Tag Archives: kerala

New York to Kerala, American Actress India Jarvis Makes a Malayalam Film Debut

The first time Director, Jeo Baby mentioned her name, I thought I had heard him wrong. It was prior to the release of his film, Kilometers and Kilometers. Requesting him to repeat the actress’s name, I heard him say India Jarvis again. Now I was convinced of my hearing. 

Actress, India Jarvis

India Jarvis might be an unusual name for this New York-raised American actress. And, clearly, her mother had no inkling while christening her daughter India, that one day her little girl would cross the shores to work in the eponymous country. 

Jarvis traveled in 2019 to India on her first visit for the filming of the Malayalam film, ‘Kilometers and Kilometers.’

“My mother named me after one of the characters in ‘Gone With the Wind,’ says Jarvis over email. “She found the name beautiful.”

Jarvis’s love for acting goes back to her childhood when as a 9-year-old, she joined a community theater. And, with a BFA from the Academy of Art University (San Francisco), she moved to New York. She worked there in Off-Broadway shows and short films.

Kilometers and Kilometers is her first Indian feature film where she essays the lead role of Cathy- an American tourist in India. Cathy after winning at a casino is keen on touring the country, but not in chauffeured cars. She is eager on exploring India while riding pillion on a motorcycle.

When the offer to do this Malayalam film came her way, Jarvis despite being unaware of the industry, took it up.

“I have watched Indian films,” she says. “My favorite is ‘Black’ – the Amitabh Bachchan starrer. As an actor, you’re always looking for scripts with interesting stories and characters.”

Like her character, it was her first experience traveling to India. 

“I’ve never worked on anything like this before. I knew it would be a challenge from an acting perspective.”

Talking about her director, Jarvis says, “Jeo had a great vision for this film. I knew it was in great hands.”

In Kilometers and Kilometers, she is paired opposite Kerala’s heartthrob –Tovino Thomas. Thomas plays Josemo, a motorbike mechanic who takes on the work opportunity to drive Cathy around on his motorbike. Being the only son, he supports his widowed mother and younger sister and hopes to clear his family debts with the money thus earned. 

Jarvis was at ease working with Tovino Thomas. 

“While shooting, I found myself lost at times due to the language barrier. Tovino was always helpful,” she recalls.  “There’s one scene where Josemon and Cathy are sitting on the edge of a cliff. We were secured by a rope around our waists. It was terrifying, but I put on a brave face to get through the scene. Pillion riding on a motorcycle was a blast. Despite a hectic schedule, it was almost therapeutic.”

Kilometers and Kilometers is a feel-good film now streaming on Netflix.

Following its release, Jarvis has been flooded with messages on social media. Though she has received offers to work in India, she is unable to travel in the existing pandemic times.


Mythily Ramachandran is an independent journalist based in Chennai, India with over twenty years of reporting experience. Besides contributing to leading Indian and international publications including Gulf News (UAE), South China Morning Post, and Another Gaze (UK), she is a Rotten Tomatoes critic. Check out her blog – http://romancing-cinema.blogspot.com/ 


 

In the Land of Narmada: Visions From 50 Years Ago

Sri. Nettur P. Damodaran (1913-1978) was a prominent public figure from the state of Kerala, India, who had made contributions in various fields as a freedom fighter, political activist,  social worker, author, journalist, Member of Parliament, and a senior government official. The recently published book In the Land of Narmada, which is a translation of a travelogue written by him in Malayalam and first published fifty years ago, is a fascinating work due to many reasons. It shines a light on many facets of the state of Madhya Pradesh, which are unknown to the present generation.

Among such lesser-known aspects of daily life in the province are those related to the dreaded gangs of dacoits.  For all practical purposes, dacoits have been eliminated in central India, the current generation, including the youngster from those areas, are not aware of the sway they once held on the day-to-day life of the people. 

Apart from their social impact, the stories of these bands, which included the full spectrum, from the scum of the earth right up to almost noble souls, make fascinating reading. The personal experiences of the author had half a century back, as highlighted in the excerpts below,  will certainly ignite curiosity in the minds of the readers to learn more about them. 

Dacoits come in, right in the introduction to the book written by renowned novelist, travelogue writer, and winner of Jnanpith Award,  Sri. S. K. Pottekkatt wherein he describes an experience he had while traveling with the author: 

“….I still remember a small incident that happened during that trip. Somewhere on the way, a group of six or seven men stopped the bus in which we were travelling. We noticed few passengers getting up and making seats available for them when they boarded the bus. Those who entered the bus were seen speaking loudly and gesticulating among themselves. We understood that they were showering abuses in strong colloquial tongue. Suddenly, a young man with thick moustache got up from his seat, removed his footwear and started slapping a fairly old and hefty man on both sides of his cheeks and shoulder without respite.

While receiving the blows, the elderly man did not utter a word nor did he resist. He just unsuccessfully tried to evade and then quietly withdrew, mumbling. The conductor, the driver and the passengers remained silent throughout the episode as if they have not seen anything. Nettur and I were a bit perplexed.

Once the bus reached a deserted place, after travelling two or three miles, the thick moustached young man ordered the driver to stop. After the bus stopped, first the young man followed by others in the group, including the person who received the slaps, got down and went away. Once the bus started to move after they disembarked, the passengers heaved a deep sigh of relief. Then they broke their silence. It appears the ones who disembarked were the members of a dacoit gang!”

Sri. Nettur P. Damodaran continues his narration in the chapter on the dacoits – Please keep in mind the fact that this book was written fifty years back. Many of the schemes described and societal changes envisioned by the author have already happened, which in turn highlights his unique insight and foresight.

From ‘Land of Narmada’, originally published in the year 1972

……Along with a team comprising a clerk, a peon, and a driver, I left Delhi to go on a tour of Madhya Pradesh, one day. Traversing the dacoits-dominated districts of Morena, Gwalior, and Shivapuri, we reached Shivapuri. Though we had some apprehensions in our minds, none of the dacoits cared for us. What would they gain by robbing us?

It is the rich, those who don’t pay upon their demands and the informants who help to catch them, that they generally kidnap and harm. Perhaps they would have known that neither I nor my party falls in that category. Apart from that, our travel was in broad daylight and on the Agra–Bombay National Highway. There’s heavy traffic on that highway.

It appears the dacoits have great respect for such highways. They are also true nationalists, who abhor parochialism! If anyone travels fearlessly on provincial roads, they do not spare them. Those holding local sentiments and are parochial in mind should hence exercise extreme caution before venturing on such roads. Generally, they do not harm outsiders. They catch hold of only those who are living among them; whom they know very well.

Dacoits also have certain needs, don’t they? They approach the rich and seek money, when in need. If the approached one does not pay up, they simply withdraw after setting a date. On that chosen date, they reach there and take him as a hostage. Once the set ransom is paid, the person is brought back as well. However, if he does not pay up, the rich man will never return home.

Helping the poor and the suffering lot is one of their covenants. They donate liberally to the poor parents for meeting the expenses of their daughters’ weddings. Is it for nothing that the authorities are failing to eliminate the dacoits? “

The political philosophy of the dacoit gangs also is socialism. They have a popular base and public support—the egalitarian principles of the dacoits are generally applied to those ruthless anti-socials, who have amassed wealth by exploiting the poor. I used to wonder at times whether areas such as Morena, Shivapuri, Bhind, and Gwalior aren’t more suited than Kerala for communism to flourish.

The dacoits do not have any special affinity towards communism. They are believers in God. For them, committing dacoity and even murder is considered as acts of offering to God. Whether communism will take roots among them is a matter to be seen.

Vinobaji had conducted a padayatra over there. He also did succeed to some extent. But it is difficult for Vinobaji to succeed where government, police, law, rules, etc. are enmeshed in tangles. If such issues were not there, probably Vinobaji could have succeeded and the dacoits could have undergone a change of hearts and their lives would have found new streams to flow. Though they do not respect the law, they have certain laws of their own. They follow them. Before carrying out every dacoity, they bow before their Goddess.  The boundaries of operation for individual gangs are set. If anyone breaks these boundaries, they fight among themselves. As a result, many die. It is believed by the villagers that such dead bodies of dacoits killed in inter-gang fights are later picked up by the police and exhibited as the ones killed in police encounters falling prey to their guns to gain fame. To my knowledge, this belief is not only among the villagers but among others also. 

Many officials who had been in the captivity of the dacoits had described their experiences to me. Once the houses of the officials stationed in the district headquarters of Bhind district for the construction of an irrigation project fell prey to the dacoits. They did not harm anybody. After selecting and bundling things lying there that they felt would be of use, they dispersed peacefully. There is a danger only if they are resisted. In such a case, in addition to money, lives also may be lost. In Bhind itself, once a lady officer fell into their hands. But they did not do any harm. Being a lady and an outsider, she was let off. But her peon, a local, who got up from sleep and came there on hearing the noise had to bear a minor burn inflicted on his hand. Perhaps a punishment for not vigilantly guarding his lady boss. This was the only harm done by them.

In Shivapuri, we had parked our car in front of a shop for filling the tank. That shop was owned by a rich Sait. A month before, that very shop and the town had witnessed a scene. A few men came in a jeep, alighted in front of the shop, and asked the owner Sait to board the jeep. As if accompanying known people, Sait boarded the jeep. Only much later did the citizens of Shivapuri realize that the people who came in the jeep were dacoits and it was an abduction for money, after the Sait returned spending few days as their captive and guest and regaining his lost freedom by paying up the ransom. The shop and the Sait are still there. The Sait is quite sure that they will not approach him again for quite some time. The dacoits observe many such etiquettes. They approach an old target only after completing a full cycle of covering all the targets on the list. Such an understanding exists between the rich and the dacoits. Many people in the area also believe that there is a different set of understanding between the police and the dacoits. I have met many who believe that the issue of dacoits remains unresolved because both sides have reconciled on cooperative coexistence within certain limits. 

Chambal Valley (Image from Land of Narmada)

The Government has a good scheme to sink the dacoits. It is the Chambal ravines that aid the dacoits to hide and engage in guerrilla battles. 

On our way from Dholpur in Rajasthan to Gwalior in Madhya Pradesh, we reached Shivapuri after crossing this gorgeous and modest river that flows along the border between the two states. It is difficult to believe that dacoits are hiding within the folds of the flowing attire of this charming beauty of a river that is streaming through a long and broad path far beyond the line of sight.

If the shores on both the sides are visually examined, one can find truth in these stories. Because of the soil erosion due to the continuous flow of water, the terrain formed over a long distance is full of large pits, mounts, and caves. It will appear as if nature has built a fort for the dacoits to have a free run in the area. The Government’s plan is to flatten these areas for making them cultivable and to smoke out the dacoits like wild rats. The name of the scheme is Chambal Valley Reclamation Scheme. Long live the Chambal project!


Pradeep Nettur, the translator of the book, is the second son of the author. An Engineer by training and a Civil servant by profession, spanning 36 years, he pursued his literary passion by taking up the translation of this masterclass work of his father, which, though widely appreciated, was confined in the vernacular for about 50 years, for laying it before the world of an extended, enlightened and enlarged readership.


 

Coconut and Mangrove Dreams

I am standing on a stunning cliff-top, situated between two deserted strips of honey colored beaches, looking across a jade colored infinity pool fringed by palm trees. Away from the bustle of Kovalam, near Trivandrum, Kerala is Niraamaya Surya Samudra (part of Relais and Chateaux) where the property is studded with typical teak wood Kerala houses called tharavadu with wooden pillars, terracotta roofs and tiled floors built by local craftsmen from recycled wood, garnered from hundred year old Kerala homes.

I love the fact that greenery pervades even the bath areas. A gargantuan banyan tree that spreads its tentacles all over the open bath area and watches over a room.

It’s a celebration of architecture and the culture of Kerala with multiple elements woven into the landscape—gleaming urulis (circular bell metal vessel) filled with bright red flowers, kalvilakkus (stone lamps), yaalis (part lion, part elephant, part horse sculptures), rotund stone Ganeshas resting beneath the abounding coconut trees guarding their territory in proprietary fashion, brilliant Kerala murals with their natural dyes in orange and ochre livening up walls, heavy wooden doors carved with intricate details, large plantation chairs to watch the sea and small hanging bells outside each room.

I am near the the breathtaking coastal village of Pulinkudi, about 10 km from Trivandrum, where Klaus Schleusener, a professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, transformed a barren hill into his winter home. Today his original house called the “Octagon House” still lives on in the property.

Klaus built the Octagonal House where he spent his winters and eventually, since his friends loved to come and stay with him, he bought some more land and reassembled old Kerala homes. “He transformed the life of the local village where you could not even get five eggs from one shop” says Renjith, the operations manager of the resort. The omnipresent motif of Niraamaya Surya Samudra is of course the sea. At night you hear the waves pounding the rocks as you drift off to sleep, and in the morning you wake up to yoga on the pavilion overlooking the beach and “pre-dawn tea on the beach” with the waves lapping at your toes.

The cotages have idyllic positions set in lush foliage and with magnificent sea views. The best part of the resort is the spa with its own herb garden which provides ingredients for the treatments. I have a simple Abhayanga snanam (bath) with earthy smelling herbs and oils.

 

A Kathakali performer in full costume and extravagant makeup
A Kathakali performer in full costume and extravagant makeup

Therapists gently wash my feet before I am lying supine on a wooden table placed in a bamboo curtained therapy room. After being kneaded by expert hands, I feel like I am almost levitating. Come nightfall we sit on tables at the Essence restaurant and watch a Kathakali performance.

Originating in northern Kerala this combines mime, classical music, and intricate eye movements. The make-up with vibrant colours applied to the characters is part of its charm.

Traditionally a vibrant green face means good, white indicates super-human and crimson red signifies the demonic!

We take a backwater cruise through mangroves to Poovar estuary where the river Neyyar has breached the sand banks and reached the ocean. It’s a sight I cannot easily forget. The ferocity of the waves, the balance of nature that ensures that the backwaters don’t flood the homes on it and the golden sand banks with tender coconut sellers and brightly dressed locals.

Canoeing through the mangroves is a slice of local life: some young men boisterously washing an elephant named Mahadevan Kutty; a pistachio green mosque; women bathing on the banks and the prolific bird life—a snake bird which has us searching for a decapitated head of a snake in the waters, a sea eagle gliding and soaring and cormorants diving to get their fresh meal. I leave the resort the next day, with a heavy heart and a heavier hamper of fresh organic beetroot pickle and pineapple jam, promising myself a return journey here.

Fort Kochi in the evening dusk on the coast of Kerala
Fort Kochi in the evening dusk on the coast of Kerala

From the beaches we make the long road journey to Kochi and stay in the historic Fort Kochi which is intricately connected to the city’s importance down the ages as a trading post for spices. The Portuguese, the Dutch and the British settled here in the past attracted by its lucrative spice trade.

Our home away from home is the Malabar House a boutique hotel—a labor of love by German designer and hotelier Joerg Drechsel and his pretty Basque wife Txuku. The property has a history that can be traced back to the 1700s.

I walk into an airy reception with a huge red sphere suspended from the ceiling and eye catching art on the walls with a carved wooden horse and a café courtyard with a frangipani tree. My room has a teak four poster bed, an electric red wall with a painting and delightful cotton cushions.

I squeeze myself into a local auto for a quick conducted tour of the grid of streets, where every door, window and brick offers a lesson in multi layered history. From the early eighteenth-century Dutch Cemetery, an old Jewish House converted into a hotel, Princess Street dotted with old fashioned villas converted to boutique hotels and guesthouses, the ochre St Francis church (where Vasco Da Gama, who died in 1524, was buried before his mortal remains were returned to Portugal 14 years later) and the large Parade Ground dotted with boys playing a boisterous game of cricket under the massive umbrellas of giant rain trees.

A historic part of Mattancherry
A historic part of Mattancherry

Just over a mile away is Mattancherry, the Jewish quarter, where I get lost in antique warehouses lining Jew Street piled with carved wooden doors, window frames and furniture gleaned from old Kerala homes and the Pardesi Synagogue with its Cantonese hand-painted tiles and its ornate Belgian chandeliers. We end up at the water’s edge where we find the iconic Chinese nets that look like giant spiders, erected in teak wood and bamboo poles with a network of pulleys, silhouetted against the setting sun making for a brilliant photo-op.

Come nightfall, Malabar House entraps you in its romantic ambience with musicians strumming sitars, a sparkling pool, fairy lights strung around trees and a traditional pole framed dais.

 

The exterior of Aspinwall facing the Kerala coastline
The exterior of Aspinwall facing the Kerala coastline

We spend a morning at the Kochi Biennale which has brought streams of visiors to Kochi.

Historic sites like the sleepy Cochin Club, the sea facing historic Aspinwall House with several warehouses, David Hall—a Dutch House from the 17th century, and Pepper House have become temporary spaces for experimentation—a space for artists to do something not bound by commerce with its mix of film, installation, sculpture, painting, performance art and new media.

Of course any Kerala sojourn revolves around water, and it’s to the backwaters that we head last. This is a tight network of bottle green lagoons, estuaries and deltas of forty four rivers and canals where sky and water segue seamlessly in a silvery haze. Water and greenery are motifs of this part of the state.

Our last sojourn is at the boutique property Purity, on Lake Vembanad which used to be an Italian guest house and Joerge has converted it into a vibrant turquoise and pink haven of rooms with leather puppets sandwiched behind sheets of glass lit up, modular blocks of furniture designed by him, larger-than-life bathrooms and antiques dotted around the hotel ranging from a palanquin to a statue of the super-god Hanuman. With its stained-glass windows and airy verandas decorated with contemporary art, this is a visual feast. We take a canoe ride across Lake Vembanad  with water hyacinths, as houseboats called ketuvallams drift by.

We watch these micro-economies where kids play in the water and farmers herd ducklings to feed in paddy fields and strong men row small boats weighed down with cargo or dive for mussels.

In the evening we dine on the waterfront with candlelit tables, and ruminate over the trip through the beaches, backwaters and history of this state. Time seems to slow down and then remain still. A pace of life lined with lassitude that stays stored in your memory chip for years to come.

Kalpana Sunder is a travel writer and blogger based in Chennai, India who blogs at http://kalpanasunder.com/blog