Elastic Reality

Nicely shot, simply told, Chemman Chaalai, is a must see for all those interested in the many directions that Malaysian ‘indie’ films are taking. Billed as a “Malaysian Indian Story” this movie is simple but badly paced, beautiful but lacking emotional or psychological depth. The rather po-faced protagonist’s struggle for education and escape from ‘the estate’ is to me inexplicable in view of the idyllic plantation conjoured by the scriptwriter and director. I cannot say I had much sympathy for her since the audience was given no evidence of an oppressive environment (apart from the utter banality of her domestic conditions) or some inner source of desire for learning. Despite a thin plot and depthless characterisation, the movie carries through partly because of the novelty of a ‘Malaysian Tamil film’ but more importantly deft cinematography and a delightful soundtrack. Though credible as a first effort, the production’s claim that it is “evidence of independent film making at its most radical” is unfounded. In fact in one crucial respect the movie is exceedingly conservative. So my review presents an ideological critique of the film. It attempts to understand the ‘life world’ of the film, which is the social, cultural and political frameworks assumed and promoted by it.

Whether it chooses to be representative or not of the experience of ‘Indian’ communities in the estate sector, this movie will be read as just that. (I prefer the plural ‘communities’ considering the ethno-linguistic, religious, caste and class differences that prevailed).

The movie makers seem to be naïve towards the contested nature of this act of representation. The ‘estate’ is an ideologically loaded word. One need only recall how the phrase “estate Indian” is used to denigrate and diminish. It is also important to note that despite talk about the plantation sector being a “sunset industry” the lives of many communities remain determined by it. Not just communities of ‘Indians’ but also new recruits from Indonesia, even Nepal, who have come to take the place of those ‘Indians’ who ‘escaped’.

I remember a demonstration by a hundred or so plantation workers at the National Museum a few years ago. They were protesting an exhibition celebrating a century of the plantation industry. Theirs was not a demonstration in support, as you can well imagine (though I must say Chemman Chaalai might confuse you in this regard). The morning’s protest was filled with striking images but none more so than the image of old women being prevented from the act of inserting their lived histories and bodies into the narrative sponsored by the plantation industry. Needless to say they were being prevented by our well-armed, if misdirected, boys in blue. (The power of the symbolic is never more amply demonstrated than when words are met with arrest orders and handcuffs – backed by silent guns).

This protest represented an attempt to re-contextualise the exhibit’s representation of the plantations as an industrial idyll with the themes of ‘labour productivity’, ‘technology’ and ‘wealth’ rather than ‘exploitation’, ‘expropriation’ and ‘poverty’. No doubt people in these contexts laugh and love, are cruel as well as loving, bring up their families, dream of other futures. As Karl Marx once noted, people make their own histories but they do so under conditions that are given. It is this truth that the movie is perhaps ‘afraid’ to address, relying on the most worn out ideological tools of the plantation system.

Perhaps movies do not have the aura of authenticity and truth that museums claim. Perhaps movies (as opposed to ethnographic films) are much more modest attempts to tell a story – highlighting the particular over the general. Perhaps Chemman Chaalai is not attempting a saga of the plantations of the peninsular. Yet I suspect that even the simplest story could have a rich backdrop from which one can gleam something of the multi-layered social, cultural and political context of the characters. And this is sadly missing.

Indeed the characterisation is most telling. Perhaps not wanting to pander to the stereotype images and generalisations regarding the conditions of the plantations, the film removes the more problematic elements from view: its incessantly drunk men-folk, its teary eyed fatalistic womenfolk, the abusive and potentially sexual violent management, the cultural parochialism, the isolation from the urban, the corrupt and ineffectual unions (lead for many years by a non Tamil), the neglect by the central government, the schools in disrepair and under staffed.

None of the characters grow or change; except for the mother, whose limp reversal is the result of movie magic not dramatic force. They never seem to have real dialogues. (While I appreciate the muted acting style, I was not entirely convinced that in fact there was much acting in evidence). In fact everybody is rather nice. I think that while the director might not want to evoke stereotypes he cannot escape a whole range of experiences that are part and parcel of most human communities: the ugly, the venial, the violent, the amoral, the exploitative. Everybody in the film seems to be there to fulfill the final message of the story: “Individual perseverance and family support through education will lead the individual out of poverty. Barring, of course, ill fate or misfortune.”

The best of movies can redeem (not by excusing but by understanding, contextualising) characters that are flawed. We are drawn to characters that are invested with humanity. Instead what the director gives us are one-­dimensional stereotypes, like the ‘helpful teacher’: whose double tragedy includes being able to only speak in clichés, exhorting his classroom (who are as neat and orderly as rubber trees) with platitudes. I will not tell you what the other tragedy is except to say that his main role is to tell us that all estate children can avail themselves of scholarship (which ‘the estate father’ is ignorant of) if only finally to make way for the family itself (not state or private charities) to invest in the protagonist’s future.

It was only when I read Mingguan Malaysia‘s Noor Azam Shairi’s piece on the movie (aptly titled “Reality from the Rubber Plantation”) that I thought I might guess at what prompted producer Tan Chui Mui and director Deepak Menon to take this filmic route through the plantations. They are reported as saying that they “wanted to make a film that their families would want to watch.” (That sounds a little like the death knell of a radical artistic vision and more like Hallmark, except I’ve known some pretty funky and radical families). Indeed the piece had the two speaking like they worked for the Ministry of National Unity or Ministry of Education. Indeed, Deepak Menon is quoted as saying “I want to remind [others] of the importance of education in the future development of a community.” A noble, if aesthetically misdirected, position.

Finally to betray my leanings and prejudices completely let me tell you what my favourite scene is: the seamstress sings a song about separation from her lover who is at the Front perhaps during Mao’s Long March. It captures the experience of loss and love, the poignancy of life framed by one of the heroic calamities of the 20th century. A simple moment but with depth.

First Published: 23.01.2005 on Kakiseni

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