19 February 2016

Yakshi (1968)

Directed by: K Sethumadhavan
Screenplay, dialogues: Thoppil Bhasi
Music: Devarajan
Lyrics:Vayalar Ramavarma
Starring: Satyan, Sharada, Adoor Bhasi, 
Sukumari, Bahadur, Raja Kokila, Usha Kumari, 
Sreelatha Namboodiri, N Govindankutty
A 'yakshi', from Malayali folklore, is represented as a beautiful woman with long hair and an attractive gait, who supposedly bewitches young men on moonless nights, before killing them and drinking their blood. (Not to be confused with the yaksha/yakshini myths from other Indian mythology.) According to our folklore, they are young upper-class women who have been raped or otherwise wronged, and who then die unnatural deaths. Their souls wander the earth, seeking revenge for the crimes committed against them. They are associated with the Paala tree (Indian Devil Tree/Blackboard Tree/Milkwood Pine), a tree with clusters of seven leaves, and extremely fragrant, short-lived white flowers.

Malayalam cinema and literature have explored this theme quite often, and one of the finest of these  was Mukham, a serialised novel by Malayatoor Ramakrishnan, which was later published as a novel by the name 'Yakshi', and adapted into an equally fine film by the same name.

I first read Yakshi one dark stormy night when I was 13. I must confess that I picked the novel up because the night was dark and stormy. It seemed to set the ambience. Unfortunately, I quite forgot that my grandfather had gone to Sabarimala, my eldest brother was working in a little town far away and would only return over the weekend, and my cousin had gone to her father's ancestral home. My grandmother and I were alone in our home, and she slept downstairs, while I was alone upstairs. Of course, I did not remember that when I covered myself with blankets and read the entire novel at single stretch by the dim light in the room.

As I continued to read, the street lamp threw distorted shadows of the chembakam/champak tree outside the windows onto the whitewashed walls of the room, and my imagination distorted it even further. I could barely look at the wall without envisioning the yakshi (or a group of yakshis) all waiting silently, swaying in the wind. Every noise was amplified several-fold, and I flinched when I heard a nocturnal bird cry outside. I even imagined I heard the sound of anklets. You can imagine my terror! But try as I might, I couldn't bear to put down the book - I had to find out how it ended. I eventually finished the book, and then, afraid to even go to the bathroom (that involved opening and closing a couple of heavy wooden doors), I tried unsuccessfully to go to sleep. The next day, I rummaged in my grandfather's tool box for an iron nail. For almost a month after that - what was remaining of my summer holidays that year - I made sure that the nail was under my pillow when I went to bed. (Yakshis are supposedly afraid of iron.) 

Yet, the novel remained a perennial favourite. A year or so later, the film enjoyed a re-run in Bangalore's Opera House theatre. This was during the horrible period when Malayalam films had a very bad reputation outside the state. Several unscrupulous distributors released perfectly decent Malayalam films with clips from 'blue films' inserted, and the most titillating of posters to publicise them. It was very rarely that Malayalis went to watch these films, preferring to wait until the local Malayali association screened good films with no untoward additions. However, when my father took us, en famille, to watch this film, it was interesting to note that the entire audience seemed to be comprised of fellow Malayalis. (A few people, who had obviously come to watch something else, got up and left in disgust by the time the first reel ended.) Unfortunately for us, just when the film was nearing the climax, the intrepid distributor and/or theatre owner struck - at a very tense point in the film, came a bathing scene, and then the screen went blank. We all sat there for a while, waiting to see if the reel had broken and if they would fix it. But that was that. It was years before I watched the actual ending of the film. 

But... onward to the film itself...

Professor Sreenivasan (Satyan) is a young and very popular college lecturer. Admired by his female students, and enjoying their adulation, the jovial young Chemistry professor is nevertheless being excoriated in the staff-room for his belief in yakshis. Isn't it an insult for a scientist to believe in such superstion, asks one of his colleagues. Well, Sreeni, as he is popularly known, doesn't really believe in them, he avers. But he cannot say - with conviction - that they do not exist, either. Why cannot his colleagues understand that there is much that science does not know? It is sheer arrogance to believe that reality is limited to what is visible to the eye.
Chandran (N Govindankutty), his friend and a Botany professor in the same college is not too enthused about Sreeni's new research into the occult. Sreeni is not a whit discomposed - the 'magicians' who attempted to turn dross into gold were the forefathers of modern chemistry. He's just keeping an open mind on the matter - isn't that what scientific research should do?

Sreeni is in love with his colleague, Vijayalakshmi (Usha Kumari), and they are open about their relationship, though they haven't set a date for their wedding. When Chandran teases him about her, Sreeni laughs. They will get married only after Chandran does, that's a promise. 

He takes his leave of Chandran; he has to meet an old magician, it's crucial to his research. The more he discovers, the more interesting it gets. Chandran scoffs. This is becoming an obsession, and a terrible bore, to boot. 

When Sreeni returns to the rooms they share later that evening, he's carrying a bundle of old manuscripts. The old man was of great help, claims Sreeni. He's a very knowledgeable man; besides, he's also helped Sreeni find a house to rent. It's been lying vacant for years - apparently, there's a yakshi haunting the house. Their man Friday, Paramu (Bahadur) is taken aback - a yakshi? Of course, says Sreeni. After all, Chandran's marriage has been fixed; when his bride is brought to these rooms, Paramu and Sreeni will have to leave. And shouldn't he at least have a yakshi for company in his new house? Is Paramu afraid?
Not at all, claims Paramu. In fact, he had met a yakshi in his youth. Sreeni is agog - where? When? Paramu enthralls them with his tale of having met a beautiful woman who enticed him to what was supposedly a bungalow, but was, in reality, a bamboo forest. By the time the tale ends, the friends are laughing.

That evening, after classes, Sreeni goes off to collect the keys to the rented accommodation. Not seeing anyone there, he knocks at the neighbours' house. Ananthan (Adoor Bhasi) and his wife, Kalyani (Sukumari) are a childless couple, and Kalyani lavishes her attention on her dogs. Ananthan is curious when he realises that Sreeni is the man who's rented the neighbouring house - does Sreeni have no one to care for, or care for him? Didn't Sreeni say he was a lecturer? If so, isn't it enough that he dies after becoming the principal? 

Sreeni laughs. He doesn't believe in ghosts and demons. Perhaps not, quips Ananthan. But several tragedies have occurred in the neighbouring house. Some years ago, a beautiful young girl, betrayed by her boyfriend, had committed suicide in that house on a moonless night. Even today, she can be glimpsed every amavasya (the night of the new moon in the lunar calendar) night. Besides, there is the yakshi... Sreeni is amused, but unperturbed. Reluctantly, Ananthan hands over the keys. 
By this time, Paramu has reached there with their belongings, and he has heard the same tales about the house. He is frightened stiff, especially because there is a paala tree in the courtyard. Sreeni dismisses his fears, and opens the doors. While he exhorts Paramu to come in and settle their belongings, Ananthan pays them a visit. He informs Sreeni that the girl he spoke about died in that particular room. Could they just sit outside and talk?
That picture on the wall, by the way, is that of a famous yakshi temple; the resident yakshi is safely held captive in that picture. Sreeni cannot hide his amusement. 

The next morning, Sreeni informs Viji of his new house-guest - the resident yakshi (a dancer who was betrayed by her lover), and her sad tale. Viji is not sure whether to be amused or frightened. Will he stay there alone? Well, there's place there for a woman, he tells her pointedly.
Soon, Viji leaves, cautioning him that yakshis are noted for their thirst for the blood of young men. Unfortunately, Sreeni's preoccupation with the topic du jour makes him inattentive, and there's an accident in the lab. Sreeni is rushed to hospital. 

When the bandages are finally removed, Sreeni is devastated. 
Upon his release from hospital, Chandran attempts to persuade Sreeni to stay with him, but he refuses. His friend is getting married; the new bride will be horrified if she were to see Sreeni's disfigured face. After all, Viji, who claimed to love him, couldn't bear to look at him any more, let alone speak to him. Sreeni decides to go back to his rented house. Despite his fear, Paramu decides to accompany him. 

Sreeni and Paramu settle into the house after a fashion, and Sreeni tries very hard to return to some semblance of normalcy. Turning inwards for solace, Sreeni spends most of his time reading, plunging even deeper into his research into yakshis and the prevalence of black magic in Kerala. 

That night happens to be that of amavasya, and Paramu is scared stiff. Yakshis are said to wander around the earth on such nights. He requests Sreeni to remove the picture of the yakshi temple from his room; the resident yakshi may step out any day.

Sreeni is amused, but Paramu narrates the story of a young Namboothiri priest who, on seeing a picture of a yakshi, jocularly asks her to step out of the picture. Apparently, she had assumed human form, and resided as his mistress for a long time afterwards. Sreeni, teasing Paramu, decides that that is a great way to have a lover - after all, his human lover had deserted him. As Paramu closes his eyes in terror, Sreeni looks at the picture of the temple and jokingly asks whether the yakshi  would like to step out. A clap of thunder and a bolt of lightning is his answer. Sreeni laughs.
Later that night, Sreeni is suddenly awakened out of his restless sleep. Something urges him to open the front door...
She claims she was on her way home, when a tree fell, blocking the road. It is raining, and she is drenched - may she come in? Sreeni is slightly disturbed; more so, when the young lady (Sharada) remarks rather amusedly that her feet touch the ground - surely, he doesn't think she is a yakshi? Sreeni doesn't know quite how to answer her. The young woman then asks for a change of clothes. She seems remarkably matter-of-fact about the fact that she's just walked into a strange man's house. She is, equally remarkably, free of any coyness.
When she calls out his name, Sreeni is perturbed. How does she that? 'I know everything about you,' claims the young woman. 'If I didn't, would I come to your house so late at night?' Sreeni has a vague recollection of having met her somewhere before. Her name is Ragini, she tells him. As they talk, Sreeni smells a strange fragrance - that of newly bloomed paala flowers. But the paala tree in the courtyard is barren. (It will bloom, pronounces Ragini.)

Ragini doesn't seem to notice Sreeni's scarred face; he assumes it is pity, but she demurs. Physical beauty is just a mirage; Sreeni is a nice man, a decent one. There is a beauty in his face that she can see, can understand. Sreeni is overcome with joy - that anyone, let alone a beautiful young woman could ever bear to look at him, much less think him handsome, had seemed impossible to him. 

Ragini seems to know everything about him, as she had claimed. She knows he's a scientist, that he had an accident that disfigured him, that he is researching the occult, especially yakshis. As she walks into his bedroom, Sreeni cannot stop himself - who is she? A yakshi, claims Ragini, one who thirsts for the true love of a man.
Sreeni doesn't quite know what to make of her. Ragini makes him promise he will not ask her anything about herself. Lost in her sympathy, even affection, Sreeni cannot think straight. Ragini quietly puts him to bed; she tells him that come morning, she will return to her own home. But she will return - at twilight, the next Friday. 

Sreeni falls into a restless sleep troubled by dreams. 

The next morning, he's awakened by Ananthan. The latter is troubled - that morning, he had been awakened by his dog, Judy, barking up a storm. When he looked out the window, he had seen, in the faint light of early dawn, a young and beautiful woman leaving the house. It appeared - to him - that her feet didn't touch the ground at all. 

Suddenly, Ananthan notices that the paala tree in the courtyard is in full bloom. Sreeni is stunned - until yesterday, the tree had not a single bud! Ananthan decides to call Paramu, but...
Sreeni is shocked, but despite Chandran's pleadings, refuses to leave the house. His whole existence is like that of a prisoner, he claims. This is the only place where he feels safe. When Chandran's new bride cannot hide her initial reaction at the sight of his face, Sreeni feels that he is all alone in the world. Chandran warns him against his increasing inferiority complex - that's a slippery slope. But Sreeni is no mood to listen - there's no earthly woman who will ever love him, scarred as he is; even if a yakshi were to kill him and drink his blood in the end, she will love him for himself for a while. 

Sreeni makes his way to the seashore near his house. Ragini had promised to meet him there. Twilight fades into darkness, and Sreeni gives up hope. When he comes to, it is morning; he had fallen asleep on the sands. 

On his way home, Sreeni stops at the house that Ragini had said she lived in, only to discover the house locked. Upon enquiry, he learns that the manager of a rubber factory, and his family, used to live there, but have since left

When he gets home, however, there's a letter from Ragini, apologising for having stood him up the previous day. Chandran, to whom he speaks of her, is annoyed - who is Ragini? What does Sreeni know of her? 
To Sreeni, none of this matters. Her beauty and her affectionate sympathy are a balm to his bruised soul. He's unwilling to question her background or her motives. That night, he returns home to find Ragini waiting for him.When she asks to stay with him, Sreeni agrees, but wants to introduces her to the neighbours as his affianced wife. When they reach Ananthan's house, his dogs burst into a paroxysm of barking. Ragini seems disturbed. 'Dogs can see what humans can't,' she tells them.  
They're married the next day. For a while, his shattered world is whole again, and he basks in his newfound happiness. But, when, on their honeymoon, he finds he cannot consummate their marriage, he falls apart.

His research into the supernatural continues uninterrupted. Soon he begins to notice strange things about his wife - she corrects him about the habits of the yakshis; Judy cringes, barking, when Ragini tries to pet her; almost immediately, the dog dies. Sreeni is sure that Ragini killed her. 
As each sequence unfolds its terror, Sreeni increasingly loses his mental balance. Not even Chandran's reasoned arguments, and later, impassioned pleas that Sreeni is stepping into dangerous territory, can cut through Sreeni's increasing belief that Ragini is indeed a yakshi. It is his sexual inadequacy that makes Sreeni want to believe that, says Chandran. But Sreeni justifies his impotence; it is his protection against Ragini's wiles. If he were to make love to her, she is sure to kill him.
Meanwhile, Kalyani has conceived, well after the age of menopause. Sreeni is terrified. He is sure that Kalyani will suffer a miscarriage. After all, it is Ragini who is taking care of her. His research has told him that yakshis are notorious for their love of human foetuses. Sure enough, Kalyani miscarries that same night. And coincidentally, Ragini is with her when the mishap occurs.

That night, Sreeni is awakened by the sound of anklets, and the haunting plaints of a lover's song. Waking, he sees Ragini glide out of the house. An unearthly light surrounds the Pala tree. Or, is this all a dream?  
As the tension between them increases, Sreeni loses control. Only Chandran's arrival saves Ragini that day. Chandran and his wife send Ragini back to her house. He and Ananthan relate her backstory to Sreeni, hoping to resolve matters before they deteriorate any further. Swayed by their support for her, and missing her very much himself, Sreeni decides to go and bring Ragini back. 

However, matters deteriorate very quickly... 
Sreeni is terrified.  The next day, Ragini is nowhere to be seen. Sreeni claims that when he rejected Ragini, she disappeared in a cloud of smoke. It is the gandharva who lived in the paala tree who stole her away from him. So he destroyed the paala tree. 
Is Sreeni's story true? What happened to Ragini? Was she really a yakshi, who disappeared, as Sreeni claims, in a flash of light and clouds of smoke? Or have his traumatic experiences left him hovering on the brink of insanity?

Hovering between the rational and irrational, Yakshi is the story of a man who has lost everything he holds dear. And when, by some miracle, life becomes worth living again, he loses everything, including his sanity. (Or does he?)
Considered the first psychological thriller in Malayalam cinema, Yakshi rests on Sreeni's supposition that there can be another world. A world that science cannot explain or even fathom. That world has its own laws, its own truths. In that alternative, occult world, anything can happen. And it usually does. Yakshi deals with experiences in an alternate reality, and its repercussions in the real world as we know it. 
Satyan (fondly referred to as 'Satyan maash') was one of Malayalam cinema's finest actors, and he is fantastic in the role of Sreeni - a scientist who approaches every matter rationally, and who, after a physical tragedy and emotional trauma, becomes immersed in his research to the extent that the lines become blurred. His mental breakdown is slow but continuous, and it is amazing to see him transform from a jovial man who looks at everything through the prism of science, to a wild animal, trapped by his own demons, and unable to distinguish reality from fantasy. In fact, he wills his fantasies to be the truth because that is the only way he can survive. It's a finely tuned performance, and you realise just how much in control of his emotions, the actor is. With half his face covered by the burn scars, he uses his eyes to express the increasing obsession/madness, and it's frightening to watch.  
As the mysterious Ragini, Sharada was brilliant. Was she just a woman who used her knowledge of Sreeni's obsession to inveigle her way into his life and heart? Or was she really a yakshi? Her behaviour doesn't give us any clues. As we move through the story, we too are caught up in that dilemma   what should we believe? It is to Sharada's credit that she walks a fine line in her portrayals of a grieving misunderstood wife and a seductive enchantress.
The two main leads are ably complemented by a talented supporting cast that includes Adoor Bhasi, Sukumari, and Bahadur.  Director K Sethumadhavan is an acknowledged director, having been on the forefront of the movement that shifted Malayalam cinema away from Tamil and Hindi influences. Under his competent baton (ably assisted by Thoppil Bhasi's screenplay and dialogues), Malayatoor's novel came alive.

Sethumadhavan keeps a firm hand on the proceedings, the tension building up subtly, and increasing as the film moves towards its climax. Perhaps it is because he was too rational to actually believe in the subject, but in giving us a firm explanation for the happenings in the film, he watered down the premise of the novel - in my opinion. 

The novel, narrated from the viewpoint of Sreenivasan, its protagonist, is very ambivalent about what exactly happens in the end. Can you believe Sreeni's explanation for his wife's disappearance? Or will you believe the explanation put forth by the others? It is a difficult choice. As you go through the different versions, the reader is swayed - either set of explanations for Ragini's disappearance can be the true one. What you believe is therefore up to you. Some questions are left unanswered, some incidents left unexplained. Draw your own conclusions. 

In the film, the ending becomes a tad hurried, and it seems to wrap things up a little too neatly - for if Sreeni is too mentally unstable for his first explanation to be believed, then why is he suddenly deemed capable enough to make a rational explanation the second time around? And why, indeed, does he?   

Despite that tiny nitpick, however, Yakshi will remain one of Malayalam cinema's finest psychological thrillers. Throw in some heavenly melodies by the Devarajan/Vayalar team, and what you have is a film that remains relatively fresh, so many decades after its initial release. 

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