Allow yourself to imagine a dimly lit hallway in a hotel, there is deafening silence and nothing else. You are the only person there and you are in the middle of the hallway, now, allow the scene to shift to a railway station. It is early morning, the day is still young, there are a few people here and there, and you are watching the trains run through their tracks. What feelings did they evoke? You just imagined yourself in a liminal space. In this article, we explore liminal spaces in Malayalam cinema. But first, let’s get down to the basics.
What are liminal spaces?
Liminal spaces are in-between spaces, they connect one thing to the next. They are transitional, and their function, different for different people and circumstances. Often, when we are in a liminal space, we feel like we are on the verge of something big. The reality feels altered because we are not meant to stay there for a long time, so we feel out of place.
It is easier to paint a picture of liminality through examples, rather than define it. Think of the following examples:
- Bedrooms at 5:00 A.M
- Empty hospital waiting rooms
- Going for a walk before sunrise and there is nobody on the road
- Empty restaurants
- School during holidays
- Watching the stars silently with a friend
- Abandoned staircases
- Museums that are empty except for you
Liminal spaces are physical spaces, but they can also be used in literature and film to enhance the narrative. They can convey emotions, mislead you, make you uncomfortable and foreshadow plots.
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Here’s how Malayalam cinema masterfully use liminal spaces:
We are all familiar with the controversial song “Mizhiyil Ninnum”, but what we are less familiar with is that the song is a liminal space. Notice the setting of the song, a rainy twilight evening, a small bedroom, and the bed surrounded by a mosquito net and two lovers passionately making love. The lovers are so entranced and involved with each other that they are entirely disconnected from reality, lost in the timelessness of love, that it feels like we are intruders. This awareness makes us uncomfortable. Aashiq Abu uses this sequence to remind us of the beauty of private intimate moments and romance. Mayanadhi is one of those Malayalam movies that subtly uses liminal spaces to evoke intimate feelings.
Bangalore Days (2014)
While the movie is about the three cousins and the people in their lives, what connects them together is the city of Bangalore. Anjali Menon uses the city as a liminal space where three people who are lost – Divya (who is newly married), Kuttan (a fish out of water in a metropolitan space), and Aju (who is estranged from his family) – find themselves. The purpose of Bangalore here is only to act as a link between the three cousins and three other people they add to their lives.
Stories about the transition to adulthood are always liminal. Like June, we have all experienced a time when we have felt lost, trying to navigate our way through life. We make mistakes, we disappoint people, we look for second chances and try to discover our purpose. June’s journey is narrated through flashbacks, and all the events that happen during these flashbacks seem insignificant and temporary, but they bring us closer to June. We identify ourselves in her and her childish antics.
Ustad Hotel (2012)
There are very few scenes in Malayalam cinema that have captured our hearts as the little conversation between Faizi and his Uppupa by the sea as they discuss kismet and sulaimani. Shorelines are common metaphors of liminal spaces. This conversation not only forefronts the relationship between the two, but it is isolated from the rest of the movie. It foreshadows the plot and sets the trajectory for Faizi’s life. He follows his kismet, he builds a home for himself, abandons it and rebuilds it. Here, the liminal space is not disconcerting, it is a warm, tight hug like the sulaimani.
There is nothing more heartwarming and heart-wrenching, at the same time, as the flashback in Moothon which portrays a naive, innocent Akbar, who meets Amir, a mute, and their quiet, passionate love for each other. Geethu Mohandas executes a perfect liminal space here, focusing on the relationship between the two men, on a small island. It is a pure, timeless companionship, where they explore friendship and eventually love, and the other characters become mere accessories. Also, this is what sets the course for Akbar’s transformation into Bhai.
The Great Indian Kitchen (2021)
This film itself is a liminal space. There is something extremely eerie about the characters without names, the use of kitchen sounds as background music, the repeated sequences of hands cutting vegetables and cooking, leaking drainage pipes, the cyclical ending of the film, and the ignorance of the men in the household. It reminds us that this patriarchal system is alive and thriving. We can take this film and apply it to many Indian contexts and it would fit in seamlessly. Here, the liminal space is uncomfortable, it’s accusatory and visionary.
That was our list. Are there other examples of liminal spaces in Malayalam cinema that you can think of?