A Kollam man struggles to find employment and regain his standing within the family and community. K. Purushothaman Nair has been a jobless graduate for eight years, a husband for about seven and a father for six. His wife Devi’s teaching position and father-in-law’s pension keep the kitchen fires going. The couple, their daughter, Devi’s father and her sickly brother stay together in a house Devi inherited from her mother.
This is the setting in which Adoor Gopalakrishnan places Pinneyum (Once Again), his first film in eight years. Like most of the legendary writer-director’s works, this one too is distinguished by its apparent stillness that belies the turmoil within. Everything about it is minimalist—from the dialogues to the lovely background score that effectively partners the sounds of nature. As always, the film’s deceptive calm blankets a multitude of complex, crucial issues.
There is much then in Pinneyum to remind us why Gopalakrishnan’s first feature became a milestone that changed the course of Malayalam cinema. Unfortunately, that pathbreaking 1972 film—Swayamvaram starring Sharada and Madhu—and its mature, credible handling of a couple in far worse financial and social circumstances, is also why the confused characterisation and gender politics in Pinneyum ends up being particularly disappointing.
In a way, Pinneyum comes across as two films. The first one is before the interval, bearing the director’s masterful signature: quietly observant, deeply saddening, exemplifying the strain that money-related stress can place on even the most loving relationship, and illustrative of how patriarchy weighs down not just women, but also men who reap the benefits of their social privilege not realising that it could be accompanied by back-breaking burdens for the less well-off among them. The second is post-interval when Pinneyum shifts its tone, wandering off into a more mysterious realm reportedly inspired by a real-life crime.
Both might have come together as a cohesive whole if it had not been for the unconvincing characterisation. Purushothaman is portrayed as desperate but not greedy, devious or over-smart in the opening half of Pinneyum. Once life looks up, he appears relieved, especially since his relationship with his beloved Devi seems to have repaired itself. Their bond had weakened through his years of unemployment, but they seem to have made their peace with each other.
It is hard to believe that at this point, the Purushothaman we met initially would have thought of such a drastic step to further secure their future unless something pushed him over the edge or he was haunted by memories of his earlier misery—neither case is made evident to us. What was the tipping point then? The natural progression of thoughts and events in the first half takes leave of the film here. One day he and Devi are chatting about how people’s attitudes have changed ever since their lives improved, shortly afterwards he is sharing a dramatic plan with her. Why?
This is not to say other men and women have never acted in this fashion in similar situations when life is trotting along comfortably, but that this particular man did not come across as being that kind of person. In retrospect, Purushothaman’s literary interests mentioned early in the film can be seen as a hint of what is to come. That hint, as it happens, is very contrived.
Similarly, Devi’s father Pappu Pillai and uncle’s decision to cooperate with Purushothaman is inexplicable. He seems not to have needed to persuade them much. Devi’s dad was always fond of his son-in-law and never unkind to him, but he also comes across as a level-headed, good man. Why then did he go along with such a foolhardy and needless plan? And having gone along with it, how come he and the others were so stupid in their execution, so cruel and so untouched by their conscience?
Devi’s evolution is more believable. However, a few moments in the treatment suggest that perhaps the director is not as liberal as he seems. Through the first half, Devi is shown being irritable with her husband. This is perfectly realistic— after all, financial tension can affect the best of us, many of us are guilty of letting off steam on our loved ones and such a portrayal is certainly not judgmental towards her or women at large. However, when she asks her husband to get their daughter ready for school, it seems as if that too is being offered as evidence of her impatience with him. It is as if Gopalakrishnan does not automatically see an overworked woman wanting her husband to share the domestic workload; as if the mere act of seeking his cooperation in housework is a slight.
If this was not his intention, then it amounts to unacceptable thoughtlessness, since this fleeting scene perpetuates a misogynistic notion that home management is a woman’s sole responsibility, that economic independence makes women arrogant, and that an expectation of teamwork in the house is a mark of that arrogance. This is a let-down, coming as it does from the King of Nuance.
That said, Pinneyum is not insignificant on the gender front. Commercial cinema tends to romanticise marriage without taking into consideration the practicalities of running a house. Song and dance, violins in the wind, hormones and true love cannot put a roof over your head and food on the table. This was Swayamvaram’s pre-occupation 44 years back. Ditto Pinneyum today. In that sense, this new film could well have been titled Swayamvaram Pinneyum (Swayamvaram Once Again). The point it makes is still relevant. In keeping with the timelessness of his theme, Gopalakrishnan does not specify the year in which his story is set. We are left to figure out the date from the absence of cellphones and other small clues.
The most believable—and appealing—of all Pinneyum’s characters is Devi’s brother Kuttan, a sharply etched example of how innocents often suffer for the sins of those they love.
It needs to be said though that Gopalakrishnan inexplicably papers over the absolute callousness and immorality of Purushothaman’s actions in the latter part of Pinneyum. When Devi reminds him of the consequences of his deeds, she forgets to mention those outside her family who were destroyed by him. At least she is not mindless of them. Purushothaman, on the other hand, is acutely aware of the pain caused to her and himself, but seems not to spare a thought for what he has done to others. Yet, the film works hard to make us like this man.
Despite its flaws though, Pinneyum remains intermittently moving. This is partly because of the atmosphere Gopalakrishnan builds up from the opening scenes, shot through with a sense of foreboding and a pall of gloom; partly because of the editing (B. Ajith Kumar) and camerawork (M.J. Radhakrishnan) that give the narrative a natural air and pace; but most of all because of the principal cast.
Kavya Madhavan and Dileep share an easy on-screen chemistry playing Devi and Purushothaman, even if it is amusing to see the 47-year-old actor announce his character’s age as 31 years and 10 months old. What is it about major commercial male stars in India that makes them so reluctant to play men of their own age?
Dileep effectively conveys Purushothaman’s initial desperation, his later sense of relief and his searing heartbreak in the end with remarkable restraint. Madhavan is faultless in presenting to us Devi’s fatigue, her bitterness and her sense of utter hopelessness.
Although this is not the kind of film that concerns itself greatly with physical beauty, it is still hard not to note, for the nth time, that she is one of the most gorgeous women in India.
Despite the sketchy characterisation, the ever-wonderful Nedumudi Venu too tugs at the heart strings with his portrayal of Pappu Pillai. Akshara Kishor as the younger version of Devi and Purushothaman’s daughter is cute as a button, just as she is on TV’s Karuthamuthu.
The shining star of the lot though is Indrans playing Devi’s brother. The writing of his character and his sensitive performance could bring a lump to the throat of the worst cynic.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum then is a mixed bag. It is weighed down by its confused characterisation and shift in tone, yet manages in the overall analysis to remain a poignant film.