She was a bard of stolen childhood, of orphaned toys and betrayed schools. Rugmini, the eponymous heroine of the film *Rugmini,* epitomizes Kamala Suraiyya's vision of a girl child’s world; a girl who wants to play till she drops asleep, but doesn't want to be 'played' with by the predatory hands around her. A girl tottering on the borders of adolescence and childhood. When Madhavikutty's novella *Rugminikkoru paavakkutty* was born again on screen in 1989, the story was transfigured through the sensitive visualization of K.P. Kumaran. In this month of June when the shadow of Kamala's loss hangs heavy and thick on us, I read the story and watched the film once more only to be struck again by the magical waltz of word and image, by the captivating way they fade in and out of each other's arms.
It is a pleasure to muse on the delicious liberties Kumaran has taken with the story, and on his choice of actors which is nothing less than a casting coup. Kumaran's film, needless to say, is at once an interpretation of, and a homage to, Kamala's vision of human life in all its lust, greed, longing, violence and compassion. Very often screen adaptations of books manage to make us cringe. And there have been times when the reel version has gone beyond the book and the film becomes synonymous with the story. But here is an enviable communion of kindred souls energizing each other's creative intuitions so that both the book and the film glow with a radiance of their own and illuminate each other's silent spaces. And the credits tell you that the screenplay happily bore the imprints of the writer and the director.
It's an all too familiar story of a girl raped and traumatized by her stepfather, with her mother left with no option but to entrust the child to the only savior she knows of -- Satyabai, who runs a 'respectable' brothel in the interiors of Kerala. Rugmini, barely into her teens, is sucked into the vortex of a sordid life, but lit up by its own community life, fun, music, eccentricities and pain. What is remarkable in Kamala's story and in Kumaran's film is the total rejection of sentimentalism in dealing with the grim and nasty theme of sex racket and child prostitution. Rugmini is a rare child character in our cinema which is otherwise riddled with cloyingly sweet or irritatingly sassy kids. Anju is still remembered by this role she performed with an innocent and disarming ease and sharpness. A wilful Rugmini who snarled even as she pined for a father who hit back as she was crushed, who ran to her hopscotch straight from the crude overtures of middle aged men.
There is a hard irony in Kamala's narration and dialogues, which has been most imaginatively fleshed out in the film through gestures, looks and subtle movements. The insecurities of aging sex workers, even as they squeeze dry young girls for their own survival and sustenance, couldn't have been more skilfully essayed by anyone other than Mavelikkara Ponnamma with her distinctive timbre of voice and mannerisms. It's a vintage performance when Nedumudi Venu in his portrayal of the typical lecherous police inspector transforms the type into a disturbingly complex person. He ranges through a whole spectrum of emotions from the lewd, raucous laughter of a swaggering cop to sober moments of introspection. Can we imagine anyone other than Ashokan to do that role of an ineffectual romantic lover with such conviction? Madhavikutty's tongue in cheek tone is inescapable when we wonder if Krishna is more in need of Meera than vice versa. The film is a sharp expose of the vacuity of all revolutionary rhetoric till date which hasn't been able to liberate women from these cages.
In a brilliant act of infidelity to the book, which I personally believe to be his master stroke, Kumaran takes this crowd out of the brothel into public spaces, temple precincts and onto the beach. For me, that twilight sequence where these girls are silhouetted against the fading orange of the skies on dark brooding rocks overlooking the sea is one of the bold and unforgettable sequences in Malayalam cinema. It's this positive and defiant mood that defines Kumaran's trans-creation of the story. What could well have been a weepy tale brimming with self-pity and moral righteousness, rises to a philosophical contemplation on senseless living around us. For an amorous theme, the film leaves you dull and cold. A dispassionate meditation on love and lovelessness, it dwells on the emotional poverty of a world which can't empathize with the sex workers' lives limned by absolutely normal longings, feelings and desires.
The movie gives a backstory to Rukmini with long sequences of her as a young simple village girl walking through picturesque fields, plucking lotuses from the wayside ponds and simply enjoying being alive. All of which is pitilessly shattered by a stepfather. This backstory gives her a fuller narrative and the bond between the mother and daughter is worked out more tenderly. In a world where mobile phones haven't still come into being, the postman and the letter still hold sway and power. Hopes and expectations of a stigmatized group of women are projected on to the postman who becomes a warm genial presence through actor Innocent, whose periodic entries inflect the narrative with a pensive grace.
It is a world used mercilessly by the male-stream society and torn apart by middle class hypocrisy and false morality. As many women's stories intersect to imagine a most ancient profession in all its intricacy, the film zeroes in on the menacing forces that threaten their comfort zones. No tears here. They scream, laugh, giggle, scorn, mock and cajole, but they are too hard for tears. Nothing moves them anymore. Sentiments and softness are for those who can afford them. Every face is vacant, eyes are dead and feelings are numbed. The film individualizes Seetha and Radha giving them a life and narrative of their own, thus evoking the varied lives and experiences of women in flesh trade. Seetha is matter of fact when her ailing husband comes to her workplace and serves him food with great affection. Radha's dollops of attitude and brashness highlight the class divide even among hapless women. Anasuya, the dark thin maid servant in that brothel, who serves savories to the visitors and inmates, dressed miserably in that gaudily made-up locale haunts you long after the film. You won't find her in the story, but the film seems to have found a destiny of its own to fulfil. From the bleak interiors, the company is thrown out onto the streets homeless, destitute and forlorn. It's a surreal shot of a group of dolled up women with bag and baggage seeking shelter on the public road. As K.G. Jayan's camera close-ups on the final shot of a Rugmini staring at the viewer with a doll in her hand, that image becomes a most searing question ever posed by a child to us. But do we have answers?
*(This is the fifth article in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.)*