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MT: Malayalam’s Talisman (Part 4)

MT: Malayalam’s Talisman (Part 4)

A series that highlights what is commonly considered to be one of the lesser achievements of legendary writer and filmmaker MT Vasudevan Nair – his screenplays. On the menu today are the films, Kanyakumari, Bandhanam and Neelathamara.

Vinu Syriac
By Vinu Syriac18 December 2021
Film

A series that highlights what is commonly considered to be one of the lesser achievements of legendary writer and filmmaker MT Vasudevan Nair – his screenplays. On the menu today are the films, Kanyakumari, Bandhanam and Neelathamara.

Film: Kanyakumari (1974)
Cast: Kamal Hassan, Rita Bhaduri, Prem Nawas, K.G Menon, Sankaradi
Director: KS Sethumadhavan

Kanyakumari, the southernmost town of India, is a hotspot for tourists and believers. Legend says the town is named after Kanya Devi, an avatar of Parvathi, who was going to marry Shiva. But the groom didn’t turn up. Over time, Kanya Devi became Kanya Kumari the Virgin Goddess, who was revered by many.

The movie, Kanyakumari, is set mostly around a hotel in Kanyakumari. Among the guests are an ascetic Swami (KG Menon), Jayan (Nawas), a young man with a fractured memory, two May-December couples and Frederick (Murali Das), the eventual villain. On the beach next to the hotel is Parvathi (Rita Bhaduri), an orphan girl selling necklaces to tourists. Parvathi is in love with Sankaran (Hassan), a sculptor’s apprentice. Over the course of a few days, their lives are irrevocably changed,

Kanyakumari the movie is an ode to Kanyakumari the place. One can easily picture MT Vasudevan Nair making a vacation to Kanyakumari, falling in love with the place and the myths around it, and scripting a modern screenplay around those legends. The lead characters are Parvathi and Sankaran. You cannot be more direct about your intentions!

While the main story is about a young virgin, MT still manages to infuse some sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll into the proceedings. There is even an English song, “I’m in Love with Love”, sung by Usha Uthup, featuring a group of drugged hippies.While drawing parallels to the legend, there are a lot of varied threads. It can’t be a coincidence the villain who tries to steal innocence is named Frederick and has very European features. During British rule, Kanyakumari was renamed Cape Comorin. It was reverted to the original name after Independence.

However, all the threads do not come together. Even the love story at the centre is barely explored. Maybe a lot was left in the editing room, maybe the writer and director wanted an art cinema aesthetic. But one cannot shake a sense of frustration at what it could have been.

Kanyakumari has an astonishing number of firsts. Kamal Hassan, hitherto a child actor, stars in his first adult leading role. It is this movie that set him on what is one of the most celebrated and envied careers in Indian filmdom. Debuting as a heroine against him was Rita Bhaduri, who later was a permanent fixture on TV as a mum in serials. She is effervescent in the role, despite having no clue about the language. The movie begins with a bunch of tourists going around Kanyakumari. Among them, making his debut, is a very young and handsome Jagathy Sreekumar, the most acclaimed comedian in Malayalam.

Kanyakumari was MT’s first movie made in colour. It was also his first collaboration with KS Sethumadhavan, a director he would work with many more times. Sethumadhavan has a reputation of being extremely brave in his choice of subjects in those days. Maybe it was the partnership trying to get its bearings; maybe it was the choice of aesthetic, somewhere midway between arthouse and parallel; or it was a case of Lost in Editing, the viewer patiently waits for the real movie to step out of the shadows of Kanyakumari. Like Kanya Devi waiting for her groom, it is not a fruitful wait.

Film: Bandhanam (Bondage) 1978
Cast: Sukumaran, Shubha, Shobha
Director: MT Vasudevan Nair

The loner without any family ties is a popular character in films. It is also very lazy characterisation. Being devoid of family responsibilities gives a lot of leeway in explaining the character’s actions and motivations. In Bandhanam, MT takes this theme and completely subverts it. What if a loner discovers family and responsibilities?

Unnikrishnan (Sukumaran) works in a bank. He discharges his duties well and maintains a distance from everyone. He lives in a hostel and has an occasional peg as his only vice. Those days most industries followed a strict tenure-based promotion cycle. Unni loses a promotion to Sarojini (Shubha) because, years before, she took up employment in the bank a few hours before him. He is perfectly fine with it, but Sarojini feels the need to apologise. The two colleagues start spending time together. Sarojini is obviously attracted to him, but Unni still maintains a distance because he has no experience of getting close to anyone.

One day Unni receives a letter. We find out that he has a half-sister, Thankam (Shobha), and a stepmother. Unni travels to his hometown to see them. He discovers he has to become someone he was not, till then. This scares him, but also starts giving him a sense of purpose. But at what cost?

Sukumaran continues the gruff, uber-masculine persona that defined most of his roles. He gets to show a sensitive side, but only to an extent. Shubha plays an able foil. A lot of credit should go to MT for the way he depicted their almost love story. The conversations, the long walks, the visits to each other’s hostels, you never doubt that this is a real couple. Actual people with real problems.

And then there is Shobha. A fairy that floated through South Indian cinema in the 1970s. She acted in some memorable movies, became a darling of the common man, won a National award and married a beloved director. All before she turned 18. Because fate is cruel, she also took her own life before she turned 18. She comes into the film in the second half and, despite not having a particularly challenging role, she ensures that Thankam is a character that we love.

Bandhanam is the second feature film directed by MT. In a clever bit of misdirection, he chooses the obvious title – Bondage – to talk about a free bird who is suddenly saddled with responsibility. The storyline is very different. With Bandhanam, MT the director moved more into the mainstream, while remaining firmly rooted in realistic storytelling.

Film: Neelathamara (The Blue Lotus) 1979
Cast: Ambika, Ravikumar, Santha Devi, Bhavani, Sathar
Director: Yusufali Kecheri

They say the heart knows what the heart feels. Sometimes, all it takes to confirm things is a little divine intervention. Or is it?

Malooty Amma (Santa Devi) is a well-off widow who lives alone in a big house. Those days the caste system was so deeply entrenched in society that even the domestic help had to be from certain castes a practice that continues even today in many parts of the country). Those cleaning the compound would not be allowed inside the house. Malooty Amma wants a full-time assistant who’ll stay with her and help out around the kitchen and the house. Along comes Kunjimalu (Ambika) from a really poor family. In a short time, she becomes invaluable to the old lady.

Malooty Amma’s son Haridasan (Ravikumar) comes home after finishing his college studies. He sees the pretty young thing running around and embarks on a seduction routine that basically consists of asking her directly to come to his room after dark. The local temple has a legend attached to it. If someone prays hard to the deity for answers, the next day a blue lotus would bloom in the temple pond. Kunjimalu prays and the lotus blooms. She goes to his room that night and thereafter.

Kunjimalu is smitten by Hari and she is happy because she has divine blessings on her side. Her grandmother wanted to get her married off to a distant relative Appu (Sathar). But Kunjimalu refuses. She dreams of a time when she would be happily married to Hari. Even when the latter gets a job and moves away she harbours those dreams. But then, over the course of a day, Hari’s marriage is arranged with his maternal cousin Ratnam (Bhavani). Even then Kunjimalu refuses to acknowledge the truth of what had happened between her and Hari.

The blurbs said that Neelathamara was a love story that took the audience by storm. They lied. This is a very calculated, albeit mild, assault on caste and class. I would say, on religion also. The film follows a well-trodden path till three-quarters of its runtime, at which time it takes a surprising turn to attempt to be a feminist parable. I say attempt because the damage had already been done till then.

Ravikumar has the looks to be a sleazy spoilt brat and he doesn’t disappoint. Ambika is restrained in the role that made her into a leading lady. Santha Devi has a plum role. Bhavani probably gets some of the most surprising monologues in a film of those times. It ends all so familiarly but is extremely impactful in showing us what MT is trying to do.

Noted poet Yusufali Kecheri in his third and last movie as a director finds a sweet spot between a crowd-pleaser and a moral tale. The line that comes on the screen after ‘The End’ flashes may seem too blunt now, but it is earnest. There is a rather hilarious product placement of MT’s own short story collection that came out around that time.

However, the most interesting plotline for me was not the main story, but that of Kunjimalu’s friend Ammini. We do not see what is happening to her, but we can grasp various threads from her conversations and make up our own minds. It is a fascinating sidebar and credit goes to the writer and director for appreciating the intelligence of the audience, while trying to entertain them.

(To be continued. Read the previous parts here)

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By Vinu Syriac18 December 2021