One of the Malaysian sextet featured at the 2005 San Francisco International Film Festival was the North American premiere of Deepak Kumaran Menon's Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road). Here are Roger Garcia's program notes.
Darren Hughes visited San Francisco for the first week of the festival and posted some of his reactions at Long Pauses. Hughes wrote: "The Gravel Road has all of the faults of a low-budget debut film—frustrating pacing, heavy plotting, hit-or-miss performances—but I found myself unexpectedly touched by its final act."
I also enjoyed this obviously-flawed debut feature by Deepak Kumaran Menon. It was sometimes difficult to determine who was who and the narrative sequencing was likewise muddled, but moments of honest humor and tenderness shone through notwithstanding. Menon skillfully captured the arduous and restrictive lifestyle of Tamil Indians on a Malaysian rubber plantation (noteworthy for being the first Malaysian feature on the subject). With loving attention he culled out the natural beauty of the estate even as he underscored its oppressiveness. In similar fashion, he portrayed the beauty of family life even as he demonstrated its oppressiveness.
Menon hung his head in embarrassment when I asked him what happened to the character of the young son who—profiled early on—suddenly disappeared in the latter half of the film. He admitted that all of his actors were non-professionals and the boy who had been playing the son simply didn't show up for the final days of shooting. Along with various other hurdles that Menon had to overcome in the making of this movie, I understood his tenacity, though question his assumption that international audiences wouldn't notice such a glaring absence. It certainly weakened his debut.
Three lovely scenes come to mind. One where the father and his youngest daughter are riding a bicycle through the plantation. He encourages her studies and asks her to tell him a story in English. She recites him the beginning of "The Ugly Duckling", up to when the duckling is ostracized. "Is there any more to the story?" the father asks. The daughter, who has obviously not memorized the rest of the story, blithely asserts that no, that's all there is.
In another scene an older sister is telling the youngest siblings the story about the old woman with the diamond ring. Her grandson admired the ring and wanted it very much but the old woman would not give it to him. Upon her death and burial, the grandson remembers the ring, digs up the corpse of his grandmother and cuts off her finger to secure the ring. Naturally, later, there is a knocking on his door and an old woman is there asking for something to eat, something to drink. Of course, she is missing a finger.
Later, in the Kabuki café, I was approached by a Malaysian woman who was intrigued by some of my comments and questions to Menon. She emphasized her delight in the above scene because it was a story she knew as a child, taught to her by her older siblings. Apparently it is a ghost story handed down generation to generation. She was so happy to hear it told in The Gravel Road.
The third scene I found effective was when Shanta's schoolteacher visits the plantation to provide application forms to the university. He is offered a "lift" by Shanta's boyfriend whose sputtering moped requires a push. The schoolteacher ends up pushing the moped the whole way. Very funny.
I did admire that the film was charmingly feminist. The father was idealized, tolerant in the wishes of his daughters. If Shanta wanted to become a scholar instead of a housewife, so be it. If the other daughter decided to go against her arranged wedding, so be it. I'm sure many Tamil daughters wish their fathers would be so progressive.
Later in the symposium Menon admitted that he did not have much governmental interference with his project because no one understood why he would make a picture about the Tamil in the first place. Their low place on the multicultural ladder of Malaysia affords them the luxury of being invisible, if not inconsequential.
Brian Darr provided a crisp synopsis of the Malaysian showcase for Senses of Cinema and Dennis Harvey reviewed The Gravel Road for Variety.
Hassan Muthalib approached the film by way of a character analysis for Criticine, reminding that Heraclitus said, "Character is destiny" with Robert McKee's addendum that "character is plot."
The Gravel Road traveled on to be the opening night film for the The Fifth Asian Film Symposium and Inaugural Forum on Asian Cinema which took place at Singapore's Substation mid-September 2005. Benjamin McKay, writing for kakiseni.com, placed his comments squarely within the forum debate on what constitutes Malaysian cinema:
"[N]ot to be outdone, Malaysian independent cinema again proved that it is a force to be reckoned with. Indeed it was Malaysia that provided the Forum with this year's Opening Film—Deepak Kumaran Menon's feature length Chemman Chaalai (The Gravel Road, 2005). The audience was captivated by this film—not just because it was the first ever Tamil feature from Malaysia, as important as that is—but more for the manner in which the film so gently and naturally marries the personal with the social, without ever having to resort to polemics or rhetoric.
"As the Forum developed and the debate about what makes a film a statement of a given nation and a given people took place, Deepak's film loomed large in the collective imaginary of the delegates. If the powers that be in Kuala Lumpur do not have the good grace or intelligence to deem this film Malaysian because it is seen merely as a film about one sector of Malaysian society and that it boldly utilises so beautifully the language spoken by that community, then so be it. It is of course a shame that a film made in Malaysia but not in Bahasa Malaysia cannot receive the tax rebate that should be its due, but then so be that too. For many of the delegates from around the region who assembled in Singapore, this film spoke above the hollow platitudes of nation and identity and reaffirmed for all the very reason we support independent cinema. This film is of course Malaysian. To say otherwise is an absurdity and only highlights the very real need for a closer look at Malaysia's official cultural policies."
Past its focus on The Gravel Road, McKay's article warrants a thorough review as it addresses the tough questions that were posed at the Forum regarding the state of filmmaking in the region: "How does film contribute to our construction and reconstruction of social memory? What makes a film 'independent'? Is there an emerging Pan-Asian filmmaking tradition—or even Pan-Asian aesthetic? How is the 'national' positioned in relation to the 'transnational'? Who can and cannot speak for a nation on screen? Does speaking about the nation in fact really matter at all?" Intriguing reading.