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Why MT Vasudevan Nair’s ‘Nirmalyam’ merits a viewing beyond the ‘sacrilegious’ scenes

By August 11, 2018No Comments

Source : The Hindu   –   Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

A fresh look at a ‘profane’ 1973 Malayalam film amid its maker’s 85th birthday and a new novel that has ‘hurt’ certain sections.

Into where the movie has covered two-thirds its length, the young pair engages in an act that is blasphemous from perhaps more than just a religious point of view — within Kerala or beyond its borders. An apparent act of mating takes place between the young man and woman during a post-dusk hour inside a temple, which, technically speaking, is their workplace. The filmmaker only hints at the degree of love-making, but there’s actually something much subtler in that bit of the famed scene in Nirmalyam.

For, the male, who is the priest at the shrine, doesn’t actually bother to close the door at the end of the corridor that leads to its outer compound. Wooing the female, who is his help in the sketchy routine of the decadent temple, Keezhedam Brahmadathan aka Unni Namboodiri just pushes one of the two wooden doors before enveloping her with a load of kisses. The message is tacit: the village shrine in any case had few devotees — they came in such a trickle that one could engage in anything inside the precincts, least bothered about potentially being espied.

For those who had been familiar with the conduct of the average temples in Kerala half a century ago, Nirmalyam mirrored honestly if not perfectly that phase of decadence among temple-allied Malayali communities. Renowned literateur M.T. Vasudevan Nair, who wrote the story for the 1973 flick while also producing and directing it, celebrated (with no pomp) his 85th birthday in his Malabar home last week.

MT, as the writer-filmmaker is widely called, has for long been living in Kozhikode even as his works of fiction predominantly cling to his moorings in the erstwhile fiefdom of Valluvanad in present-day north-central Kerala. Nirmalyam, which is a silver-screen adaptation of his short story titled Pallivalum Kaalchilambum, is no exception.

A look at the black-and-white film on this date can call to mind images, situations and dialogues pregnant with unvoiced implications, some of which could be dubbed profane. Quite a few of them are cryptic. They perhaps merit a reminder to the 2018 monsoon-time Malayali, who learns that a new novel in the language has been withdrawn from a reputed literary weekly that was publishing it in instalments. Reason: objections to one of the characters speaking ill about temple-going women and the priests. Overall, a case of ‘offending’ Hindu sentiments. The novel, though, managed to give its readers permanent access later, as a leading publishing house has now brought out Meesha, penned by new-age writer S. Hareesh.

Often, supporters of ‘freedom of expression’ in the case of the controversy that erupted last month would point to the plot of Nirmalyam. Most of them recall that those famed scenes had a shock value for conservatives. Like, the climactic scene from the penury-ridden oracle, essayed by late P.J. Antony, whose portrayal of the Velichappad won him the best actor award from both the State and Central governments that year. The middle-aged central character spits at the village deity he had revered all his life — in peak frustration about the increasing levels of humiliation society kept heaping on him.

If the Velichappad is even forced to beg for rice from houses nearby, he has a rebellious son, equally frustrated with life. Weighed down by the hangover of a glorious past and a hopeless future in the changed era, Appu one day seeks to sell the household’s most prized ancestral property: the holy sword and the weighty anklet — paraphernalia so essential to the trance-time oracle.

Nirmalyam does begin with one such occasion where the oracle makes ‘divine prophecies’ before a handful of devotees at the temple with its silent air. But situations strung down the course of the 134-minute movie bear messages that are subtler in their impiety quotient vis-a-vis the more overt scenes of irreverence that have contributed to the movie’s reputation.

For instance, Appu (played by Sukumaran, who was to become a star later), the oracle’s moustachioed son, tells Unni Namboodiri dismissively why he has stopped praying at the temple. Prolonged wait for employment comes as the chief reason, though not expressed in as many words. “I’m willing to take up even the dirtiest of jobs Bhagavati [the goddess] would offer me,” Appu tells Unni, mockingly. “You are closer to him, so please do recommend one for me,” he adds, later telling his sister back in the family that “bhakti [devotion] has no dearth in this land”.

Unni (Ravi Menon) is himself no less sarcastic when it comes to godly matters. New to the serene village where he has been deputed as a priest by a wealthy Nambudiri Brahmin family in the locality, the youth finds charm in the proximity of young Ammini (Sumithra), who, as the oracle’s daughter, assists him in the lean temple rituals. Just as he tries to tune himself to the new conditions, Ammini openly wonders whether Unni wouldn’t feel fearful of spending his lonely nights in the dilapidated shrine. “I have Bhagavati as my companion,” he retorts sweetly. As for an insane Gopalan who lives under the sacred peepal tree adjacent to the temple, Ammini tells Unni that ‘sighting’ a heavenly Gandharva once disturbed the rambler’s mental balance. “Come on, Gandharvas, at worst, sing [well]. No other botheration,” comes the priest’s reply.

In an obvious snub to feudal-era values, Unni refuses to accept the self-address of a lowly adiyan. Why not such adjectives? For, “I have passed class 10,” he reminds Ammini, who could make it only up to the fourth standard in school. The relatively superior education has, far from making Unni elitist, instilled a socialistic spirit in the youngster. The man makes no secret of his ultimate aim of getting into government service. For this, he spends his after-hours learning by rote answers to expected general-knowledge questions in an upcoming PSC (Public Service Commission) test, having lost the previous year’s by a whisker.

Unni had initially found lodging facilities in a temple-allied family in the locality by the banks of the broad Bharatapuzha. After his first supper there, he, clad in just a towel round his waist, begins to mug up names of the world’s capital cities after opening a GK Refresher by the dim-lit hurricane lamp. At this, his hostess enters the bedroom and conducts herself in a syrupy way that discomfits him. Unni vacates the house the next day.

This can, perhaps, be cited as an anti-female portrayal — an allegation that had recently been made against Hareesh’s Meesha as well. Critics can claim that Nirmalyam does tend to objectify woman — not just going by certain angles of the camera on Ammini. She is largely portrayed as someone willing to submit before her lover, only to be eventually treated as a used reject. The priest, to his credit, does talk to her with some compassion as he leaves the village for his home, where Unni’s father has found him a bride. As the woman gazes helplessly, the youngster crosses the sandy river under the blazing sun, walking, as if symbolising his boarding a better life on the other bank where he anyway belonged.

As for the elders in the film, most of them tend to lapse back into thoughts about the good old days. Here too, metaphors enrich their portrayal. It’s with a dull oil-lamp next to him that the oracle one night revisits memories of the temple festival when the sky would be lit up with bright fireworks. The Warrier, who had invited Unni as a non-paying guest, walks to the audio backdrop of Tamil-scripted ‘Kamba Ramayana’ shadow puppetry dialogues around the vacant shrine, as if he were a marionette in the hands of the Bhagavati.

Contrastingly, at the medieval mansion that administers the temple, the clever head winds up an unwieldy Kathakali segment the family ran for generations. This leads a one-time actor-dancer (Sankaradi) in the troupe to wistfully wind up his vocation as the maintenance chief of the costumes that were getting idle and useless. A car is seen in the mansion’s leafy compound, where an ailing black tusker is now virtually a white elephant.

The oracle’s wife (Kaviyur Ponnamma) is, during an early phase of the movie, seen thinking aloud: “What is left in this house for sale?” That turns out to carry an ominous tone, given that the woman is, just ahead of the climax, been found to be sharing a bed with a rich Muslim to whom her family was getting financially indebted by the day. The custom of non-entry for menstruating women into temples, too, gets a subtle reference when Ammini tells Unni with a smirk that it was “stomach ache” that forced her to stay out of work the previous three days.

The Namboodiri mansion, in changed times, strives to woo Westerners interested in Indian exotica. For once, it stages a classical art for their amusement. Nirmalyam, thus, has a Mohiniyattam song danced by a duo which researchers claim is the oldest audio-visual documented on a form that had been revived in the 1930s. One of the two dancers is Kalamandalam Saraswathi, who was to become MT’s (second) wife.

Pessimism is an overriding emotion in Nirmalyam. No wonder, even a folksy song of affection (‘Omana Unneede’, penned by poet Edasseri and sung as a duet by K.P. Brahmanandan and Padmini to the tune set by K. Raghavan) sounds dense with pathos. Its lines get repeated when much-pampered Appu, paradoxically, is sent out of his house by an angry father. Clearly, it’s not just inside the temple that the oracle gets furious

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