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”Hasyam” : An ingeniously amusing film by veteran Malayalam director Jayaraj which deals with ”death’ as a serious business albeit in a pleasantly humorous vein !!!! 02/02/2021 © Lalit Rao (FIPRESCI)



‘‘The denial of death’’ written in 1973 by famous American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker is one of the few great books of 20th century. It discusses the most fundamental problem of mankind, ‘the fear of death’.  According to the author, the very idea of death especially the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else.This might perhaps be the reason why most people are scared of death. Death is something over which nobody can exercise any control. We are bothered about the death as each one of us wants to know what will happen to our family members once we are gone. There is a growing concern about how our surviving loved ones will cope emotionally and materially without us. However, death is not so unsavory as it has been made out to be by various authors, musicians, painters, poets and filmmakers. There is also a flip-side to death. It is about viewing death in a positive manner. Death is viewed in a humorous manner by some artists. The famous American director Woody Allen once joked that he is not afraid of death as he doesn’t want to be there when it happens !!

‘‘Hasyam’’, the new film by acclaimed Malayalam cinema director Jayaraj celebrates death albeit in a positive manner. His film chronicles the hilarious adventures of a simple-minded cadaver agent called ‘Japan’ who views ‘death’ as a golden opportunity to achieve material prosperity by supplying dead bodies to medical colleges in Kerala, India. He would go to any extent in order to procure a cadaver even if it entails the wish that his old father dies soon ! The supply of each cadaver enables him to earn a lucrative amount of INR 100,000.

That a human being is useful for his family, his society is known to all of us. However, a cadaver (the body of a dead person) is also useful to many professionals especially to the people working in the field of medicine. A dead human body is used by physicians and other scientists to study anatomy, identify disease sites, determine causes of death, and provide tissue to repair a defect in a living human being. Students in medical colleges study and dissect cadavers as part of their education. However, not many people are aware that the shortage of cadavers has reached alarming proportions all over the world including India and many medical colleges in India are forced to take the brunt of the dearth of ‘dead bodies’. It is precisely at this juncture that clever people like ‘Japan’ make hay while the sun shines.

According to the performing arts traditions of India, ‘Navarasas’ are the nine emotions which are evoked in an audience when it experiences a dance, music or dramatic performance. ”Hasyam’ is the eight film of the critically acclaimed ‘Navarasa series’ which was launched by Jayaraj in 1999 with the film ‘Karunam’. Some other films of this series are Shantham (2nd film) Bheebhatsa (3rd film) Adbhutam (4th film) Veeram (5 film) Bhayanakam (6th film) and Roudram (7th film). Should a comparison be drawn between the ‘Navarasa Series’’ and a different cultural entity, the idea of ‘Dekalog’ (1989-1990) series directed by late Polish director Krzysztof Kieslowski immediately comes to mind. However, Poland’s Kieslowski and India’s Jayaraj are both unique cinéastes in their respective fields and have contributed enormously to the growth of their respective national cinemas. Their series give erudite viewers ample opportunities to understand their cinematographic visions even though they worked in absolutely different cultural milieus.

While the former directed 10 one-hour films, the latter has made 8 full length films. Kieslowski teamed up with a single collaborator noted Polish lawyer and politician Krzysztof Piesiewicz for ‘Dekalog’ series, Jayaraj worked with different screenwriters. One can list many more similarities and differences to describe these two directors and their works. However, it is certain that both these ‘series’ need to be assessed or reassessed on a regular basis by ‘world cinema’ aficionados in order to understand what good cinema is all about. 

Films about death are a regular feature of all national cinemas but ‘Hasyam’ is a different type of film as no director in the history of cinema has been inventive enough to make a film about a shrewd cadaver agent and his shenanigans. Apart from the plot, this film owes a lot of its actors especially Harishree Ashokan (Japan, Cadaver agent) and Sabitha Jayaraj (Katharina, Japan’s wife) who play their roles with a lot of conviction. Ms. Sabitha Jayaraj who took formal training in acting from renowned Barry John’s acting studio in Mumbai steals the show with her performance as a happy-go-lucky housewife who gives only realistic pieces of advice to her husband. It is with intense earnestness that she tells her husband to hold his horses as she knows that her father-in-law would live for a long time. In the past, Ms. Sabitha Jayaraj played an important role in Malayalam film ‘Pakarnattam’ (2012) which was also directed by Jayaraj.

Mr. Ashokan who has acted in more than 200 films in Malayalam language plays the role of a tall, balding man who is also a good Samaritan at heart. Although he is doing everything for money in order to supply as many dead bodies as he can to medical colleges, he doesn’t spend any money on himself. He is a loyal husband, a doting father to his three daughters. His mannerisms are convincing to such an extent that many viewers might be led to believe that even in real life a cadaver agent looks like him.

By and large, the depiction of death in the realm of ‘world cinema’ has always remained a serious matter. However, things are beginning to change especially in the manner ‘death’ has been given a completely new twist through a new genre of ‘death comedy’ films.  Box office success of some popular death comedy films namely ‘Big Shot’s Funeral’ (China,2001), ‘Death becomes her’ (USA, 2002) and ‘Death at a funeral’ (USA, 2007) demonstrate that such films have the ability to change people’s perceptions about death. That ‘Hasyam’ is a film which can be watched with family would work a lot in its favor as Indian audiences prefer watching films without objectionable material. It is hoped that the success of the film ‘Hasyam’ would enable viewers to view ‘death’ as a pleasant reality which should be accepted by all and sundry with open arms.