Virtual Bharat: Recreating the Muthuvan marriage

In the documentary Muthuvan Kalyanam, director Shawn Sebastian and cinematographer Sudeep Elamon take the audience deep inside the Western Ghats to attend a Muthuvan tribe wedding. The film is part of Bharatbala’s 1000-film Virtual Bharat series.

Subha J Rao
| Updated: February 13th, 2021

It’s 11 in the night and you almost feel the chill in the air and smell the crushed leaves. On screen, the beautiful Western Ghats comes alive in all its splendour. You follow some people walking in the dense jungle, on their way to a wedding. 

The wedding is at Kunchippara, in Kerala’s Ernakulam district, pincode 686681. And, we are all invited to Muthuvan Kalyanam, a wedding in the Muthuvan tribe.

The documentary, directed by Shawn Sebastian with cinematography by Sudeep Elamon, is part of Bharatbala’s Virtual Bharat, a curation of a thousand stories from India. The tribal dialect spoken in the film has Malayalam and Tamil influences, and there are subtitles in English.

In the nine-minute documentary, a grandfather tells his grandchild a story. He speaks of hoary customs now lost, of the beauty of the bride, Kalyani, of the ritual where a prospective bride enters the forest with her friends, to be pursued by the groom, who, when he finds her, will marry her in a union blessed by Nature. The film takes you along, never lingering, unless the tribal people choose to stop by and stare. In a fleeting shot, a girl stops to prise a rock and holds the insects that crawl out from underneath. 

In another, the bride climbs a tree, making it more difficult for her suitor to find her.

This is idyllic terrain — there’s a sparkling waterfall, an untouched forest, trees that reach up to the sky, wildlife, and the tribal people — children of the land. You know they walk the path their ancestors did, but you also know the path is not without danger. The characters in the film live in the moment.

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The Muthuvan groom must prove he’s worthy of his bride. He enters the forest with a band of elders who lead the way. There could be tigers, elephants, scorpions. The bride and groom’s teams sing teasing songs of desire, aashapaatu. Finally, they find each other, are married and return home to be showered with turmeric water.

Speaking to Gaon Connection about the film, director Sebastian said that this film came into being after filmmaker Bharatbala read a line about the tribe in an in-flight magazine and the story reached out to him. “I met academics, did my research, spoke to tribal elders and the young, and did a lot of recce before I zeroed in on the places we would shoot, primarily Ernakulam and Idukki districts of Kerala.” The film was shot in December 2016.

While the tradition of getting married inside the forest does not exist anymore, the film is an attempt to recreate a time when the Muthuvans lived in tune with Nature and followed the traditions of their elders. “One way of narrating a story is to interview people. That’s journalistic. We wanted it to be artistic, cinematic. That’s when we decided the granddad would narrate it as a story,” said Sebastian.

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It is very easy to make tribal people seem exotic when making a film about them, but Sebastian maintains the eye of the outsider, and showcases them with empathy. “We cannot avoid the outsider’s gaze, that’s our reality. But, I have been very careful to make this participative. They speak their language, none of the conversation was scripted. We just travelled with them through the forest, and the scene with the insects, that was not planned or scripted,” he said.

The tribal elders were initially sceptical about letting in people with cameras, but relented when told this was to be a documentation of their life. The kani or tribal head featured in the film too, as the groom’s friend. “Their inputs were needed, we did not want to show anything external to the story.”

Bharatbala told Gaon Connection he continues to be amazed by the diversity of stories found across India’s landscape, despite “linguistic and cultural differences”. He set out to make a thousand of these stories, but said that “that’s a small number” for what we can do with opportunities and creative ideas in a nation with as rich a civilisation as ours.

The team has so far researched for 300 films and filmed about 90, of which 21 have been released. “Another sixty are in various stages of post production. The most important ingredient is that these are not manufactured stories. We took a very open-minded and open-hearted approach to the subject, across categories,” Bharatbala added. 

Research, the filmmaker said, is at the heart of Virtual Bharat. “These are stories drawn from notes I made over twenty years of my journeys across the country. These are well curated stories. The most creative engagement for me is to find the story, research and shape it. It’s something that happens every day, every moment.”

Cinematographer Elamon, most recently known for his stellar work in the Malayalam superhit Ayyappanum Koshiyum, transports the audience to pincode 686681. He’s worked in wildlife films before, but said this was a new experience, because it involved a real story. “We approached it cinematically inside the forest, and that was exciting. We wanted a human element, and emotions. Once we did the recce, I knew I wanted to shoot in a couple of locations. One of them was the waterfall. Since we know the bride travels first, we thought we would place them above the waterfall, and the groom below. This is the extent of ‘fiction’ we lent the project,” he told Gaon Connection

Despite being someone who has captured Nature in all its hues for people, Elamon said that he is still awed amidst it.  “Nothing beats being there. On screen, it’s different. There’s music, and a lot of elements come into play. There, you live in the moment.”

What kind of satisfaction do projects like Virtual Bharat give a person who is a known name in feature films? “In films, I work with two hundred odd people. We create rain, we create light. But, here, we are four or five people travelling across the country. We go to remote areas, find interesting stories, live and shoot in the moment. This satisfaction is something different.”

Meanwhile, in the film, the grandfather ends his narration with a sigh. “Dowry and gold have become mandatory. Back then, a word of honour was enough,” he tells the grandchild. “Our forests have gone, our traditions have gone,” he laments.

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