - and lineage - can be passed on. And in a traditional society, that is a death blow.
THE SHOPKEEPER: Naraen's father offers free cookies to Shantha. She refuses to accept and only does so when he says to give to her younger sister. It is a sign of his approval of his son, Naraen's choice of a future wife. Shantha's initial refusal of the cookies signifies that she, too, is proud like her father. Her family can stand on its own feet and will not accept charity.
THE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS: She is all alone, running a small shop. Where are her husband and children? Is she a spinster? Or is she someone with a lost love? She sings a plaintive song so she surely must have a past. Though not an Indian, she is more sympathetic to Shantha than the Indian outsiders. She guides Shantha and even gives her a dress and an 'ang pau' when Shantha tells her she is leaving the estate.
THE CHINESE FAMILY: The less said about them the better. The father drives his children to school and stops to pick up Shantha and her siblings. A point-of-view shot from the car shows the Indian children in silhouette. There are no words exchanged, absolutely no communication. They are no better than the Chinese ghost encountered by Shantha's uncle on a dark night.
THE SUPERVISOR: Someone with a cushy job and a monthly salary. He scolds Shantha's sister for tapping rubber in place of her mother. He refuses to accept the excuse that the mother is sick. He is only interested in the regulations that do not allow minors to work. He conveniently forgets that one day's loss of work is also a loss of income for that day. He is no better than a machine. He checks Shantha's house for cleanliness and is satisfied with its physical state, but does not see the poverty of the family. He has forgotten that for some families, pride is amongst its most treasured possessions. He is curtly put into place when he tries to advice the father on how to care for his family. The father chooses to go against tradition by placing importance on a daughter as against a son (signifying that the father is progressive).
THE SUITORS: Ignoring the poverty of Shantha's family, the prospective in-laws have no compunction in demanding all manner of dowry for their son to marry Shantha's older sister. They stick to tradition like robots. Shantha's father is forced to agree.
THE AUNT: She offers her jewelry to Shantha's mother to help with the expenses for the marriage. The mother is reluctant but says she will think about it and discuss it with her husband. But family pride will ultimately prevail.
THE YOUNG UNCLE: He tells Shantha's siblings a story of his hunting a monitor lizard. He had backed off when the lizard had glared at him. If he even unable to catch a monitor lizard, how could he make it in the outside world? This is another young man who will fail to break the vicious circle.
THE OLDER UNCLE: Devan drives a small lorry that he hires out. Sometimes he takes Shantha and the kids to school. Knowing that one of them needs new shoes, he buys a pair, furtively puts it next to the girl who is sleeping and slinks out, wanting no credit. But when he loses his lorry in an accident, his fate (like Vittorio de Sica's bicycle thief), is sealed. His future is uncertain.
THE MOTHER: She is a simple woman. So are her actions. When Shantha goes against her, she drinks poison to end her life. It is the only way she knows to avoid her problems. She offers her jewelry to be pawned for the daughter's marriage but the husband declines as it is the only valuable thing that he has given her. But she tells him that his love is more valuable to her than the jewelry.
THE FATHER: Ah, the father! He is the real hero of the story. He is the only Indian in the film to continuously wear the traditional 'vesti.' Blessings from the gods are important to him no matter how poor the family may be. He accepts his fate when he loses his wife's jewelry that he had taken to the town to pawn. There are many scenes of him lying down. These are markers that indicate his own hopes and aspirations that could not be fulfilled. He has traveled the gravel road much earlier - and so he supports Shantha's dream and gives her every encouragement. He is prepared to work a double shift and also sell cakes. He does not want to pawn his wife's jewelry for his daughter's marriage. That would be the easy way out. His wife is secretly proud of how he stood up against the supervisor, but he makes nothing of it. He would most certainly be high on the Shantha's list of achievers - if only she knew!
Well, dear reader. Chemman Chaalai presents its characters, both good and bad for public scrutiny, and invites you to see yourselves among the characters. If you can see truly beyond the gravel road, the writer and director would have succeeded in their intentions. Chemman Chaalai becomes a story about each and everyone of us.
This paper was posted on Malaysianfirstname.lastname@example.org and distributed during the Asia-Europe Institute's CHEMMAN CHAALAI: CONVERSATIONS WITH THE DIRECTOR session held at University Malaya on 30 July 2005 and at the FINAS Film Appreciation session on 31 July 2005