Midhun Murali’s film suggests cinema is power itself; a dissenting voice against all kinds of oppression, it makes us question our biases with bold new ways of presenting a story

Midhun Murali’s Kiss Wagon, which premiered in the Tiger Competition at International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR) last week, won the Special Jury Award as well as the FIPRESCI (Fédération Internationale de la Presse Cinématographique or International Federation of Film Critics) prize. The Malayalam-English selection from India can be best described as an animated epic adventure film though it is far more than that.

It is not an easy task to elaborate what the film is about; it bends genres and quickly metamorphoses from one thing to another, complementing its chapter division based on evolutionary metamorphosis. It has a prologue and an epilogue, flanked by chapters titled The Egg, The Larva, The Pupa. True to form, it doesn’t complete the process. It leaves us with more questions than answers and that is a great achievement for this quasi-experimental film.

A black and white and grey universe

But why not take a stab at describing Kiss Wagon? It is seemingly set in a futuristic era, but it could be just a parallel universe. Government and religion or church and state are indistinguishable and the overlord — whoever that is — controls everything with the abandon of a joystick. There is no colour in this world contained by strange religious dogma where a period of three days of darkness called Themhotha arrives every 25 years followed by the Atqaba event. A cajon, referred to as the sacred cajon, is the holy grail of this place where people speak Malayalam and English with different intonations.

Our hero is Isla, a one-woman parcel delivery service, who is given the task of delivering something strange to a stranger-sounding address by a Ms. Rebecca Hump. The names are everything. Pablo Escobar. Rebecca Hump. Roger Bavalson. Totto. Fifi. Historiographies collide, double agents expose themselves, and a saviour rises and fails every Themhotha. Can Isla deliver this all-important parcel and seek deliverance for one and all? Also, all of this is set within a frame narrative. Soan and Kwah, extraterrestrials in this world, witness all this action and try to piece everything together.

Kiss Wagon is astonishing to look at and experience. Its animation is minimalist and understated; it combines different styles and paradigms. A handful of scenes look like old-world rear-projections, with the background looking as real as an actual filmed footage or photograph. Maybe they are. Characters are stick figures and sometimes they are given a little more detail. But they are always silhouette and shadows and everything is mostly black and white and grey. Faces and bodies are opaque black, there are no features except when lips magically appear over plain countenance.

Meta storytelling

Sometimes it feels like reading a graphic novel with the images having only two axis and occasionally we see the third dimension and there is depth to a frame. It not only combines genres but there is also a bending of genders. In a land where freedom and liberty are scarce, and a boy is said to have committed the greatest sin by wearing a flowery frock, self-expression and self-determination are grave crimes.

We hear snatches of Isla and others’ backstories. They cross paths, coalesce and break away from each other over a span of decades. Personal history is not the only realm of mystery, even sexuality and gender are unclear. Maybe that is the point. Isla is said to be asexual. But is she? Are those details important? Will that colour our experience or change the story? Kiss Wagon makes us question our biases with bold new ways of presenting a story that is made of several different stories.

What is a better medium than cinema for such meta storytelling? There are many instances where cinema theatres are used as the place of action. In some cases, they are the centerpiece and in others, they are just ornamental and part of the cityscape. Cinema is a big part of Kiss Wagon. The title of the film appears 25 minutes into this almost-three-hour epic. Like in the real world, the film-within-the-film-with-the-same-title is a lost arthouse classic, unarchived but preserved by a theatre (called Cinema) operator named Pablo Escobar. The second half is missing but that doesn’t stop him from playing the film for re-run after re-run.

Pushes the envelope

The film is made by MG which also happens to be the initials of Midhun and Greeshma Ramachandran, credited as creative partner. In the film, the makers talk about the future of independent cinema and the inconsequential nature of the mainstream. But like in mainstream films, there is a comical police officer who cannot let go of the control room and many scenes that riff on traditional comedy found in Indian cinema. The character is credited as “stupid cop with radio”. Another is credited as “good cop in balloon”.

Kiss Wagon suggests cinema is power itself and can be moulded into any fashion for all ends. It’s an abstract piece of art that is at once about one thing and everything. Its joys are in how handmade it looks; simple and straightforward figures and images are imbued with profound radical weight and meaning. Its making suggests gargantuan effort by only a few people. Midhun is credited for story, screenplay, direction, animation, compositing, editing, sound design, music and voices for John, Captain Hump, Soan and others.

Greeshma is creative partner with credits on story, co-writing and voices for almost all the women in the film. Between them, they also share the music credits. Jicky Paul is credited as the voice of most of the male characters and the cops. A small team with an epic film that pushes the boundaries of cinema and storytelling, and positions itself as a dissenting voice against all kinds of oppression while also being accessible, funny, exhilarating and entertaining. What’s not to like?

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