'Trees Under the Sun' ('Veyil Marangal'): Film Review | Shanghai 2019

'Trees Under the Sun' Still - Publicity - H 2019
Courtesy of SIFF
A man’s life as product of nature and society.

A harassed family of Indian Dalits is forced to migrate from Kerala to the Himalayas in veteran Bijukumar Damodaran’s social drama.

Since Nagraj Manjule’s Fandry electrified audiences in 2013 with its anger at the caste oppression faced by India’s lowliest class, the Dalits, cinema has come a long way in focusing attention on this group of people. Last March, the first Dalit Film Festival victoriously unspooled in New York. In Trees Under the Sun ('Veyil Marangal'), award-winning Kerala filmmaker Bijukumar Damodaran expands the discussion to include the fury and healing power of nature, which works alongside age-old discrimination in the lives of a Dalit family from southern India.

There is probably a deliberate whiff of The Grapes of Wrath in Damodaran’s story of a poor family forced to leave their home and immigrate north for work, with little more than the clothes on their backs. What is interesting is the role nature plays in their struggles, for better or worse, and the prophetic power of the protags’ dreams, which suggest a deep psychological dimension to these simple people.

The strong visuals begin with the father’s (Indrans) opening dream of paddling his canoe through a big yellow frame rising out of the water. Behind him, the frame bursts into flames as he looks on in wonder. This scene is soon to take place. During a frightening storm, the low-lying island where he lives with his wife (Saritha Kukku) and 12-year-old son (Master Govardhan) is submerged by flash flooding after heavy rains, destroying their small thatched hut. A lightning bolt also sets the island on fire.

The government seems unwilling to help out the disaster victims. Allowed to stay in a public shelter for only a week, the family tries to quickly regroup, but the father’s attempts to do odd jobs end in disaster. Riding a bus home from work one night half dead with fatigue, he is accused of being a pickpocket because of his caste and thrown into jail, only to have the charges dropped in the morning. The sight of such open cruelty taking place in Kerala, which is supposed to be one of the most progressive states in India, is doubly depressing. Police harassment is singled out, but ordinary people on the bus seem equally blasé about blaming an innocent man just because his skin is dark.

This humiliation is the last straw and he accepts an iffy job up north in the cold state of Himachal Pradesh, guarding an apple orchard high in the mountains. After the drama in the south — first the storm, then his arrest — he is ready to start over, although the pay is miserable and includes the work of his wife and son as well. They settle into a lonely two-story cabin with a staggering view.

Just as cinematographer M.J. Radhakrishnan emphasized the wondrous fierceness of storm clouds and palm trees swaying in high winds in the Kerala scenes, he now describes the Himalayas in all their glory as, season after season, ripe apples are harvested, then snow appears along with punishing cold. Several small adventures befall father and son, but the family survives until wildflowers dot the spring fields with color. Then, however, they have the arrogant, unjust and prejudiced landowner to contend with.

This is the kind of subject that can’t do without violence, yet Damodaran restrains his hand from falling hard on his Job-like heroes. There is tension in the story but it tends to rise and fall without coming to a shocking conclusion, à la Fandry, to name one example. The film’s overall gentleness ultimately leads to a more realistic and optimistic conclusion that involves the dignity and perseverance of the downtrodden but unbeaten family.  

While the technical credits are splendid, from the photography and special effects to Bijibal’s bracingly modern musical score, the non-pro actors are not one of the film’s strong points. The very fact that they are nameless shows they are meant to be more representative than individualized. The one exception is Indrans who, in the crucial role of the father, starts out with little power to communicate his feelings in the early scenes, merely looking bothered and befuddled. Yet over the course of one and half years of filming, he noticeably improves until, in the tense final scene, he attains real dignity.

Production company: Soma Creations
Cast: Indrans, Master Govardhan Saritha Kukku, Prakash Bare, Krishnan Balakrishnan, Melwyn Williams, Ashok Kumar
Director-screenwriter: Bijukumar Damodaran
Producer: Baby Mathew Somatheeram
Director of photography: M. J. Radhakrishnan
Production designer: Jyothish Sankar
Editor: Davis Manuel
Music: Bijibal
Venue: Shanghai International Film and TV Festival (competition)
World sales: Soma Creations

108 minutes