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Friday, February 14, 2014

A Critical Reading of the 1964 Konkani Movie Nirmonn- Kevin Fernandes

In the anxiety to construct a pan-Indian identity, the multiplicity of regional narratives and texts are often subsumed under a grand narrative of nationalism. Nirmonn (1966), is a Konkani movie with a different tale. Based on Lord Tennyson’s character, Enoch Arden, the film was remade into Hindi, titled Taqdeer (Rajshri Productions, also directed by A. Salam), and subsequently dubbed into seven other languages. In this short essay, the researcher will attempt to explore why a film made in a regional language which has produced less than a dozen films, was reproduced for through a remake and dubbing for audiences belonging to eight different languages. The researcher will also attempt to explore certain features of traditional forms and cultural production from the Konkani cultures that have been retained in the movie. At the outset, it becomes important to first establish the plot of the narrative.

Nirmonn was the second production of Frank Fernand, who also wrote the music for the film, for which it remains immortal in the collective consciousness of the Konkani people. The story and direction was by A. Salam, and the dialogues by C. Alvares. Starring Shalini Mardolkar, C.Alvares, Anthony D'Sa, Jacint Vaz, Antonette Mendes, Ophelia, Jack Souza Ferrao, J. P. Souzalin,  Celestino Alvares, known as the “King of Duets” received the award for best actor in the Konkani film Nirmon. This film had a powerful story and bagged the Certificate of Merit for regional films, the first of its kind for Konkani.

The movie is set in Goa and revolves around the lives of Marku, a music teacher, and his wife, Claudia, and the undying love they share. Unable to meet the needs of the household (they have two daughters, Fiona and Theres, and a son, Ricardo), Marku takes up a job on a ship, and makes his best friend, Rudolf, promise to take care of the family in his absence. Rudolf is a successful business man, and as fate would have it, a former suitor of Claudia. Following an accident at sea, Marku is ship-wrecked (at a part of Portuguese India, one assumes), and loses his memory, forcing him to live there. Shell-shocked by the accident and Marku’s disappearance, Claudia lives the life of a widow, and the family spirals into poverty and starvation. Accepting destiny, Claudia agrees to marry Rudolf, despite being deeply in love with Marku. Though the children is their father, they seem to adjust just fine, except Theres, who seems to constantly have issues with her step-father. The new head of their house hold is money minded, and sentiments mean nothing to him- a far cry from the loving tenderness of Marku.  Close to ten years later, hearing the song Claudia that he had once composed for his wife being sung at a recital, Marku regains his memory and returns back to Goa in search of his family. There he finds that his family has moved on, and he is almost heartbroken and dejected, till he manages to strike up a conversation with Theres, and realizes the misery of his family. Though he doesn’t disclose his identity to them, they eventually find out, and what follows is predictable- Rudolf tries to eliminate him, the family rushes in just in the nick of time to save Marku, and as a result of the fighting going on between the ‘good guys’ and the ‘bad guys’, Rudolf gets caught in the trap he sets to eliminate Marku, and he prishes, while Marku is reunited with his family, they rebuilt their old home and they live happily ever after.

Though seeming simple and predictable in terms of plot, the narrative operates using certain traditional tropes. One such trope is that of the chaste wife. Claudia remains faithful to her husband till the verge of starvation, and even at that point, she accepts marriage to Rudolf only in order to meet the needs of her children and better their prospects, as she promised her husband she would, making her a self-sacrificing mother- she is visibly unhappy in her new home. The true husband remains one who loves his wife immensely (enough to write a song for her), and not even nature can separate them, for even in their separation and pain, their love is immortalized and lives in the song. Nothing can separate the chaste wife from her true husband- as Claudia suggests in the film, even though she was married in the Church to Rudolf, now that her actual husband has returned, her second marriage is null and void. The narrative now begins to read like a morality play, or a sati folk narrative, institutionalizing the roles of the chaste wife, the self-sacrificing mother, and the true, loving husband.

The title itself plays an important role in expounding these tropes. Nirmonn means ‘destiny’ or ‘fate’. When one can use this lexical indicator to show how despite being spurned the first time, Rudolf still manages to win the hand of Claudia, the more sustaining and meaningful way to read it is in terms of Marku and Claudia. Theirs was a perfect romantic marriage- a house full of music, laughter and love even through their break and weary economic times. Marku is then suddenly lost at sea, and a whole whirlwind of events leave Claudia with her three little ones at the feet of a man she despised, and through all the comforts, luxuries and opportunities he gives them (which Marku would perhaps never had been able to provide the family), Claudia remains emotionally committed and bound to Marku. As fate would have it, it was written in their nirmon that nothing, not even the devil and the deep blue sea (literally and metaphorically) could keep them apart. They were destined to spend their lives together, albeit for the ten year lull in the middle, and fate saw to it that they were reunited and their family was restored to them.

The song Claudia plays an important role in the text. It becomes a narrative tool; evoking a myriad of emotions- the first time the watcher comes across the song is in the beginning of the movie when Marku is seen conducting a violin duet. Later on, he is seated on the piano, teaching Theres how to play it, despite the fact that she is barely a toddler. From here onwards, it becomes a signifier for memory and hope. It plays once again as Marku leaves the house to report to the ship. It is this very song that helps Marku regain his memory ten years after his shipwreck, and on his return journey home, the song becomes the background score to the flashbacks he has. When Marku sneaks into Rudolf’s house as a trap to see his family, he witnesses his children talk fondly on their memory of their dead father, and they perform Claudia in three part harmony, with Theres on the piano. The song, which is iconic and immortal in Konkani, becomes a symbol and a signifier of memory in the movie, just as it has become a signifier for undying love between a man and his beloved at almost every Konkani wedding.

The narrative of Nirmonn lends itself to upholding, if not validating, a number of ideas, which most forms of Indian popular culture uphold- the faithful, chaste wife, the self-sacrificing mother, the true, devoted husband, the doting father, the money-loving, sentiment-disregarding man, etc. And like all good literature, Nirmonn offers the reader a conflict in a perfect marriage- economical hardship and a husband absent due to an accident. It is also didactic, since it suggests to its readers a very simple axiom- if one adheres to the traditional roles, no matter how hard it may be to do so, and no matter the difficulties that come in the way, nirmonn will ensure that that the family unit consisting of the chaste wife-self-sacrificing mother and the loving-husband-doting father will always stay intact. Therefore, its comes as no surprise that this particular text lent itself to appropriation multiple times- first at as a remake from Konkani to Hindi, and subsequently, through dubbing, into seven other languages, perhaps covering all the linguistic cinema domains present in India at the time. The characters and the virtues they uphold become pan-Indian tropes to be looked up to, and to emulated. One way, perhaps, that this was envisioned right from the outset was the fact that the protagonist, Claudia, is clad in a saree. In any other movie, this would make sense, but considering the narrative is set in Christian Goa, one would imagine her to be wearing a dress, or torop bazu, like most other women in the movie, but definitely not a saree. It is tempting to assume that this was consciously done in order to make the narrative more real and identifiable with a larger India audience, whose aesthetics where different from the Goan Christian aesthetics in a number of ways.

Since the movie is set in Goa, there are certain regional and cultural specific elements that cannot be overlooked, some of these add to the overarching narrative, while others simply ornament and add to the ‘Konkani-ness’ of the narrative. One such important element is music. Most places which have a history of Portuguese or Spanish colonialism also have a tradition of music. While the Portuguese administration made the study of Western music (sight singing as well as playing of musical instruments, most prominently the violin, the guitar, the accordion, and brass wind instruments) compulsory in schools across Goa, the Konkani Christians had their own folk forms of music such as the dulpod (dance songs with a quick rhythm and themes from everyday life, and lends itself to improvisation ; it is often mistakenly called mando or baila), which was an equivalent to the Kunnbi of the oldest peasant inhabitants of Goa, which is represented by the song Kunbi Varaddhi in the movie. The mando is the creolized form of Konkani music, a rich synthesis of Eastern and Western forms, and developed in the 19th and 20th century- Claudia is a typical mando, with its central theme being love (the baila is the Afro-Sinhalese form of music from Sri Lanka, which is similar to the dulpod, and also uses western instruments with native themes and beats). In performance mode, the mando uses Western suits with coat tails for men and traditional torop bazu for women. As seen earlier, the song Claudia becomes an important signifier in the movie, and the fact that Marku is initially a music teacher becomes metaphoric how in the last century, much of the Goan diaspora across British India was in the form of musicians (the dominated the music scene in Bollywood as well), both in the service of British and royal households, as well as on ships. In fact, the Goan Christian community has become synonymous with good music and sailing, a respectable chuck of the male population of the community seeks their fortunes in various capacities on ships, also leading to a sizable Goan diaspora in Karachi, Pakistan. Thus, Marku’s attempt to escape poverty by joining the ship is also symbolic of this aspect of the community.

One particular element that doesn’t play an important role in the narration of the plot, but strikes an extremely emotional chord in almost all the Konkani readers of this visual text is the veneration of the relic of St Francis Xavier. It strongly establishes the Goan Christian nature of the text, with his annual feast taking on epic proportions every year, and this historic figure occupying a larger-than-life position in the collective consciousness of the Konkani Catholics of Portuguese conversion.

Another important regional element that one can see is that the movie is the form of the tiatr or the local form of musical theatre, which includes music, dance and singing. Revolving around social, religious and political themes, a defining characteristic of tiatr is the use of song and dance between acts. These songs (Kant, pl. kantaram) are not directly linked to the content or issues raised by the drama, are satirical and are accompanied by a live band, including a keyboard, trumpets, guitars and drums. The song Nach Atamchem is a perfect example of kant- the song plays no role in furthering the narrative, but at the same time raises an important issue- the subsuming of Konkani music over global trends of the time, such as pop, twits and rock and roll. The traditional role of the jester/idiot, who exposes ugly social truths through crude, slapstick comedy, is retained in the form of the drunkard and the hopeless romantic.

In the light of the historical events of the time, one tempted to explore the possible colonial connotations of the text. The movie was made four years after the Liberation/Annexation of Goa. Despite the long, and ugly Inquisition, for the dominant Christian Goan community, the Portuguese were benevolent masters, may be even a caste just above the bahmon (the Brahmins; the Konkani Catholics still retained a strong sense of caste identity post-conversion), and as such, Portuguese colonialism had almost completely wiped out the pre-Christian identity and culture of the Konkani Catholics- thus, there was no Konkani Catholic identity possible without the Portuguese. This, however, was not the case for the lower classes of the Konkani Catholic community, and almost all the Hindu communities. In this context, Marku can be seen as a symbol of the forcibly evicted Portuguese, who seem like the true love of the Goan people. Yet, despite the convenient, albeit forced-by-circumstance, joining of India to the socialist (capitalist) state of India (symbolized by Rudolf), the Goan people can never really separate themselves from all that is Portuguese, and even though the Portuguese will never return to reclaim Goa, as nirmonn brought Marku to Claudia, the Portuguese still live on in the form of the culture and sensibilities of the Goan people, as well as through helping Goans emigrate to Portugal, and investing money in the restoration and maintenance of heritage monuments in Goa and preserving the now creolized Goan culture.

Within the space of this essay, the researcher attempted to examine the structure and tropes in the 1964 Konkani movie, Nirmonn, and explore the reasons that lead to its remake into Hindi and other regional languages. The researcher went on to identify certain characteristics of the text that gave it a distinctive Konkani feel, such as the use of music and the form of tiatr. This particular movie raises a number of issues that can be dealt with and theoretically examined at multiple levels, but due to the constraint of time, the lack of prior work to build on, and the researcher’s own limited understanding of the dialect of Konkani in which the movie was made, the researcher stuck to those explored in this essay. The researcher looks forward to carrying out more research and critical engagement with texts from the Konkani language, and contributing to the knowledge body around the same.

References and Related Material

Link to the movie

Sound track of the movie

Lyrics and translation of Claudia

Couta, Maria Aurora. Goa: A Daughter’s Story. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2004. Print.

Pereira , Jose, Micael Martins, and Antonio da Costa.Folks Songs of Goa: Mando-Dulpod and Deknnis. Aryan Books International, 2005. eBook. <>.




1 comment:

Parjanya said...

A very nuanced and well-argued film review, Kevin Fernandes... I particularly liked the way you analyzed the regional inflections and the tropes vis-à-vis which the Konkani film lent itself to recurring re-appropriations... It would perhaps be interesting to be able to tease out the representative differences within the various re-texts in another paper perhaps :) ...

I could not also help but notice the obvious plot overlaps with Hardy's Tess and the dramatic conflict between the 'good husband' and 'bad husband' vis-à-vis the figure of Tess as the 'pure' woman... also, 'fate' happens to play a significant role within Hardy's narratives... Is it possible that the Konkani film was also somewhat influenced by Hardy's text?