We like to think that art has the power to significantly change the world around us. Just as the proponents of Social Realism once did, the creators of modern Hollywood films seem to believe that showing an improved version of the world onscreen will eventually bring about some version of the kingship of God and/or Man and with it — our deliverance. Romantics and avant-garde artists sometimes even argued that only art can change something. Thus, the Schlegel brothers, first inspired and then disappointed by the The French Revolution, lamented the ‘insane’ attempt of the Parisian rabble to influence reality politically and came to believe that it is art that enables us to envision the ‘lebendige Bild’ (‘living picture’) of the future and discern the transformation of all things in its magic mirror [1].

That’s precisely why the rare instances when art does make a difference, such as the story of Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line (1988) inducing the prosecutor to reconsider the previous sentence of the movie’s protagonist, or Chingiz Aitmatov’s Jamila inpiring Kyrgyz women’s emancipation, loom so glorious. Even the infamy of Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther that allegedly caused a wave of suicides among the reading public in Europe seems aspirational to many. Such cases, of course, are rare and do not lend themselves to industrial scale production, so Hollywood marketing experts have come up with a more abstract — and easily falsifiable — concept of ‘cultural relevance’ [2], or sometimes ‘significance’. Hardly a major premiere takes place without new articles about how a particular film (or a previous installment of the franchise) has affected someone’s life. For example, Rupert Read, a philosopher and a former spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion writes about Avatar: “The original Avatar was more than a movie. It was an event. It was reportedly pulled from some theatres by the Chinese government for fear it could incite land revolts; slammed by the Christian right for its “anti-Americanism”; used eagerly by anti-extractivism and anti-colonialism protesters; elicited depression among those who left cinemas to face the impoverished Earth of our cityscapes; and I personally heard that it led some viewers to sell their 4x4s, leave the army and much, much more. This was no ordinary film.” [3]. Unfortunately, it is usually impossible to verify such stories, unlike the tangible damage that the production of any multimillion-dollar film does to the environment. And in the end, even when it actually gets to verifying the rumors and it turns out that they were untrue or greatly exaggerated, this does not prevent the myth from spreading and thus helping to sell tickets, toys, T-shirts, and other merchandise.

Of course, the desire to change the viewer and through them the rest of the world is not always merely play-acted for entertainment, as in a marketing make-believe. It is also at the heart of many modernist projects. Even if we limit ourselves to cinema, there are many ‘transformative’ strategies: from Soviet pre-war montage theory to Tarkovsky’s pseudo-Hegelianism, from the overabundance of Brechtian practices to Rancièrian participatory approach, and many others.

Having started with the unhurried monochrome grace of Shavam (2015)Vith (2017), and 1956 Central Travancore (2019), Don Palathara continued his formal exercises in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (2021), where the literally confined setting (a car) matched the figuratively confined, tense efforts at communication of the characters forced together on their way to the hospital. In the same year, Palathara made a successful attempt to deconstruct the viewer’s identification with the camera gaze in Everything Is Cinema. Thus, it would seem that he belongs among the modernist filmmakers listed above, with all their ways of transforming reality through cinema. However, his new film, Family, belongs to a very different, realist tradition.

The return to the familiar setting of his first three films, the state of Kerala, makes this difference all the more apparent. One of the most notable features of the state is the lush vegetation that has earned it popularity among both Indian and foreign tourists, and provides mainstream films with an attractive backdrop that does not require digital embellishment. In his first films, however, Palathar partially neutralized the richness of the environment, favoring austere shades of gray that facilitated the viewer’s perception of both the story and formal devices used to deliver it, and created a kind of phantasmatic environment where dreams and fears sometimes seemed as material as everyday life (this approach reached its highest point in the final film of this trilogy, 1956, Central Travancore). Whereas in the new film, reality returns all its colors. Moreover, the shots here often begin with an ‘empty’ landscape devoid of people, while the characters only appear a second or two later, and even then the eye can sometimes lose them in a riot of shades of green.

The protagonist of Family, the local do-gooder Sonny (Vinay Forrt), first enters the frame wearing a green shirt and is shown only in medium shots. He doesn’t stand out much in the background of the same color. Sonny lives in a backwater Christian community where everyone seems to be part of one big family. He helps some boy learn poetry for school, and other children as well with some thing or other. He gives a helping hand to pretty much anyone in need. Sonny is the soul of his village, where mutual help seems to be the norm. As the story progresses, however, there’s a growing number of small details that make you suspect that all is not well in this utopian community. Flying termites swarm in the air, filling the entire screen. Traces of blood left behind after a leopard kills some livestock hardly truly frighten anyone apart from children. The adults are lazily digging a trap-hole, but don’t seem too worried. The static nature of some shots gives them a strange tension, like in many of the night scenes, or when Sonny is doing math with the girl, but we cannot fully see what is going on, the camera just refuses to move and remains fixed on the head of the family who is in turn immersed in watching TV, as if he would prefer not to know what is happening. The reluctance to see and discuss anything is a recurrent theme of the film: even when underlying conflicts spill over into open quarrels, their causes are never explicitly communicated (an impressive achievement of Palathara and Sherin Catherine, who colloborated on screenwriting before and seem to work really well together). Not-speaking becomes a repressive practice, and those who dare to bring up uncomfortable topics are punished. No matter how you spin it, violence is inevitable; we see the same thing in another contemporary Indian film, P.S. Vinothraj’s Pebbles. However, although Palathara seems to be dealing with a somewhat similar subject, his refusal to explain what is happening, to show and speak about the unspoken and hidden becomes a liberating tool. Perception is no longer facilitated, but rather hampered: the viewer doesn’t just have to look for the characters, trying to discern them in the jungle, but also to look for the traces of violence on his own, while the film camera takes on the role of silent guide. What happens beyond the edge of the frame, what does this or that gesture or touch mean?

The symbolic animals, the leopard and the snake, do not so much help with the interpretation but complicate it: the reluctance to go out and actually catch the dangerous beast is akin to the way fellow villagers and church officials do not want to know anything about what Sony does when away from the camera. The snake, of course, reminds us of the biblical fall, but this film we are watching is definitely no Adam and Eve story, and it’s not the original sin that is the root of all evil in Family.

Don Palatkhara demands our attention, educates the eye with his reluctance to give direct answers, and this approach becomes an alternative both to loud modernist sloganeering and to the more typical ‘realist’ melodrama, whose viewers empathize with the characters, thus elevating themselves in their own eyes, but are usually unable to notice similar situations in real life upon leaving the cinema, and, hence, are unable to influence them. What Palathara offers is not an emotional catharsis, but rather a kind of training tool to develop the viewers’ skills of perception. What then, if learning to notice what is hidden in the film, we could do notice more elsewhere?

[1] See in Friedrich Schlegel, Philosophical Fragments. University of Minnesota Press, 1991. 

[2] How Avatar: The Way of Water can make $2 billion and still feel irrelevant.


[3] Avatar 2 should make us completely rethink our relationship with the planet.