Every so often certain momentous events, social and personal, jog our cinematic memories, nudging us to revisit our favorite flicks with a sense of deja vu. The shock and trauma of Jisha murder case might’ve shamelessly ebbed, but our despicable anxiety to lay the guilt at a migrant laborer’s ramshackled door and smelly hovel pushed out Utharam from the dark cavern of my reel memories. V.K Pavithran might be the only Malayalam filmmaker to share the privilege of having directed a Daphne du Maurier story along with Alfred Hitchcock and many other Hollywood bigwigs. And although she has not really figured in the list of highbrow classics or in the canon of feminist writing, Maurier did make an enviably deep impact on the film world with many of her tales going on to be remembered as all-time classics on celluloid. Rebecca and The Birds still send delicious chills down our spines.
Utharam too was a popular hit, and it definitely and unsurprisingly goes to the credit of M.T. Vasudevan Nair to have adapted Maurier’s short story 'No Motive' to the flavors, fears and desires of a middling Malayalee imagination. Now what has the Jisha murder narrative got to do with this film that came out in the eighties and touched a thousand viewers' hearts so softy, so surely and so lethally? More than the compelling story, it is the way it was kneaded and tweaked to appease the tastes at home that fascinates me. What we as a community like to view or hear has got something to do with our deep socially accepted longings, phobias and self-deceptions. The story of Lord and Lady Farren was brilliantly tailored to the rhythms of a plantation owner's life in a typical southern Kerala setting. While Lady Farren's mysterious and inexplicable suicide was entrusted to an impersonal detective for investigation by Maurier, you’ve a baffled Joseph (Sukumaran) entreating his best buddy and confidante Balu (Mammootty) to help him unravel the hidden layers of his wife's past.
Pavithran and M.T. make their Selina Joseph a budding Christian woman writer, who has no literary legacy to boast of in her family or native soil. Malayalee imagination has always curiously displayed a deep and sometimes intense fascination for an imaginative woman. (Not so curious perhaps with Madhavikkutty around for a sizable chunk of the last century). It’s the same awe we’ve revealed toward the figure of an idealistic journalist on screen. So the rather drab aura around the planter Joseph is offset by a poetic Selina (Suparna) and the intense and devil may care journalist, Balu. We are captivated by the bonding between Selina and Balu -- a friendship seldom treasured on screen. Their mutual fondness and camaraderie crackles with poetry, wit and startling metaphors.
The film rises above a typical thriller, giving an emotional density to the bond between Balu and Joseph. There are moments where Mammootty takes the movie to some unforgettable levels. Ramachandrababu's camera is in tune with the spirit of the screenplay that creates a rare female presence on our screen -- a writer and homemaker, sensitive and responsive to violence and love alike. And there is a subtle and tender flow of female friendship, its breaks and continuities, captured through Parvathy and her recollections with characteristic grace and softness.
The myth of Selina, the absolutely contented housewife, starts peeling off and the warts show as Balu's sleuthing gets under way. To cut short a long and wordy story, we reach the peak of an adolescent rebellion and deviance most alarmingly ending in a moment of abandon. It was a master stroke to personalize the relationship between Balu, the seeker of Selina's true story, and her husband, as it complicates the human drama of friendship, marital faith and sanctity of relationships. Suddenly the story of a woman's suicide takes on the dark hues of an unwed motherhood, tinged ironically with the collective religious memories of immaculate conception, orphanhood of the hapless child, and the amnesia which engulfs Selina.
As the plot unwinds to reveal a Selina stunned into memory by the entry of a child beggar named Emmanuel, shocking her into the memory of a rendezvous on a revel filled night with a nomadic community in the precincts of Ootty, we are paradoxically not supplied answers or `utharams’ but are riddled with more questions. Why did the creative team behind the film transform the hopper in the story to a Tibetan or a Gorkha as casually suggested by the housekeeper (Shankaradi) in the film? By depicting a particular ethnic group of distinctive physical features as predatory, drug peddling footloose nomads, weren't we stereotyping and criminalizing a group of people who are migrants and refugees in our soil? Now, in 'No Motive' it is a red-haired travelling salesman who the butler jokingly remarks to be a hopper who triggers an avalanche of fatal memories in Lady Farren. And hoppers are migrant farming communities located in certain parts of England. The cultural politics of this filmic adaptation glosses over the sharp but subtle critique of Christian morality in the book which worships a Virgin Mary but stigmatizes unwed mothers. Is there an underlying pattern in the way we as a civic society villainise another community with evils, which we don’t want to own up to? The film must alert us to the multiple ways in which dominant cultures across the world -- through stories, dance, music and paintings -- image lifestyles and beliefs different from us as dangerous and subversive. We create our own identities through a thousand despisals we carefully nurture and protect.
Written sometime in the middle years of the twentieth century, the story's sinister and almost Victorian preoccupation with adolescent female sexuality still resonates with our own Malayalee phobia around the subject. Even our 21st century films like Notebook and Drishyam reveal the claustrophobic silence and control that reins in the girls. Utharam is striking for its bold portrayal of girls smoking, drinking and even sensing some intoxicant herb rolled into their cigarettes. Although this boldness is balanced by the note of caution filigreeing the narrative toward the end, the film draws appreciation for its natural and casual portrayal.
It is often said that Maurier's stories haunt you beyond their endings. Utharam is no different and it hounds you with questions beyond the time and space of its creation. It makes you think of the uneasy dimensions of xenophobia, of the curse of remembrance and blessing of forgetting, of our moral hypocrisies and legacies of emotional understandings. As the subterranean narrative of a vaguely remembered rape is brutally hauled to the surface, it is Selina's friend's trauma we are forced to confront. And how is she going to live down that memory is a question Utharam raises beyond the ending of ‘No Motive.’ Braiding together elements of gender and ethnicity into the narrative logic of popular cinema, Utharam leaves you still with a disquieting shiver even as we allow ourselves to slip into a wretchedly comfortable amnesia around the death of a Dalit girl who fought through her life and death.
Are we a society always in a denial mode?
(This is the seventh article in a series that aims to remind readers about some important Malayalam films that are worth revisiting.)