Monsters’ ball: A spooky Malayalam short film wins a National Award
Meet forest demons and water sprites, a miniature elephant, a pangolin-shaped ghoul - and the man who took these ancient tales and gave them a contemporary spin
PNK Panicker is 94 years old and one might expect him to dwell in a world of his own at this point. He does, but not in the way one might expect.
Known in his Kochi neighbourhood as a jovial man and a gregarious storyteller, he has spent decades spinning tales around supernatural creatures of ancient imagining. He tells of a murderous pangolin-shaped spirit that lures pregnant women with raw mangoes. Of an 18-inch-high baby-elephant-like creature that walks about at night, an iron clasp and chain rattling around one leg.
He introduces listeners to the shapeless, faceless Neet Arukola (Malayalam for Water Demon) that leaps out of rivers and canals, looking to drown humans. And to the trio of gnome-like hitmen called Kuttichaathan (Adolescent Trickster Spirits), who can be beseeched to trouble one’s foes by pelting them, their homes and their vehicles with stones and excreta.
Panicker, a retired government administrator from Kochi, has now been immortalised in a story himself. He and his tales are the subject of Kandittund! (Seen It!), a 12-minute Malayalam film that won the National Award for Best Animation Short last month. It recounts some of the delightfully outrageous sprite stories that Panicker has collected and embellished over the years, and tells of how he narrated these to his son Suresh Eriyat, founder of the Mumbai-based Studio Eeksaurus, which produced the film.
In doing so, the film preserves these folk tales in a new avatar, with elements of the present-day and bits of urban legend woven in. Directed by Adithi Krishnadas, 26, the striking black-and-white film is hand-drawn and uses Panicker’s voice too.
Eriyat, 49, who grew up with the stories and only later realised how unique they were, began to record his father’s narrations in 2015. Four years later, when Krishnadas joined the studio, she came upon the clips and pitched the project. Growing up in Kerala, she too had heard about some of the spirits Panicker describes, such as the pangolin-shaped Eenam-Pechi and the Kuttichaathan trio. Inspired by his embellishments, she added some of her own too. The Kuttichaathan (below), for instance, must be paid in advance, with a large fresh fish, each time they are assigned a target.
Kandittund! is now streaming on YouTube.com/StudioEeksaurus. “My father has become sort of a celebrity in his neighbourhood, especially after the National Award,” says Eriyat, chuckling. He is enjoying the attention. “These stories were always part of my life,” Panicker says. “Wherever I went I always found an eager group of people willing to hear them. The award just makes it all so much better.”
For many viewers, Krishnadas adds, the film is a window to a past they are fast losing connection with. “People say the stories remind them of their own grandparents, telling them unbelievable but engaging stories of a life that existed before we moved to the crowded cities,” she says.
Incidentally, this is the studio’s third National Award. Eriyat previously won for his animation shorts Fisherwoman and Tuk Tuk (2016; about a fish monger who dreams of owning an autorickshaw) and Tokri (2017; about a basket-seller who wants to repair her father’s heirloom watch). His team is now working on a three-minute animation film about a reptile with a unique origin story.
The animation format is a wonderful way to capture cultural nuance, Eriyat says. “In a country like India, where every 100 km the legends and folk lore change completely, it’s imperative that we get more people to document these before we lose them forever. Because even the ghosts are changing with the times,” he adds, laughing. “As my father tells it, the onset of electricity has forced many of them into hiding!”