A tale of rural Keralan life that will leave an imprint on your soul
A film that will strike a chord with all who watch it, Ottal is a beautifully shot, beautifully told and beautifully poignant feat of cinematography. From the opening shots of the vast wetlands that stretch across the screen like an oil painting, to the captivating sight of hundreds of ducks descending on the backwaters, Director Jayaraj has created a gently paced tale that though feels calm and quiet, concludes with an emotional loudness that will leave you in tears.
Our protagonists are an elderly duckfarmer and his recently orphaned eight year-old grandson Kuttappayi, who reside in the wetlands of Kuttanadu, Kerala. The pair spend their days herding ducks from a canoe, and their nights sharing stories. Kuttappayi also spends much of his day getting to know the friendly folk who reside in the village. Each of the local characters he befriends bring their own warmth and charm to the captivating story, from the blindman who fishes on the same spot of the river bank each day, to the gentleman who operates a lighthouse every evening, just incase its rays are needed.
Friendship also blossoms between Kuttappayi and a local schoolboy and it’s a pleasure watching them develop a bond, spending their evenings in the beautiful backwaters, teaching each other new ways to view the world, until one day their bond breaks. What starts as a beautiful depiction of rural Keralan life, turns into the horrors of the reality faced by orphans, worldwide, who are forced into child labour. An emotional watch, this darker side of the tale is unexpected and saddening but it’s here that it draws a parallel with the Russian short story Vanka, by Anthon Chekov that Ottal is based on. Vanka addressed child labour 130 years ago and one of Jayaraj’s motivations for making the film was that it’s a reminder that the situation hasn’t changed; millions of children around the globe are still in this dreadful situation.
Jayaraj cast local people to act in the film, including the leads, and their natural portrayal of daily life is both believable and admirable. Their delicate delivery and enthusiasm for the simple things in life like collecting duck eggs and cooking together make for a rewarding watch.
The landscapes too are outstanding and the colouring and lighting though dark, adds to the serenity of experiencing this film. For this reason it deserves to be watched on the big screen and though the conclusion of the tale is somber, there is a welcomed glimmer of hope at the end.
Ottal screened at The London Indian Film Festival 2016.