10 April 2018

Paithrukam (1993)

Directed by: Jayaraj
Music: SP Venkatesh
Lyrics: Kaithapram
Starring: Narendra Prasad, Suresh Gopi, 
Jayaram, Geetha, 
Maniyan Pilla Raju, 
Nandita Bose
For quite some time now, I’ve steered clear of ‘serious’ films preferring to be entertained rather than be forced to think. So why I suddenly thought of two movies – both by the same director – neither of which can be slotted as ‘entertainers’, is beyond me. Deshadanam is indescribably tragic and not being a masochist in the slightest, I decided to leave that for another day, preferably not during the dark, depressing winter days.

This one, Paithrukam (Heritage), is not exactly tragic, but very thought-provoking. It is, at its core, a clash between ideologies, between generations, between faith and disbelief. You can take sides, depending on your personal views, or like me, be a fence-sitter, however uncomfortable that seat might be.

Devaduttan Chemmanthirippadu (Narendra Prasad) is a respected Vedic scholar. He conducts yagnas when required, and has even completed the Somayagam, earning for himself the title ‘Somayajippadu’. He is the father of two sons – Somaduttan (Suresh Gopi) and Chitrabhanu (Jayaram).

The brothers couldn’t be more dissimilar. Soman is an atheist, rebelling against his father’s faith. Having left home to become a journalist, Soman is working for the Times of India in Delhi. The quiet, sensitive Bhanu, on the other hand, is the chief priest in the local temple and spends his spare time writing poetry. Despite their divergent views, the brothers are close, and Bhanu is very happy when he gets the news that his brother is coming to visit.
Soman, radicalised out of his religious leanings during his student days in Delhi, is not just visiting, however. He’s left the city for good. However, the daily rituals and worship in a devout Namboothiri home soon begin to irritate him. His clashes with his father are sometimes acrimonious and Bhanu and their mother (Nandita Bose) try their best to soothe tempers without much success. 

While he accepts that Soman is following a different truth, Devaduttan advises his older son to follow the path of a brahman. He is upset when Soman retorts that he’d thrown away his sacred thread a long time ago. The resultant argument ends in Devduttan asking Soman to leave the 'naalu kettu' (the traditional quadrangular home with a central courtyard). Soman can stay on in the ‘pathaya pura’ (the granary) but the naalu kettu is the repository of the holy fire. And a non-brahmin cannot partake of the agnihotram.
Despite Bhanu’s pleas and his mother’s tears, Soman leaves home. He and Gayatri (Geetha), his girlfriend, decide to get married (without informing his family), and soon take up their residence in a deserted house in the village. 

The villagers warn them against staying there – there have been many horrifying incidents in the house. Soman laughs – he doesn’t believe in such superstitious nonsense. His friends and he clear the house and the yard around it, in the process destroying the sarpakkavu – traditionally considered the abode of the serpent gods.

Meanwhile, Bhanu has fallen in love with Gauri (Padmini?) a young girl, a devotee who visits the temple regularly. Shy and reticent, Bhanu confides in his mother about his wish to get married to the girl he loves. But Devaduttan refuses to countenance the marriage until after Bhanu turns 27.  
Puzzled by his father's statement that the interim six-month period is bad for him (and that he has no marriage in his future) Bhanu and his friend (Maniyan Pilla Raju) go to an astrologer in the next village, and request him to cast Bhanu’s horoscope. Not knowing that the information given to him is that of the man sitting in front of him, the astrologer opines that the young man's life expectancy is short – he will die before his 27th birthday.
Bhanu is devastated by the news. Reticent as he is, he does not disclose the astrologer’s views to anyone, but they continue to prey on his mind. Until…
A grieving Soman turns into his father’s inflexible enemy. Meanwhile, Gayatri, who miscarried her first pregnancy, is in imminent danger of losing her second child too. Then she learns that the villagers believe that the destruction of the sarpakkavu has called down the curse of the serpent gods on their heads. Grieving the loss of her baby, afraid of miscarrying a second time, stressed by the shock of her brother-in-law's death, Gayatri begins to unravel. When she begins to dream of serpents, she starts to question her own beliefs.
Soman is aghast that his wife has given up on her ideals, but Gayatri is beyond reasoning with – her miscarriage has made her remember her father-in-law’s warning that no one staying in that house will ever bear a child.

Soman's ideals are important to him and so, he issues an ultimatum – if Gayatri wants to live with him, she will have to abide by his principles. However, Gayatri's desperate need to save her child overrules her ideals. When her own father refuses to stand by her, she seeks sanctuary at her in-laws'. 
There, amma (Nandita Bose) welcomes her and takes good care of her, and teaches her the traditional rituals of which she is ignorant. Though grieving her husband’s absence, Gayatri thrives under her mother-in-law’s loving care. Eventually, she gives birth to a baby boy. Soman is still reluctant to re-enter his father’s house. Meanwhile, the villagers have come to meet Devaduttan – the rains haven’t yet arrived and they want the high priest to conduct an athiraatram – a yagna to propitiate the gods.

This is the last straw for Soman. In front of the villagers, he challenges his father – if the yagna fails, Devaduttan must accept his son's views as true. It’s a challenge that is readily accepted. 

Paithrukam is my second review in what I call my ‘Nampoothiri trilogy’ – films based on that specific Brahmin community of Kerala, with their social ethos, their beliefs, and their customs being advocated for (as here) or against (as in Parinayam). Brilliantly staged with extremely well-etched characters and nuanced characterisation – Paithrukam is less about theism vs. atheism than it is a social commentary on the Namboothiri community. The social ills that pervaded the community led to a large number of Namboothiri youth turning their backs against religion to become Communists. Like all new converts, they were often more communist than the Communists themselves. The rigidness of their ideology is exemplified by Soman’s stance in the film.

In Devduttan, we have a character who is a good, kind man, who is staunchly religious. He has never harmed anyone by thought or deed, nor has he used his knowledge to manipulate them for his benefit. He is, in fact, more accepting of others’ beliefs than his son. 
In one of the many great clashes between father and son, Soman tells his father that he doesn’t want his son brought up a Brahmin. He wants his son to follow in his footsteps and follow his ideals and principles. Devdattan looks at him, and says quietly, ‘Ente makan enne pole aavanam ennu njaan vaashipidichillallo?’ (‘Did I insist that my son be like me?)

This was possibly one of Narendra Prasad’s finest roles, and he aced the character of a deeply devout man who is forced to face a son who has equally strong but opposing views.  He’s a man who loves his sons but cannot express that love – even when he disallows Bhanu’s marriage, it is to protect the unknown girl from a fate that he believes will ruin her life. Earlier, when he learns from Bhanu that Soman has married Gayatri, he says nothing. But his downcast eyes, and his hands relentlessly crushing the rice on the plate in front of him reflect his sadness at the estrangement.
Jayaram, similarly, was fantastic as Bhanu – a young man, sensitive, slightly fearful, constrained by his faith, and therefore unquestioning of it. It is responsible for his tragic end, but is in keeping with his fatalism. His is a quiet performance, of a young man caught between the two people he loves and respects the most. His interactions with his brother play out like that of close siblings, the shared jokes, the teasing, the tiffs and the little hurts; when his brother defies his father, Bhanu is caught between two opposing forces. His instinctive support is for his father’s views, which he shares. But his love for his brother makes him feel his abandonment keenly. 
So much so, when his brother buys the abandoned property, Bhanu overcomes his fear to plead with his brother to leave the unlucky place – he’s overheard their father say that no good will come of it, and in his view, his father is infallible. His words affect Gayathri in ways she will only reflect upon later.

Bhanu is also the peacemaker – when his brother apologises for not inviting him to their wedding because to take part would mean that Bhanu would face their father’s wrath, Bhanu disagrees. Their father is a kind man. He had witnessed his father’s sorrow when he heard of the wedding from others. If Soman had given him the opportunity, their father would have conducted the wedding with unconditional joy.
The women, who play a peripheral role in this clash between the men in their lives and their ideologies, are not ciphers either. Nandita Bose as the mother has a mostly-silent role but expresses herself eloquently through her silences. Geeta was one of Malayalam cinema’s finest female actors. For someone who is not a Malayali, to immerse herself in the cultural and traditional ethos the way she did is commendable. In the scene where she finally caves, giving up her professed (and cherished) beliefs in atheism and communism to turn to age-old traditions for succour – and makes us believe in that transformation – is amazing.  Her confrontation with her husband is also, in a way, a clash of ideals. His fight with his father has left her and his mother as collateral damage.
Suresh Gopi as Soman had the most complex role – he’s not a great actor by any means, but Jayaraj has the knack of drawing out strong performances from the man. (See Kaliyattam, for instance.) Here, his Soman is a man running away from his past, only to find that he is defeated by his father’s strength of conviction. Ironically, in the scene where he leaves home, he tells Bhanu that his fight with his father is a clash of ideologies; he cannot afford to lose.

His personal transformation towards the end is reasonable; one wonders, however, if they needed to go that far. Can’t you not believe in God without believing in the trappings of religion? [Reformed Communists become the most fervent believers, in my experience – my late uncle was one such – so perhaps, the director was not far wrong in showing what he did.]

Is Paithrukam, as some viewers claimed when the film released, a regressive film that perpetuated age-old superstitions? I can understand their stance –  after all, Communists spent quite a bit of their time to end the stranglehold of superstition and religion over the masses. Yet, I’m torn. The criticism is valid, but I confess to being a fence-sitter on the subject. 

I grew up in a similar ethos. As a teenager, I was virulently atheistic; it continued through my early 20s. Today, I verge on the agnostic; the true belief that many of my family profess is still not something I identify with. That said, I would be loath to destroy a sarpakkavu. It bothers me to keep a broken lamp or a broken idol of a deity at home [I've consigned both to the waters]. There are certain things I will not do, which fall under the umbrella of ‘Why borrow trouble?’ My brother who is staunchly atheist, and his wife, my sister-in-law, who truly believes are both extremely comfortable with their choices.  I, neither believing nor disbelieving, am in a truly uncomfortable place.

Paithrukam, though, is unabashed about its point-of-view, and that honesty in taking a stance, coupled with the very strong performances, makes this tightly-edited, beautifully-photographed film worth a watch.

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