Indian movies that sparked the critic in me: Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen stays misunderstood and misrepresented – even by its admirers – The News Everyday

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Apart from the immense essential acclaim and box-office success Chemmeen reportedly earned on its launch, it additionally turned the primary south Indian movie to win the National Award for Best Feature Film.

(Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a sequence by movie critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)

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If Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (Bengali, 1963) – the movie I mentioned on this column last week – introduced residence to me as a baby the potential of cinema as a feminist medium, then Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen (Malayalam, 1965) gave me my maiden reminiscence of being mesmerised by the visible facet of the audiovisual media.

Kariat’s directorial enterprise was primarily based on the Jnanpith Award successful legend Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s eponymous 1956 book – the primary Malayalam novel to win a central Sahitya Akademi Award. My earliest reminiscence of this basic is a Doordarshan telecast within the 1980s once I was unaware of its standing within the pantheon of Indian movies however I keep in mind being awe-struck by the churning, raging Kadalamma (Mother Ocean), who was as a lot a personality in Kariat’s narrative because the lovers Karuthamma and Pareekutty on the centre of the story.

To me, Chemmeen (which means: Prawn) has at all times been a couple of patriarchal society resorting to each obtainable means – together with fear-mongering mythology – to maintain girls in verify. It is ironic and tragic that many viewers of the movie and readers of the novel, even some amongst its admirers, proceed to interpret the story as being traditionalist.

Chemmeen revolves round Karuthamma and Pareekutty’s forbidden love. They have been childhood associates who grew up collectively on the ocean shore. The movie, just like the book, begins with them as adults and her awakening consciousness of the sexual attraction between them.

Karuthamma is a poor low-caste Hindu lady, daughter of an formidable fisherman referred to as Chembankunju and his spouse Chakki. Pareekutty is a Muslim fish dealer from a more comfortable family. Chembankunju is set to purchase a ship and nets. Towards this finish he’s keen to even exploit Pareekutty’s bond with Karuthamma to wheedle cash out of the harmless younger man. Chakki is uncomfortable together with her husband’s actions.

Just because the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood was used to warn women in medieval Europe about ‘wolves’ mendacity in anticipate them in the event that they strayed from a socially prescribed path, so additionally Karuthamma is repeatedly alerted to the risks of her blossoming emotions for Pareekutty by means of a well-liked fantasy: that Kadalamma will devour any fisherman whose spouse goes ‘astray’ when he’s out at sea.

Actors Madhu and Sheela as Pareekutty (L) and Karuthamma (R) in Chemmeen. Image from Youtube.

When Karuthamma is first reminded in regards to the wrath of Kadalamma, she isn’t even married however it’s clear from the dialog that Pareekutty as a groom is dominated out.

Kariat’s introduction to Karuthamma (performed by Sheela) comes not with a picture of her or a line spoken by her, however together with her laughter ringing out throughout the shore earlier than the camera strikes to her and Pareekutty (Madhu) chatting by a ship that’s mendacity on the sand. Such unfettered merriment coming from a girl is as scandalous because the love between the 2 children, as we study shortly afterwards when her sister Panchami (Latha) complains to Chakki (Adoor Bhavani).

That dialog within the movie is trustworthy to the book, and goes thus:

‘Ammachi…They were standing behind a boat and giggling,’ Karuthamma’s youthful sister Panchami reported.

Karuthamma withered. Her secret crime. What ought to have stayed undiscovered now lay revealed.

But Panchami wouldn’t pause even then. ‘You should have seen how they were laughing, Ammachi!’

(Source: Anita Nair’s English translation of Chemmeen)

Thakazhi’s and Kariat’s use of Karuthamma’s laughter to symbolise a society’s concern of feminine liberation and sexuality is an indicator of their liberal intent. It can be apparent all through their respective narratives that their empathy lies with Karuthamma and Pareekutty. It is exasperating, due to this fact, to know that there have been – and still are – individuals who allege/d that Thakazhi perpetuated superstition by means of the parable of Kadalamma  and propagated conservative notions of a girl’s ‘chastity’ being a repository of a neighborhood’s well-being; and that Kariat confronted related criticism. Even some followers of the book and movie view them by means of this lens. If ever there was an totally literal interpretation of a cinematic or literary work, it’s this.

Apart from the immense essential acclaim and box-office success Chemmeen reportedly earned on its launch, it additionally turned the primary south Indian movie to win the National Award for Best Feature Film. The accolades have run parallel to criticism from the beginning, and never from feminists or rationalists alone. For many years now, some leaders of Kerala’s fisherfolk have accused each the book and the movie of inaccurately portraying the neighborhood’s apparel, dialect and customs, and maligning them. I’m not certified to evaluate the specifics of the clothes and language proven in Chemmeen, and the objections of marginalised communities to their illustration in cinema ought to definitely not be ignored, however the trivialities of an announcement given in 2017 by V. Dinakaran, state normal secretary of the Akhila Kerala Dheevara Sabha, not just echoed the literalness of the evaluation mentioned within the earlier paragraph, it additionally illustrated exactly the mindsets described within the movie.

“Our community is not made up of prostitutes and drunkards,” The The News Everyday quoted Dinakaran as saying, amongst different issues. “Our men are responsible and they take care of their families.”

He added: “The love scenes in the movie are shown to be happening under a fishing boat. For us, our boats are divine, and we will never indulge in such acts.”

Fact: there isn’t any “prostitute” in Chemmeen, except Dinakaran counts love or marital infidelity as “prostitution”.

Fact: just one major character is an alcoholic, and it’s a stretch to protest in opposition to this contemplating that widespread alcoholism throughout communities is likely one of the gravest social challenges Kerala faces even at present.

Fact: just one man in Chemmeen is proven to be irresponsible to his family and that’s Chakki and Chembankunju’s neighbour Achankunju. To take umbrage at this solitary character borders on a requirement that no particular person from a socially marginalised group ought to ever be proven in a poor gentle in a movie. The demand for illustration needs to be for normalisation of communities by means of portrayals of the nice, the good, the not good and the ugly inside, not deification or romanticisation.

Comment: Dinakaran’s aversion to the flirtation between Karuthamma and Pareekutty by a ship demonstrates the very regressiveness Chemmeen seeks to convey. QED.

If certainly, as Dinakaran additional claims, the fishing neighborhood has been stereotyped and taunted in Kerala at massive due to Chemmeen, that’s condemnable however the flaw lies in people, not Thakazhi and Kariat. Because the cultural detailing in Chemmeen however, the fishing neighborhood right here serves as a microcosm of Malayali society and admittedly Indian society at massive that proceed until date to situate neighborhood honour in a girl’s vagina and womb.

Fifty-five years since its launch, Chemmeen’s evocation of a doomed Hindu-Muslim couple is much more related in at present’s India where right-wing conservatives aggressively and sometimes violently oppose inter-community romances.

Although the novel is further emphatic about Pareekutty’s spiritual id, the movie makes its level simply as strongly by means of the inconceivability of a marital alliance between him and Karuthamma within the eyes of her people.

In further methods than one, Chemmeen reveals itself to be progressive. Indian cinema has just in latest many years begun to broadly acknowledge feminine sexual want, however Chemmeen is unambiguous about Karuthamma’s bodily response to Pareekutty. (Spoiler alert for individuals who haven’t but seen the movie) And her sole act of rise up within the story, when she abandons her baby and seeks him out, thumbs its nostril on the cliched assumption that when a girl turns into a mom, her maternal intuition takes priority over each different facet of her being. (Spoiler alert ends)

Sheela as Karuthamma in a still from Chemmeen on the quilt of Anita Nair’s translation of the novel (HarperCollins, 2011)

The movie additionally exposes the weaponisation of social ostracism below publicly proffered pretexts unrelated to the precise causes for boycott. For occasion, Karuthamma’s relationship with Pareekutty turns into a problem in her village just when skilled rivals of her father Chembankunju (Kottarakkara Sridharan Nair) get irked when he buys a ship and nets. Later, residents of her husband’s village rake up gossip about Pareekutty just after they get jealous as a result of she outdoes different girls in fish sales.

In her essay “On Adapting Chemmeen: Myth As Melodrama” accompanying Nair’s translation, Kerala-based tutorial Meena Pillai expresses the view that “both the novel and the film valorize women’s social/national importance as keepers of eternal transcendental values”. To my thoughts although, they do the alternative: they depict the unattainable burden society locations on girls by figuring out them “as keepers of eternal transcendental values”, whether or not by placing the onus of a partner’s life itself on a fictional Karuthamma through the dread of Kadalamma’s fury, or in actual life by pedestalising her variously as Durga, Lakshmi or the Virgin Mary as an excuse to subsequently label her a witch, an ill-omen or a slut the second she steps out of line.

Elsewhere in her write-up, Pillai precisely observes that the movie excludes sure “female-action oriented scenes” from the novel, reminiscent of when Karuthamma “pesters Chakki to steal from Chembankunju, and mother and daughter try to pay back Pareekutty’s debt…” I disagree although together with her take that these selections within the screenplay serve to symbolize Karuthamma as “more detached” with “a self-conscious ambivalence towards patriarchal mores”. Karuthamma isn’t “detached” in any respect within the movie – she is depressing. I’d submit that by deleting these scenes, the movie underlines the magnitude of the scrutiny girls are subjected to, such that the mere act of loving a person from one other neighborhood is considered as a transgression worthy of life-long derision; Karuthamma’s submissiveness all through the narrative additionally serves to emphasize the extent of revolt within the selections she makes within the explosive finish.

Chemmeen is a landmark in Indian cinema not only for its immersive storytelling, however as a result of it’s a actually all-India venture, its credit serving as a roll name of cross-country icons: cinematographer Marcus Bartley (together with U. Rajagopal), Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor (sharing a credit with K.D. George), and music by Salil Chowdhury making his Malayalam debut right here with a soundtrack that includes singers K.J. Yesudas, P. Leela and several other different artistes, together with, for one track, Manna Dey. For the record, Dey’s Malayalam diction was flawed, however his intonation was spot-on and his rendition of Manasa maine varu is haunting.

The total package deal is tied in, after all, by the charming, gifted forged, and it doesn’t damage in any respect that the leads – Sheela and Madhu – and Sathyan are attractive. Although Madhu’s and Sheela’s appearing (his particularly) in Chemmeen is considerably mannered, it’s in line with Chemmeen’s fable-like tone and does nothing to reduce their affect. Sathyan was simply marvellous.

When I re-watched Chemmeen for the nth time this week (on Youtube), I used to be still mesmerised by its magnificence and music. I used to be additionally struck by how present its visuals look and the way topical it stays in 21st century India, ravaged because the nation is by the horrific campaign titled “love jihad” and the killings of Dalits who dare to fall in love with higher castes.

Kariat’s Chemmeen memorably captured the despair of ill-fated lovers together with the irrepressible nature of affection within the face of social opprobrium and even potential dying. The level is exemplified by the night-time imaginative and prescient of Pareekutty within the shadows on a seaside singing Manasa maine varu in Dey’s voice whereas Karuthamma listens in her hut. Early within the movie she succumbs to social stress, however within the finale, she can’t be held back, for as Vayalar Ramavarma’s lyrics unequivocally state:

Kadalile olavum, karalile mohavum,

Adangukillomane adangukillaa…


The waves of the ocean and the needs of the center,

Will by no means abate, my pricey, won’t ever abate.


Indian movies that sparked the critic in me: Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar is the definitive feminist basic

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