Latest Review – The Circus Tent (Thamp̄) [Blu-ray] [Second Run]


Second Run

Dir. Govindan Aravindan

Genre: Drama • Year: 1978 • Country: India • Running Time: 130 minutes • Certificate: PG • Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1 • Image: B&W • Language: Malayalam • Region: Region Free • Video: 1080p High Definition [Resolution] | MPEG-4 AVC [Codec] | 24fps • Audio: 2.0 Dual-Mono LPCM (48khz/16-bit) • Subtitles: English

The beauty of independent distributors like Second Run is that they strive to give audiences the chance to discover overlooked gems of world cinema that most people have probably never had the opportunity to see before. Films that would otherwise remain in relative obscurity – certainly on physical media – were it not for their continued efforts. The Circus Tent (Thamp̄) is a prime example of this.

First released in 1978, pioneering parallel cinema master Govindan Aravindan’s poetic and allegorical Malayalam-language drama was previously thought lost, but has now been given a fresh new lease of life courtesy of this stunning new 4K restoration by the Film Heritage Foundation.

The restoration had its red carpet world premiere in the Cannes Classics section of the 2022 Cannes Film Festival and has since been screened at festivals and museums across the world. It is that new 4K restoration that is presented here in this superb new world premiere Blu-ray release from Second Run.

Filmed on location in central Kerala and shot in a lyrical, cinema-verité style, the film explores the ripples created by the arrival of a travelling circus in the remote Indian village of Thirunavaya on the sandy banks of the Bharathapuzha river.

The film opens with the arrival of the circus troupe and we observe as they begin to pitch up their tent and establish a camp, all captured in a mediative slow cinema approach. Three days later they are packed up and gone, without a trace. Though in that short time their effects on the local villagers are profound. During those three days the circus becomes the central hub of village life. Aravindan examines everything from rural folk culture, human relationships, alienation and social marginalisation.

Thamp © N. L. Balakrishnan Archive at Film Heritage Foundation

It is a largely improvisational, plot-free, character-driven film that seamlessly blends the use of professional actors and artistes with non-professionals and local villagers, who were all invited to come along and watch the circus once the tent was set up. Aravindan claimed to have had no script and simply shot the action as it happened, in true documentary style. It proved to be a clever touch as the performances are natural, the reactions are genuine and the film retains a real sense of authenticity.

Interestingly, the film is at its most successful during these natural, improvised moments as many of the scripted sequences can feel rather stilted and overly staged by comparison.

The fact that the film was made in 1978 and Aravindan chose to shoot in black and white is a hugely significant one. The film is filled with mysterious shadows, stark contrasts and striking imagery that just could not be achieved in colour. The visuals are so important here and the rich black and white images really help to establish that classic observational cinema approach. Aravindan was inspired by the early work of Bunuel and Bresson and that certainly comes across in his films.

Cinematographer Shaji N. Karun captures the events in extended close ups and long reflective pauses with great visual flair, giving real perception and sensitivity to the piece. It’s dreamlike and spiritual with hints of magic realism.

In keeping with the cinema-verité style, Aravindan’s use of sound is incredibly important. With the dialogue minimalist, to say the least, the sound design relies on the immersive natural ambience and genuine sounds of the village to further immerse the viewer in its lyrical world. 

The Circus Tent is not always easy viewing and there are some rather uncomfortable scenes of animal cruelty as exotic animals such as leopards and monkeys are chained up and forced to perform for the crowds, before being forced back into their cages, but it serves as an authentic snapshot of contemporary Keralan life and culture, semi-documentary in its approach, and it is a nonetheless fascinating and intriguing watch.

The Circus Tent (Thamp̄) is presented on Blu-ray from a new 4K restoration undertaken by Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation and Cineteca di Bologna and it is a truly fabulous restoration given the poor quality of the source material.

With no original camera negative available, the restoration was done using a dupe negative struck from a 35mm print held by the National Film Archive of India (NFAI). The team have done an excellent job in stabilising the previously very grainy images and balancing out the mid-tones and shadow detail. There are still some artefacts and debris present but the print is mostly beautiful with rich, deep blacks and bright, striking whites.

The sound restoration is again hugely impressive given there was no original sound negative available. Dialogue is minimal however M. G. Radhakrishnan’s music is beautifully restored and the natural ambience highlights the quality of the sound design, and Aravindan’s careful attention to detail.

Special features are sadly very light but there is a very nice interview with Shivendra Singh Dungarpur and actor Jalaja captured at Cannes 2022, which goes into good detail about the production, the restoration and Aravindan’s work, alongside a newly filmed interview with photographer Ramu Aravindan, son of Aravindan Govindan.

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