I saw this three weeks ago and wasn’t sure I was going to write about it. I saw it at the South Asian Film Festival at SIFF. The advantage of seeing a film from so far out of my normal frame of reference is that it stretches my frame, but the disadvantage is that I don’t feel I have the context to really understand what it’s saying.
Set in the Indian state of Kerala (I just had to google to see whether India has states or provinces or what), the story begins with an older man traveling by boat and dirt road to an impoverished hut, where he finds a young woman and her son. He tells them he’s taking them home to live with him. Gradually we learn that the woman’s husband has just died and that the older man is her father-in-law. This latter point was confusing, however, because in the subtitles she refers to him as “father”. Later we are introduced to another man who is also referred to as “father,” and it appears that he’s her actual father who has disowned her. The father-in-law is showing her more love than the father. It was hard for me to tell how significant this was. It was hard enough just telling who was the father and who was the father-in-law.
The story has two strands. In the “present” strand, the woman starts to dance and sing as though possessed. She also stops menstruating. The village people believe she is possessed by a goddess, and they want her to perform religious rituals for them. She just wants to lead a normal life with her son. Meanwhile, her father-in-law, who seems to be some sort of medicine man or doctor is treating her to get her menstrual cycle to start again.
In the other strand of the story we travel back in time to learn that she and her husband had been excommunicated from the local church, or whatever it’s called in what appears to be the Hindu sect to which they belonged. They’ve been ostracized by the village as well. We eventually learn what transgression it was that caused all this, and we learn how miserable life was for them afterward. The one thing I’m not sure we ever learn is how the husband died. The way the story is told in dispersed flashbacks made it a bit hard to follow, so I may have just missed that part.
I didn’t like the movie much, but it has stuck with me. What put me off, more than just the fact that it was difficult for me to understand, was the sheer number of scenes in which the woman, Gouri, sat there crying helplessly. It’s a melodrama, and it’s about her ordeal, her suffering and her conflict with the traditional religious values of the village. I’ve grown to like melodramas better over the years, but I tend to prefer the really stylized, artificial ones like those of Sternberg. Hues of Red is not glossy or stylized in the least. It’s about poor peasants in India, and it’s fairly naturalistic and down-to-earth in its approach.
So why does it stick with me? I think part of it is just that it’s such a strange world for me. The film dwells on religious mystery at times, particularly around the question of whether Gouri is really possessed by a goddess or not, but this whole world is a mystery to me. What exactly is Gouri’s father-in-law — a traditional village doctor of some kind? Why is her brother-in-law such a dick? Why do her parents ostracize her while her parents-in-law take her in? How did the husband die? Who is the goddess who is said to possess her? The ending of the film, which I won’t spoil, is itself a question of sorts, open-ended and unresolved. And thus I am left wondering what it is I saw.
The description of Hues of Red on the festival website has a lot of interesting information. One of the interesting tidbits is that the film, by first-time director Manoj Kana, was funded by thousands of people from Kerala and around the world. It has the feel of a grassroots film, made for and by the people.