June 17, 2018, by Peter Kirwan
Veeram @ Ulster Museum
One of the many advantages of Ramona Wray and Mark Thornton Burnett hosting this year’s British Shakespeare Association conference in Belfast was that, in line with their research interests, the conference featured an extraordinary line-up of international Shakespearean film. I didn’t get to all, but I was pleased to catch the British premiere of Veeram, Jayaraaj’s gorgeous South Indian adaptation of Macbeth. I missed the first twenty-or-so minutes, unfortunately, so should declare from the start that I almost certainly missed some essential orienting detail.
Visually, Jayaraaj’s film is simply stunning. The film runs to about two hours, but probably includes only about 45 minutes of material, given that almost the entire thing is shot in extreme slow-motion, privileging S. Kumar’s stunning photography and Jayaraaj’s eye for epic blocking, underscored with thunderous orchestra. Set in thirteenth-century North Malabar, the mise-en-scene situates its thinly (but richly) dressed actors among labyrinthine ruins, privileging the beauty and muscularity of actors’ bodies against powerful edifices, sheer ledges and glorious sunsets. Some of the larger-scale scenes have what looked to me like extremely shoddy CGI backdrops, though that might have been an issue of the quality of the print I was viewing.
The Macbeth narrative is readily apparent, including English subtitles that paraphrase and sometimes even directly quote Shakespeare. Kunal Kapoor’s Chandu is a conscientious warrior, initially loyal to his lord Aromal (Shivajith Padmanabhan). The establishing material would have helped me with the relationships, which I may have misunderstood, but in this version the Duncan figure, Aromal, is embroiled in a conflict for territorial control with rival warlord Aringodar Chekaver (Aaran), whose relative Kuttimani (Divinaa Thackur) is the Lady Macbeth figure. Here, Kuttimani seduces Chandu into betraying his lord, first by delaying offering him a sword during his showdown duel with Aringodar (which Aromal wins regardless), and then through murder.
The transformation of the protagonists from husband and wife into a newly forming couple allows for great frisson, their relationship built on conflicting motives as well as a number of distinctly unsexy seduction scenes involving daggers and rolling in coloured chalk (the chalk, and body painting throughout, presumably has cultural meanings that I am unaware of). Kuttimani is brutal, a haunting presence handy with multiple weapons and proactive in seductions; Chandu is swept away by her energy and unceasing persuasion. Yet the witches are also present – a cackling old woman and a naked young woman, who dips herself into water and speaks with a male voice. In a fascinating inset scene, the witches separately discuss their plans to scupper Chandu.
The film’s difficulties come with narrative clarity and the proliferation of characters, often in the service of a good-looking scene. The Banquo figure, Kelu, is the subject of some of the more stylish scenes, including a murder taking place in silhouette against sunrise, and his eerie head-turning appearance as the bloodied Ghost, but the character gets less time to establish himself in relation to Chandu. Much is made of the murder of the Lady Macduff figure, who throws herself and her child from a cliff rather than be torn apart by the assassins, but there is almost no mention made of her death subsequently; instead, the England scenes become a series of slow-motion training montages when the Malcolm figure is trained to fight in the rain by relatives including his aunt, who gets her own exciting training sequence before being reduced to mere spectatorship in the final scene. It is the Malcolm figure who faces off against Chandu in the final duel.
The film perhaps works best thought of as a series of pageants, with the characters moving from one formal ceremonial encounter – a duel, a challenge, a dance – to another, their interactions shaped by the events. Chandu and Kuttimani’s snatched moments around the edges of these public events are continually interrupted, ramping up the urgency; once Aromal is dead, however (and the discovery is, boldly, followed by Chandu’s onscreen murder of the two drunk guards), the film becomes largely procedural, the protagonists primarily waiting for the advent of the avengers. Kuttimani goes quietly mad, burbling about blood before killing herself with a sword in the shrine to which she has become increasingly devoted. The connection of Kuttimani with religious ceremony allows for a spiritual-mythical edge to the events, with Chandu conversely increasingly isolated from the gods.
Thinking of the film as pageants perhaps also allows some of the more idiosyncratic choices to be better appreciated. The initial conflict between the two competing claimants for power comes to a head with the choice of whether to settle it with a duel or a cockfight; the sudden revelation of two fighting roosters is so abrupt that it is perhaps unintentionally funny, but the battle between the cocks is surprisingly effective and upsetting, especially as the camera captures the defeated cock twitching on the slab; that Aringodar immediately demands a duel also speaks to the importance of the ritual. Other standalone sequences include Kuttimani’s dramatic use of a flail to decapitate six statues in her shrine in the wake of Aringodar’s death; the sight of the Fleance figure running while his father is thrust through in silhouette; and the image of the listless Chandu kneeling over the impaled body of his lover.
The conclusion is a long, drawn-out and rainy duel, in which the Malcolm figure – having trained to keep his feet in the rain – is beaten badly by Chandu before finally managing to wrap a flail around Chandu’s neck, the moment held for seemingly ages as everyone present realises that the battle is won. The final killing is stunning, as the flail is tightened and Chandu’s headless corpse is left to slowly fall to the ground. The film ends at this point, interested in the conclusion of this figure’s journey rather than the broader political ramifications.
Veeram is such a beautifully composed film that the jumble of characters and the somewhat impressionistic approach to character and narrative don’t ultimately detract from a visceral experience. It’s a Macbeth that hammers home its own epic quality, sidestepping politics but creating images that resonate long after the film’s conclusion.