As the opening credits roll in Richter Scale 7.6, folk artiste CJ Kuttappan's voice reverberates across the screen. Kuttappan does not just sing, he immerses himself in each word and note emerging from his lips.
¦Ineem ulla kaalam nammal paadaandirunnaa
Naadinde nattal potti nammal chaakum.
Chaavaandirikkaan engilum paadedi, theiyye.
Paadeettu chaavaan engilum paadedi, theiyye.
(Roughly: If in coming times we do not sing, the backbone of our homeland will be broken and we will die. If for no other reason than to ward off death, you must sing. If for no other reason than to die singing, you must sing.)
The song runs for about two minutes over a black screen with names in simple white lettering " two entire goosebump-inducing, poignant minutes that demand soul-searching from the viewer.
There is pain in this man's every breath. He sings because if he and his people do not, their story will never be told. He is acutely aware that in keeping with the practice of colonisers, conquerors and dominant social groups down the ages who have written history from their point of view while erasing or distorting the truth about the vanquished and the downtrodden, those who are destroying his community too will not reveal the havoc wreaked by the "karutha deivathe kollunna thambraande deivam" (literally: the god of the master who kills the black god).
A still from Richter Scale 7.6
He sings while exhorting others to also sing " for their survival and self-respect, and to ensure that they are not forgotten.
Like this song written by Madhu Narayanan with which the curtain rises on it, Richter Scale 7.6 is an anthem of protest and a chronicle of hidden lives. The film is based on a story by Reji Kumar K and Rajesh Kumar K. The unornamented grandeur of its preamble is mirrored by the central narrative of Richter Scale 7.6, which marks the feature debut of director Jeeva KJ.
At a basic level, Richter Scale 7.6 is about Ramankunju and Suku, a father and son living together in a hut in what appears to be a remote area. Until the film's eye-opening closing shot, we are not shown their surroundings but their limited human interactions indicate that it is a sparsely populated region.
Suku is a daily wage earner who also takes care of the house since his father seems to be unwell. He believes Ramankunju is mentally ill and so chains the old man to his bed each morning before leaving for work.
We gather from fleeting conversations that the family was offered compensation to leave this place. It is not specified whether they were asked to relocate to facilitate a project run by the government or private enterprise or both. Either way, Suku is furious and frustrated because Ramankunju refused to move though all the other locals did, as a result of which they now live in complete isolation. The situation has led to seismic shifts in the father-son equation, hence the title.
(Spoilers in the next six paragraphs)
As Richter Scale 7.6 rolls along, it gradually becomes evident that what Suku views as mental instability in his father is actually Ramankunju's desperation to hold on to his cultural roots and memories of his close ties with nature, and to Kollam Thullal, the indigenous dance form he once practised.
A still from Richter Scale 7.6
What, after all, is the definition of "normal" and "insanity" in a world where human beings denounce anyone who stands by their beliefs or will not rein in their minds. Ramankunju embodies a blend of both: an individual who resists being plucked out of his natural habitat while it is ravaged by his fellow humans, and who sets his mind free to honour the remembrance of his earlier existence.
By means of Sujith Sahadev's editing, for much of the film it is unclear when Ramankunju's imagination ends and reality begins.
Throughout his screen time, Ramankunju is portrayed as a man who is one with nature and not threatened by it. He is affectionate towards the stray kitten wandering into his room and challenges a snake, that he knows is not venomous, with a song.
Suku, on the other hand, is perennially angry and is even violent with Ramankunju.
Balance is restored and peace returns to their home only when roles are reversed following a dramatic turn of events. Ramankunju is not bitter at the treatment he has so far received from Suku. He does not seek revenge. He fought back earlier when he was struck, but now that he is not under attack, he takes care of his son and calmly goes about doing what needs to be done for their sustenance.
(Spoiler alert ends)
It then dawns on Suku that they are inter-dependent creatures, each benefiting from this new-found harmony. When this happens, and when DoP Sujith Lal pulls the camera away from their habitation in the climax, moving further and further up to reveal the destruction of the landscape by human hands, you might see that the father-son relationship in Richter Scale 7.6 is in fact a metaphor for the inter-dependence of the human species and Nature and the gains that will accrue to humanity if we embrace rather than assault the planet.
Given Richter Scale 7.6's intent, the decision not to somewhat explain Ramankunju's resistance to leaving home is self-defeating. The trauma caused to marginalised communities by displacement is rarely part of the public discourse. The privileged tend to assume that opposition to such displacement comes from pointlessly stubborn, foolish, anti-development forces. For those living in the lap of Nature out of choice, however, enforced uprooting means more than just shifting from one condominium to another, irrespective of the financial compensation " it means an entire way of life ruined. Richter Scale 7.6 is oblique in its messaging in this regard and risks preaching to the already converted alone.
For Jeeva, the ordeal of the Dalit community represented in Richter Scale 7.6 is close to home " literally. She has spoken publicly of how her husband's family was profoundly affected by displacement before she married him.
This is perhaps why there is not an iota of othering in Richter Scale 7.6, which plays out like an account of "people like us" and not an alien "them".
Empathy and immersion in the milieu are what help Richter Scale 7.6 rise above its rough edges, of which it has a few. The acting by some of the supporting players, for one, is not up to the mark. The soundscape is left too bare too often. And the film does itself a huge disservice by not subtitling the opening and closing songs (the latter a traditional song of unknown origin), leaving viewers who do not know Malayalam to merely sense the mood from CJ Kuttappan's beautifully stirring rendition.
Considering the choice of theme, it is also hard not to feel a twinge of disappointment that even while telling a tale of an oppressed community, even a woman director in this male-dominated film industry gravitates towards a tale of men from that community " Richter Scale 7.6 does not feature a single substantial female character and the only two women seen in the film make fleeting appearances.
Of the leads, Murugan Martin who plays Suku has earlier played satellite roles in Angamaly Diaries and Lucifer. His acting is one-toned until the film's final moments when we get a glimpse of what might possibly be his potential for more.
The lynchpin of Richter Scale 7.6 is Ashok Kumar Peringode who plays Ramankunju. His role is tricky since it often borders on being over the top, but the actor keeps a check on himself in his remarkably real performance.
What stands out above all else in Richter Scale 7.6 is Jeeva's conviction and her keenness to draw attention to people that most Indians would rather look away from.
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
Richter Scale 7.6 is available on Roots Video and FirstShows.