In 2018, the director of 'The Great Indian Kitchen' took on religion, Christianity in particular, through the eyes of a young boy.

Joju George in a child's cycle and a child is walking next to him, both of them laughing and the background is full of blue and white clouds
Flix Flix Flashback Wednesday, January 27, 2021 - 19:37

The strict Math teacher announces a test for the next day. Students who do not score more than 70% in the test will need to bring their parents to the school. Ousepachan (Adhish Praveen) and his two friends are worried. The only way the test can be avoided is if a former president who has been unwell for a while passes away and the school declares a holiday. Ousepachan tells his two friends to pray hard, that there’s nothing that can’t happen if you pray with trust in god. The next morning, at the school assembly, it is announced that the former president has passed away and it will be a school holiday.

But the next working day, the friends tell Ousepachan that the dreaded test will happen that day. And their parents had told them not to pray to a Christian god because they were from other religions. So Ousepachan prays alone this time – let someone else die, so he can skip the test. His prayers are heard again, but when he reaches home, he finds that it is his dearest grandfather that has died.

Kunju Daivam, a Malayalam film that Jeo Baby directed in 2018, puts an 11-year-old Ousepachan at the centre to gently take on the matter of faith as seen through the little boy’s eyes. The director, who has been largely appreciated for his new film The Great Indian Kitchen which is out on Neestream, has also received flak for showing a 'Hindu family in poor light'. No matter that the issues discussed in the film are relevant to most families in a patriarchal society. In Kunju Daivam, however, he does take on religion, Christianity in particular, without having to explicitly spill it out. It offended few, having a little boy deal with a major crisis, the way only a child can.

Ousepachan has that adorable quality of children to take everything literally. He has been taught that if he prayed hard and attended church regularly, took part in the Holy Qurbana, his wishes will come true. And Ousepachan badly wants to be taller, he is tired of standing at the front of the line for the morning assembly. When his mother asks him if it is not enough that he visits church on Sundays, Ousepachan in all his honesty answers, “But I will grow taller only if I attend the Qurbana for 100 days!”

Watch: Trailer of Kunju Daivam

An older person might have said it is his faith that drives him to the church. For Ousepachan, everything is clear. You have to do your bit to have your prayers heard, it is not easy. So he does the rosary, reads a scripture card every morning, attends Bible classes and is a daily visitor to the church. The parish priest, played by Sidhartha Siva, is pleased.

But Ousepachan’s world comes crumbling down when he fears his prayers have taken the life of the person he loved most in the world. The grandfather – Chachan – comes in his dreams to scold him, “Nee prarthichu enne konnalle (you killed me with your prayers)?”

A heartbroken Ousepachan is advised by a nun to use his prayers to help others in need. The little boy again takes it literally, his misdeeds will be forgiven if he helped another. He browses through social media posts and newspaper headlines to decide on whom to help. Finally he comes across a school senior, Katha Jeevan, who has issues with both her kidneys and is looking for a donor.  

Ousepachan’s prayers soon turn to a new direction – help that chechi, god. But the little boy soon realises it is not enough he prays, the chechi has to get a donor and the money for the surgery. Jeo Baby carefully treats his character to not go overboard with emotions, or have a child act like a grownup. You find him adorable without the typical ‘naughtiness’ filmmakers seem to think is necessary when writing child characters.

Ousepachan with his typical single-mindedness is now focused on getting a donor. You see his slow transformation from the devout church-goer to becoming a doer. He asks everyone from the doctor who treats Katha to the parish priest for a kidney. You also see the change in equation between the priest and the child. The priest is shown as a man who listens to the problems of the devotees, rebukes the troublemakers and sends them off for dhyanam (retreat), all in a few minutes. When Ousepachan asks him to donate his kidney, he tells off the child to do what he’s supposed to do: study, pray and obey the parents, and stay away from 'other businesses'.

Watch: Song from Kunju Daivam

Katha and her mother (Reina Maria) are portrayed as a family who do not follow a religion or caste. Townsfolk whisper that they deserve to struggle a little. The priest doesn’t listen to Ousepachan’s plea to spread the word about her kidney during the Qurbana. Ousepachan, not once, asks their religion or caste, even as he promises he will pray for chechi. His desire to help them is so genuine – it is no more about his own selfish needs to get redemption – that a jobless drunkard in the town, Shibu (Joju George), agrees to donate his kidney. It takes a man who doesn’t obey the priest, regarded useless by those around him, to help save a girl’s life.  

Jeo Baby, without being explicit about it, gently points to the hypocrisy of those who preach. When Ousepachan quotes a scripture card that said 'those who have two must give those who have none', the priest is angry. In the world of adults, it is not wrong if you use faith to bring bad luck to others; Ousepachan's mother throws a handful of mud with special chants to the relative’s compound. In another scene, the priest’s hands are shown counting the money deposited on the prayer table by those who visit Ousepachan’s house when Chachan dies.

In that world, good deeds end with visits to church and prayers. The kind of good deeds done by Ousepachan, which require actually taking time out to help another, are seen as faults in his home. He is spending too much time at the girl’s home, not going to church anymore. The mother who asked him why he should attend the Qurbana every day now insists he should go to the church with her. The priest tells her, it's his age. 

The message is clear. But if it is not, Jeo brings the dead grandfather back in Ousepachan's dreams, to spell it out for you. This time, the old man tells him prayers are for people, and actions are by gods. By doing so much, Ousepachan has become a little god – Kunju Daivam.

The film is available on Amazon Prime Video.

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