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1 November 2011

Perumazhakkaalam (2004)

2004
Directed by: Kamal
Music: M Jayachandran
Starring: Meera Jasmine, Kavya Madhavan, Salim Kumar, Mammukoya, 
Sadiq, Biju Menon, Mala Arvindan, Dileep, Vineeth
I have spent a month writing about Amitabh Bachchan's films; a chore that was as welcome as it was renewing my aquaintance with my first love. However, I think I have reached saturation point (for the moment) with Hindi films. As I mentioned to bollyviewer who chided me for overdoing reviews of Amitabh's films, once I finished that set, I was going to concentrate on films from other languages - both Indian and otherwise.

This is the first of many posts that will focus the spotlight on films that are not available to a vast majority of viewers who have a taste for different cinema. Where story is still king. Where the director is still the captain of the ship. Where actors play characters, not themselves. Yes, there is such cinema around, still. In very many regional languages in our country, and it's a shame that they are not as easily available for viewing as Hindi films. (Let's not get into the availability / quality of DVDs, availability / quality of sub-titles here. That will be a post / rant for another day.) And when I get Hindi-fillum withdrawal symptoms as I'm sure I will, I'll throw in a couple of song lists. :)

When I first learnt that Nagesh Kukunoor had seen Kamal’s Perumazhakaalam at the Goa Film Festival and had been so impressed that he had approached the filmmaker for the rights to make it in Hindi, I was glad. While I didn’t think that he was the best thing since sliced bread (which was the general opinion after the film-maker came out with Hyderabad Blues), I did like the ideas he came up with, on screen (Rockford, Teen Deewarein, Iqbal) – if nothing else, they were original. And simple.

He had approached Kamal. Bought the rights. Credited Kamal in his interviews. And then signed Ayesha Takia and Gul Panag, two actresses who I think can be absolutely brilliant given a good director. To say I waited impatiently for Dor would be an understatement. Post-release reports did nothing to remove that sense of anticipation. It seemed that everyone who saw Dor was impressed.

And so, I watched Dor – and at the end, I could cheerfully have killed Kukunoor. How he could take a very emotional story that was handed to him on a plate, use Kamal’s brilliant screenplay, waste two good actresses and one very natural actor (Shreyas Talpade) on half-baked characterisations – and give us Dor is beyond me. I came out of the theatre seething. 

*End Rant*

For everyone out there who thought Dor was good, here’s the absolutely brilliant Malayalam original. With two actresses who can chew up any contemporary Hindi film actress when it comes to acting chops.


Perumazhakaalam (Monsoons) is the story of two women – a young Brahmin widow (Kavya Madhavan) and a young Muslim wife (Meera Jasmine) whose lives intersect unexpectedly.

It’s the season of the monsoons, and young Raziya (Meera Jasmine) is busy with her livestock and her daily chores. Her father, Abdu (Mammu Koya), repairs musical instruments for a living. Raziya’s husband, Akbar (Dileep) is working in Saudi Arabia, striving to earn money to build a house in his hometown. He had left when Raziya was pregnant and hasn’t returned even to see his new-born daughter. Raziya is counting days and hours until she sees him next.
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A bevy of young girls come along to take Raziya to a mehendi ceremony (called mailanji kalyanam in Malayalam); she is in great demand to apply mehendi. (Okay, Meera Jasmine can’t dance, but by God, she can act!)

When Raziya and her father return home, they are met at the dock by Akbar’s cousin, Najeeb (Sadiq). He bears grave news, but does not know all the details. He has come to prepare Abdu for the worst, but cautions him against telling Raziya anything.
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The next morning, Abdu visits him at his lumber shop; they call up a friend in Saudi Arabia to try and find out what has really happened. The news is more serious than they first heard. Akbar has been accused of murdering a man called Raghuram Iyer (Vineeth); by the law of the Shariat which insists  on an eye for an eye, he will be condemned to death. He has been arrested and taken to jail.
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By now, the news has spread like wildfire in their little hamlet, though Raziya is still blissfully ignorant. But that state of affairs does not last very long.
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Many miles away, in a little town in Palghat, a young Brahmin wife and mother, Ganga (Kavya Madhavan) is getting ready to receive her husband's weekly call. And another father is wondering how to tell his daughter-in-law that she is now a widow.
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While they will only get his body in four or five days, and the family want to keep the news from his wife, social strictures demand that once a man is dead, his wife is shorn of all her marriage symbols. How is it possible that she is allowed to walk around with the sindoor in the parting of her hair, flowers in her hair, and makeup? question the village elders.

For Raziya, the sun has already set on her future. Not only is she bereft, she also has to listen to the taunts of her sister-in-law who blames Raziya for her brother having gone to Saudi Arabia.
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And Ganga? Not only destined to lose her husband at an age when most girls get married, she is also condemned to the barbaric rituals that attend her widowhood. (She is given a ceremonial bath, dressed up as a bride, and systematically divested of every symbol of her marriage.)
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Saudi courts move quickly; a couple of days later, the verdict reaches Kerala shores – Akbar has been found guilty and condemned to death. The local media are quick to jump onto the bandwagon; the news is received very differently in two places.
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While there is rejoicing in Palghat that the guilty has been punished, the same news drives Raziya and her father to beg help from whoever can help them.
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Raziya is wondering whether writing to the chief minister will help, when a stranger arrives at her village - John Kuruvilla (Biju Menon), a friend of both Akbar’s and Raghuram’s. It’s from him they learn what happened that fateful night.
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John is not very hopeful that meeting the CM will solve anything – the Muslim countries have their own laws. But he holds out a ray of hope – if the murdered man’s mother or wife signs a mercy petition, the Shariat courts may be persuaded to take another look at the case. And if so, they may revoke the death sentence. This however, does not mean that he will be freed – he will still have to serve some jail time.

It’s a very slim chance, but Raziya is willing to clutch at any straw to save her husband's life. John is going back in less than a fortnight. If they can get a mercy petition signed by then, he is willing to take it himself. John’s prodding, and his support mean a lot to Raziya. Abdu is hesitant – how are they going to meet Ganga? Raziya is the wife of the man who killed Ganga’s husband -  what do they say when they meet her? Raziya sees no other option. How can she not  go? It is the only chance she’s got. And if Allah has shown her this path, won’t Ganga’s god show her the way to mercy? 

The next morning, Abdu and Raziya set off to Kalpathy in Palghat. After a long and tedious journey, they reach Palghat, where Abdu’s friend Kunjikannan (Mala Aravindan) runs a tea stall. With his help they reach their destination – the agraharam where Ganga and her in-laws live. Their first attempt is not successful. Raghu’s father, uncle and aunt cannot even fathom Raziya’s request – they have lost their child.
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How dare Raziya ask that they pardon Akbar? They refuse to let her meet their daughter-in-law.

Raziya goes away but is determined to meet Ganga. Her second attempt also ends in failure. Raghu’s younger brother is furious. The Brahmin elders are sympathetic but advise her to stay clear of him.
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Ganga sees and hears all that happens. She can’t help remembering happier days.

The next morning, Raziya waits outside the temple. She begs Ganga to forgive Akbar. Ganga cannot believe her ears. Scared of losing control, she turns away.
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Raziya runs after her – this may be her only chance. Ganga cannot keep silent any more. “You can cry in front of me for your husband’s life. If I were to cry in front of you asking you to give me back my husband, whom your husband killed, will you return him to me? Will you be able to?” Raziya cannot answer.

Raziya returns, dejected. Meanwhile Najeeb arrives in Palghat. He points out that meeting the CM may have given them better results. He also seems to take for granted that Akbar is doomed – he propositions Raziya only to be sent packing.
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Najeeb's discomfiture is complete when he realises that Akbar’s uncle (Salim Kumar) who had come with him, has seen and heard everything. On their way back, they run into John who has come to see how far matters have reached. Najeeb accuses him of taking advantage of Raziya; John is not amused.

John is still exhorting Raziya to try to get Ganga to sign the petition. When Raziya complains that Ganga is avoiding her, John gently tells her that Ganga’s (and that of her family's) stand is right - from her point of view. But they have only one week left before the sentence is carried out, and John has to leave by the next day at least, if he is to get the petition to the authorities in time.

Will John’s unconditional support prove to be the shot in the arm that Raziya needs? Will she succeed in meeting Ganga and persuading her to sign the mercy petition that will save her husband’s life? What about Ganga’s in-laws?

This was Meera's film. With a strong author-backed role as the young wife who is fighting for her husband's life, Meera portrayed her character's grief, desperation, and strength very well. Her expressive eyes, her mobile face, her quivering voice all lent gravitas to a role that most heroines would give their left hand (and right, and maybe even their lives) to do.

Kavya had a smaller, albeit equally important role. As a young Brahmin widow who is cloistered after her husband dies, and who lives in an atmosphere that is suffocating, her grief, her anger, her pleasure (almost) when she learns that the man who killed her husband has been condemned to death, and finally her pity - what an actress! Her silences speak more than actual dialogues.

If both Meera and Kavya were perfect for the two main roles, the supporting cast was equally brilliant. Mammukoya as Raziya’s father, played the part of an old, not-very-rich-man who is faced with the biggest crisis of his life to the hilt. His whole demeanour - the whipped expression when his daughter is turned away again and again by the family of the dead man; the quick hope that John’s arrival gives him; his quiet support of his daughter – how can you forget him? 

While Biju Menon, Sadiq, Mala Aravindan all excel in their minor roles, the one supporting part that stays with you long after the movie is done, is that of Salim Kumar in the role of Akbar’s uncle. And his is not even a character that is very important to the narrative! He is a man obsessed with eating, and with uttering dire warnings, Cassandra-style. He is willing to go the extra mile (literally) just so he can get a free meal. Yet, when push comes to shove, he discovers unexpected depths to himself; and self-respect wins the day. What a perfect performance!

Salim is a fantastic actor who got slotted in inane comic roles, but has consistently delivered strong performances in meaty supporting roles when he is offered them. After an award-winning performance in Adaminte Makan Abu, a tiny gem of a movie, and India’s offering to the Academy Awards this year, one hopes that more and more film-makers will recognise this versatile actor’s range.

The film's biggest support is provided by the rains – it is incessant, and colours the palette of the movie. Whether it glitters in the sunlight in the beginning, or is overcast by the clouds of sorrow that befall the characters, the rain is there, permeating everything that is seen or done. It's as if Nature herself is celebrating and / or grieving along with the characters.

Based on a true incident that director Kamal read about as a news item tucked away in a Malayalam newspaper, and developed into a powerful screenplay by TZ Razak, Perumazhakaalam had all the hallmarks of a great film – a good story, a strong script, perfect casting, powerhouse performances, great music by M Jayachandran, and excellent camera work by P Sukumar (he captured the blues and greys of the Kerala monsoons so well).

It also had something else – a director who knew how to mould all these elements into a cohesive whole. Perumazhakaalam is a film that leaves the viewer satisfied. Despite all the tear-filled eyes in the screen shots, this is not a tear-jerker. What I liked best is that there is no emotional manipulation. You are not asked to feel sorry for the characters; you just do. And if you feel a lump in your throat, or a wetness to your eyes, it's because the characters call to you. Not because they are hammering you on the head with how devoid of joy their lives really are. 

It is like undergoing a catharsis, and you come out feeling a slightly better person than when you went in. There is something to be said for films that make you feel that way – without preaching! 

Some shots of Kerala, the monsoons, the actors…
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19 comments:

  1. Hi Anu,
    Beautiful. Perumazhakkaalam, to me, is one of those little, complete movies that Kamal, comes around with, once in a while. As you mentioned, he has always employed these delightful 'characters' across movies - the raggedy wind in Madhuranombarakkaattu, the ubiquitous Grandpa's beard ( Appooppan thaadi aka Calotropis Gigantea) in Kakkothikkaviley.., the traditional Malabari ghazals in Ghazal..) In a recent interview, he was asked what he considered a good movie. He said, "I just cannot answer it offhand. But, to me, it has to be a complete artform, hence along with execution, appreciation and assimilation are equally important. In the audience, a movie for me has to touch my heat, my mind, my eyes, my ears and move them." If only more thought that way. After all, the tutelage under PN Menon, Lenin Rajendran and Bharathan ought to have done some good, aint it? :) I too watched Dor, and came away feeling empty. It was more akin to being cheated.
    keep it coming..regards..

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  2. Also, it was Kamal who first dared show the 'star-struck' Malayali movie audience the calibre of Salim Kumar, till then relegated to loud, over-the-top slapstick and buffonery in Gramaphone. He repeated him with this brilliant role in Perumazhakkaalam. It wasn't soon that Lal Jose, Kamal's favorite disciple, cast him as the lead in the heart-wrenching tale on child prostitution and sex-slavery, Achanurangaatha veedu in 2005. And now Adaminte makan Abu. truly deserved, i would say.

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  3. There was a time in Malayalam Cinema, when you went to see the movie based on who the director was - *even if* it starred Mohanlal or Mammootty. It's sad that that soon deteriorated into the 'superstar' system where the stars became bigger than the script. With directors like Kamal, Ranjith, Lal Jose etc., I think that era is returning. I really like Kamal's movies - they are usually original, well-scripted, and *everyone*, irrespective of screen time is cast according to the need of the script and are equally important.

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  4. I didn't know that Kamal had first cast Salim Kumar in a serious role, though I have seen Achanurangatha Veedu. Navya is another actress who I think is really, really good. She has a very natural style of dialogue delivery, very reminiscent of Manju Warrier. (I used to hate Salim in those OTT 'comedy' roles.)

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  5. I thought you are taking a break from writing reviews of good films!!!!! *rant*
    Now, I'm thirsting to see this film!!!!
    WANT FILM RIGHT NOW!!!!!!!!!!!
    *sob*

    I thinking having the hairline fracture is not going to help much, you will spend more time in front of your computer!

    Like Mahu would say: Hey Bhagwan!

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  6. Harvey, I said I was taking a break from writing reviews of good Hindi films. :) This is available on YouTube - without sub-titles, unfortunately. It is available on DVD, though.

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  7. This is unfair, Anu! :-( This film sounds like such a winner - that story had me rivetted all the way - and I am almost certain I won't be able to get hold of it with subtitles. Do you remember, you gave me a list of good films, Tamil and Malayalam, that I should look out for? I've got it saved on my laptop, and I go off and check my DVD rental service's catalogue every now and then, but no luck. Boo-hoo!!

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  8. Madhu, this is available on DVD, with sub-titles. I do not know where in Delhi you will get it, though. It's unbelievable the films that come from languages that are not 'mainstream'. Some more coming your way. :)

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  9. I watched Dor before a Mallu friend of mine showed me Perumazhakkaala, and I was totally blown away by this movie. So much more intense than the Hindi version, I thought. I'm beginning to understand his anger at the 'remakes' which he claims are usually a travesty of the original.

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  10. Coming late to the post; I'm one of those who thoroughly enjoyed Dor, Anu; why do you say it was a bad imitation? I haven't seen the original, so I cannot comment on it, but from what I read here, Kukkunoor followed the plot pretty closely. What am I missing?

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  11. While I agree that this is a very well made movie, I think it made a deliberate attempt to push us to empathize with the characters; not as understated as in Kamal's attempts like in 'Madhuranombarakkaattu' or 'Megha Malhar'...

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  12. *Definitely* miles better than the remakes, Sridhar, no question about it! Watch Manichitrathazhu vs Chandramukhi / Billo Barber for instance; or Vellanakalude Naadu vs whatever-trash-Priyadarshan-foisted-on-the-unsuspecting-viewer. Priyadarshan is of course, single-handedly responsible for the dumbing down (and worse) of classic Malayalam films for the benefit of the Hindi viewer.

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  13. The characterisations of the two women, for instance, Ruhi. You are a woman whose husband has been accused of murder; you have a fortnight in which to locate the widow of the slain man, persuade her to sign a mercy petition on your husband's behalf, and then give it to your husband's friend who is leaving within ten days. So, what do you (Gul Panag) do? You show absolutely no sign of grief or desperation, coolly make your meandering way to Rajasthan with only the slain man's grainy newpaper photo in hand, make friends with a conman on the way, and then, when you finally locate the woman, and manage to talk to her - what do you do? Why, take her to see a movie. Of course! Why didn't I think of such an obvious thing!

    On the other hand, you're a young woman on the threshold of adulthood; you have been widowed before you even knew what marriage and life were all about. What do *you* do? Cry? No, of course not! You make friends with the woman who is your husband's murderer's wife, make her take you to a movie as price for your signing a mercy petition and *then* you sing and dance and laugh - less than a month after your husband died.

    Apart from that, unnecessary characters (so Kukkunoor could put in an obligatory appearance, songs that do not fit in *anywhere* in the narrative, Shreyas Talpade's *very* irritating character....

    Pffft! Don't get me started!

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  14. Pradeep, welcome. I think the switch from Megh Malhar or even Madhuranombarakkattu was because in this, the pressure on the characters is so much more, no? In a sense, Raziya is fighting time as much as she is fighting fate. And the issue was so much more emotional - how do you forgive a man who has killed your husband? (Ganga) and How can you not fight for your husband's life, even if it means begging for it in front of the victim's wife? (Raziya)

    Loved the other two movies too, by the way. I just think this would stand scrutiny even in comparison to them. :)

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  15. As a conflict between the two women it works but the way the side of the other relatives was handled was almost meant to force us to empathize with Raziya, which we would probably have done in the given circumstances. Clearly, there is a sense of anger in their hearts, but I'd saw there was an attempt to fuel the fire just for the audience to feel it further. Maybe they could have done away or reduced the relative side and focus more on the relationship between the women..

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  16. That's an interesting point. I didn't see it that way because I saw their anger *also* as natural. I saw their wanting nothing to do with her as something that was very apt to the situation they were in. And while I sympathised with Raziya's plight, I thought Kamal did a good job of showing us Ganga's - especially that scene where her husband's widowed grandmother (aunt?) tells her that the verdict has come and that Akbar has been sentenced to death - there is anger and relief, even happiness in Ganga's eyes - and I thought to myself, 'Well done!' because if I were in that position, that is probably how I would feel. That vindication that there *is* justice, after all.

    Biju's character even says that - when Raziya complains about Ganga avoiding her - he says "They are right to do so. They have lost a son, a brother, a husband. But you cannot give up!" I thought the script made us feel sympathetic to both women - and their relatives. You can understand why they feel the way they do. And no one is painted evilly black, not even Raghuram's brother who insults Raziya.

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  17. I hated Dor. I remember having an argument with one of Rishi's cousins about it - she seemed to take it as a personal affront that I didn't like it. :( I hated both the women leads - the whole thing seemed so superficial without any sense of urgency that the plot demanded.
    This is available on DVD, you say? I'll tell you what I feel about it after I see it!

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  18. I hated both the women leads - the whole thing seemed so superficial without any sense of urgency that the plot demanded.

    Precisely my beef with Dor! Not to mention the manipulation that Kukunoor indulged in. Do watch 'Perumazhakkalam' though - you have seen an alternate viewpoint down below. So come back and tell me what you think about it. It's available online, but there aren't any sub-titles that I could spot. The DVD does have sub-titles, though, so if you can buy it, then you have a better chance of understanding at least *some* of the dialogues.

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