Shruiti Menon as Delilah and Suhasini V. Nair as Kiran in Sancharram 

In preparation for a Saturday School on Indian Cinema, I came across this film from Kerala in South India, directed by Ligy J. Pullappally. It is partly derived from a real life incident in Kerala when two young women students at university fell in love but were sent back to their parents. The next day, one of the women committed suicide. Recognising elements in the news story that had been in her earlier short film, Ligy Pullappally set out to write a feature-length script which would offer a more positive narrative for lesbian relationships in India involving young women expected to marry according to family customs.

The Journey follows a higher profile film, Fire (1996), directed by the Canadian-based Indian director Deepa Mehta. This film featured major stars of Indian ‘parallel cinema’, including the central couple, Shabana Azmi and Nandita Das, and received a significant international release as well as raising controversy in India for what were seen in some quarters as attacks on the institution of marriage (the two women are sisters-in-law). By contrast, The Journey is a low budget feature with relatively little international distribution. I rented the film via the Guardian‘s rental service ‘Sofa Cinema‘ and discovered that it is distributed on DVD in the UK by Millivres Multimedia, a company specialising in gay and lesbian films.

Like Deepa Mehta, Ligy Pullappally was born in India but then moved to North America (Chicago) where she eventually became a ‘public interest lawyer’. She used some prize money to allow her to develop her interest in filmmaking and returned to Kerala to make The Journey –– which received support from the the state’s film commission. Technically, The Journey is an example of ‘diaspora filmmaking’. Gurinder Chadha with Bride and Prejudice and Mira Nair with a string of films (including The Namesake to be screened on this course) are further examples. Trained in the West, these women have each offered different perspectives on Indian culture and on concepts of Indian Cinema.

Although Ligy Pullappally is relatively inexperienced as a filmmaker, The Journey bears comparison with other films made in Kerala as ‘independent’ or ‘art’ films. There is a popular film industry in Kerala making comedies and action films in the regional language Malayalam, but the art cinema of Kerala also has a strong reputation in India — and in the case of director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, around the world. Kerala has the highest education achievement levels in India and a relatively good record on social equality — as well as vying with Bengal in the North East as a cultural centre. This makes the story of The Journey more poignant. Kerala is also unusual in India in having three distinct religious communities co-existing peacefully (on the whole). In the film, one young woman is a Hindu and the other a Christian – but both feel the power of tradition.

The Journey is a very simple story, but it is told with conviction and the setting (in the hills of Northern Kerala) and the characters are well presented. We may well look at an extract from the film on the course. If you want to know more, there is a useful ‘official website‘.