Between cinema and photography, Roland Barthes famously chose “Photography in opposition to the Cinema, from which [he] nonetheless failed to separate it”. To Barthes, this was to do with the temporal distinction between photography and cinema. With the former, a spectator has control over time and circumstance, while in film, this power is ceded to the author.
Two years after Barthes’ Camera Lucida was published, Agnès Varda made Ulysse (1983), a documentary where she retraced a photograph she took three decades ago, in search to find its meaning—a punctum, as Barthes would have called it, or a caption, as Walter Benjamin describes it in his A Short History of Photography (1931). With little luck in finding anything concrete (Varda traces down both the humans in the picture only to find out they have no recollection of the image, and she shows the picture to a goat who eats it), she concludes that “nothing appears in the image”, and that the picture itself could have been clicked any other time and the people in it could be anyone else.
Her attempt was, as she concedes, to try and find/ascribe meaning both to the photograph, and through it, to her own oeuvre of film-making. It was an attempt at understanding the relation between photography and/in cinema. If we concede that a photograph is given its meaning—its punctum—through a text (caption), how can we begin to think of a cinematic adaptation of this? What can a photograph offer to cinema? I recently happened to revisit this question of the relationship between photography and cinema while watching (and re-watching) some old and new films from Kerala.
The most common use of photographs in cinema tend to dwell on the photograph as a mute and intransigent object from the past, providing a disputable/indisputable proof of an event that has occurred. This reading of a photograph as ‘evidence’ is most commonly seen in thrillers, detective movies, and melodramas. When the Chief Minister is assassinated in the classic Malayalam thriller The Truth (1998), the inquiry revolves around a camera and photographs found at the spot of a woman presumed to be the assassin. A photograph, here, is both the evidence—and as we discover eventually—the decoy. Other thrillers like No. 20, Madras Mail (1990) and FIR (1999) also see a similar use of photographs as “evidence”. But my interest in this piece is on a very peculiar type of photograph that have made their presence felt in Malayalam cinema—that of wedding and/or couple photographs.
Just before we are introduced to the brilliant climax of the recently released The Great Indian Kitchen (GIK) comes one of my favourite scenes from the film: a forty-five second montage of photographs—mostly of married couples—from across generations all hanging on a wall in the house. The sequence cuts from one photograph to another as sounds of banal and everyday kitchen-chores play in the background. The sequence ends with a wedding-photograph of the unnamed protagonists (played by Nimisha and Suraj) whose marriage hangs by a thread, and the sound of a “whistle”—a literal and metaphorical releasing of (pent-up) steam.
The image from 1954 that Agnes Varda retraces in Ulysse (1983)
Scenes from The Great Indian Kitchen
The wedding picture in Kumbalangi Nights poster (left) seen printed on a calendar in the film (right)
Narendran lays out photographs on a table in the climax of Innale (1990)
The wedding photograph from Bangalore Days
Dineshan and Shobha’s (ruined) photograph from Vadakkunookiyanthram
The photograph from Vadakkunokkiyanthram has etched itself in popular imagination
This is not the first time their wedding photograph is shown to the audience. It appears thrice in the film before this scene, each time reflecting the changing nature of the marriage itself, as tensions simmer between the couple. The first time, we see it positioned on the wall as the couple have their first fight. By the time it reappears, the tensions have already become much more visible. Here, the photograph hangs on a background wall between the couple, as Suraj confronts his wife for applying for a job without his permission. The third time we see it, the photograph stays in-focus as the wife closes a door behind her; differences between them have now become irreconcilable. The last time we see it is as part of the montage, reminding us that it is but another marriage like the many before… almost.
In Innale (1990), the climax of the film hinges on photographic evidence of Narendran’s (Suresh Gopi) marriage to Gauri (Shobhana). The film begins with Gauri meeting with an accident that causes her amnesia and resulting in her forgetting her past. She begins a new-life as Maya and falls in love with Sarath (Jayaram). Meanwhile, Narendran’s quest for his lost wife brings him to Sarath, who promises to let Gauri leave if Narendran has proof that she is, indeed, his wife.
Narendran insists that they would not need a photograph because Gauri would recognise him as soon as she sees him. But when Gauri talks to him with no recollection of the past, Narendran is confronted with a dilemma of whether to bring up a photograph to prove her identity or not. One again, the photograph becomes a powerful agent on which the very plot of the film hinges. In a suspenseful scene in the climax, Narendran lays out two photographs on a table, battling with himself about what the right thing to do would be.
This is one of the early scenes from the film when we are introduced to Dineshan’s insecurities and inferiority complex, which builds as the plot progresses into a severe case of Othello syndrome. Trying to look taller in the photograph, Dineshan moves just as the photograph is being clicked, thereby ruining it, and becoming the thumbnail etched in popular memory about the film (a simple google-search of the film will prove this). Far from its intended purpose, the photograph becomes a frame that freezes Dineshan’s insecurities in time.
Other Malayalam films like Photographer (2006), 5 Sundarikal (2013), and more recently, Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016) have explored this theme within Malayalam cinema directly. Even as the debate within art between film and photography rages on, photographs continue to remain useful tropes used within films. This is because photographs, as David Campany has written, operate “somewhere between fact and fiction, between history and memory, between the objective and the subjective.” This is what makes them a powerful tool at the hands of a film-director. It is this artistic freedom that gives a photograph its punctum within a cinematic adaptation.
Views expressed are the author’s own.