You don’t know the torment of living inside this body. With these few words, Gulikan hints at what his eyes have been conveying throughout — pain, humiliation, exasperation and helplessness. For his sexuality at his hamlet, for his Paniya Malayalam in the city, for his tribal background and skin tone in his workplace, Gulikan is an outcast who lives in pain and ostracism. Only a handful of people understand his situation and empathise with him, and he is forced to flee, unwelcome in both the city and the jungle.
Convincingly and beautifully portrayed by Photographer-fame Mani, Gulikan is the central character of Udalazham (Body Deep), directed by Unnikrishnan Avala. “Gulikan is a tribal transgender, who got married at the age of 14 and becomes aware of his sexuality. How he is ostracised for being unable to conform to societal standards of beauty, colour, language and lifestyle, is the crux of the film. What I have tried to tell the audience through Udalazham are the stories I have seen and experienced so far,” says Unnikrishnan, the director, who has earlier brought out documentaries Womenses and The Last Page.
Udalazham, which is all set for screening at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) under the category Malayalam Cinema Today, discusses body politics, touches upon issues like displacement, tribal exploitation, social stigma, deforestation, drought, racism and how system barges into the lives of minorities and forces it upon the hapless human beings. Body politics stands out in the narration as a dancer asks, ‘Am I just a body’, and a sex worker stresses, ‘Body is a trap’. Unni explains, “Gulikan has been thinking that life would be better for the fair-skinned and women, but these situations make him realise that he was wrong. What is the real identity of a person — body or talent? I think body is just a medium for talent.”
Another focus is on the issues faced by the tribal community. “The greatest problem they face is loss of land. When urban spaces encroach jungles, the indigenous population of forests gets displaced. By exploiting their women and resources and providing them booze and tobacco, others culturally and emotionally destroy the vulnerable community. I was shocked when I learnt that Eranad (the erstwhile Malabar province) was named after the Aranadan tribal community which is now an endangered population,” Unni says.
Gulikan is based on a real life character — Raju, a tribal youngster who was born with a womb. “Gulikan is not Raju; his character is inspired from Raju’s,” he clarifies.
Actors Remya Valsala, Abu Valayamkulam, Rajiv Vellur, Mani P.R, Sajitha Madathil, Indrans and the members of Vettilakkolli tribal colony have done an outstanding job, especially the lead actors Mani and Remya.
“Tracing Mani was very tough. Just after Photographer, he had bagged film offers with Mammootty and Rajinikanth, but his father was jailed in a case and Mani dropped out of school. He got married at 15 and soon had kids. To feed his family, Mani was working as a labourer in ginger fields in Kodagu and in road construction. When his plight was brought to the fore, his sister committed suicide. Having faced tragedies after tragedies, Mani was almost in exile, uninterested in any contact with film industry.”
But when Unni contacted Mani’s family in his hamlet, his wife Pavizham confided in Unni that Mani yearned to act and was afraid. When she told him when Mani would come home, Unni went and met him and requested Mani to accompany him. They went on a journey and Mani stayed with Unni’s family for six months. In the meantime, he came out of his shell and slowly worked on his body language.
“He was the one who translated the dialogues into Paniya Malayalam,” Unni says, adding, “Remya is a theatre artiste and she kept on interacting with Mani to get into the skin of Mathi. A day before the shooting, I asked her to read Vipareetham, the book I had written on the life of Raju. Emotions pouring out from her eyes, hair and body language, she delivered a mind-blowing act, I believe.”
There are more stellar shows by actors who went the extra mile — like Abu, who gave up sleep to perfect the role. The shooting happened in Nilambur and Wayanad almost entirely in sync sound with minimum crew on the sets. They used natural lights everywhere; the night shots were lit by fire torches.
Unni says the plan is to do a reality check. “What we do in the name of development has a reverse effect. When the government builds concrete houses in tribal settlements, it doesn’t realise that extreme heat under the tin roof makes it impossible for them to live inside. Progress should happen by maintaining their indigenous knowledge and traditions.” Produced by Doctors Dilemma, Udalazham has on board Appu N. Bhattathiri as the editor, Renganath Ravee as the sound designer and Sithara Krishnakumar as the music composer. The film will be screened at IFFK on Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday....