Indian films that sparked the critic in me: Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen remains misunderstood and misrepresented – even by its admirers
Apart from the immense critical acclaim and box-office success Chemmeen reportedly earned on its release, it also became the first south Indian film to win the National Award for Best Feature Film.
(Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a series by film critic and consulting editor, Anna M.M. Vetticad)
If Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (Bengali, 1963) – the film I discussed in this column last week – brought home to me as a child the potential of cinema as a feminist medium, then Ramu Kariat’s Chemmeen (Malayalam, 1965) gave me my maiden memory of being mesmerised by the visual aspect of the audiovisual media.
Kariat’s directorial venture was based on the Jnanpith Award winning legend Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai’s eponymous 1956 book – the first Malayalam novel to win a central Sahitya Akademi Award. My earliest memory of this classic is a Doordarshan telecast in the 1980s when I was unaware of its status in the pantheon of Indian films but I remember being awe-struck by the churning, raging Kadalamma (Mother Ocean), who was as much a character in Kariat’s narrative as the lovers Karuthamma and Pareekutty at the centre of the story.
To me, Chemmeen (meaning: Prawn) has always been about a patriarchal society resorting to every available means – including fear-mongering mythology – to keep women in check. It is ironic and tragic that many viewers of the film and readers of the novel, even some among its admirers, continue to interpret the story as being traditionalist.
Chemmeen revolves around Karuthamma and Pareekutty’s forbidden love. They were childhood friends who grew up together on the sea shore. The film, like the book, begins with them as adults and her awakening awareness of the sexual attraction between them.
Karuthamma is a poor low-caste Hindu woman, daughter of an ambitious fisherman called Chembankunju and his wife Chakki. Pareekutty is a Muslim fish trader from a more well-off family. Chembankunju is determined to buy a boat and nets. Towards this end he is willing to even exploit Pareekutty’s bond with Karuthamma to wheedle money out of the innocent young man. Chakki is uncomfortable with her husband’s actions.
Just as the fairytale Little Red Riding Hood was used to warn girls in medieval Europe about ‘wolves’ lying in wait for them if they strayed from a socially prescribed path, so also Karuthamma is repeatedly alerted to the dangers of her blossoming feelings for Pareekutty through a popular myth: that Kadalamma will consume any fisherman whose wife goes ‘astray’ when he is out at sea.
When Karuthamma is first reminded about the wrath of Kadalamma, she is not even married but it is clear from the conversation that Pareekutty as a groom is ruled out.
Kariat’s introduction to Karuthamma (played by Sheela) comes not with an image of her or a line spoken by her, but with her laughter ringing out across the shore before the camera moves to her and Pareekutty (Madhu) chatting by a boat that is lying on the sand. Such unfettered merriment coming from a woman is as scandalous as the love between the two youngsters, as we learn shortly afterwards when her sister Panchami (Latha) complains to Chakki (Adoor Bhavani).
That conversation in the film is faithful to the book, and goes thus:
‘Ammachi…They were standing behind a boat and giggling,’ Karuthamma’s younger sister Panchami reported.
Karuthamma withered. Her secret crime. What should 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 fear of female liberation and sexuality is an indicator of their liberal intent. It is also obvious throughout their respective narratives that their empathy lies with Karuthamma and Pareekutty. It is exasperating, therefore, to know that there were – and still are – people who allege/d that Thakazhi perpetuated superstition through the parable of Kadalamma and propagated conservative notions of a woman’s ‘chastity’ being a repository of a community’s well-being; and that Kariat faced similar criticism. Even some fans of the book and film view them through this lens. If ever there has been an utterly literal interpretation of a cinematic or literary work, it is this.
Apart from the immense critical acclaim and box-office success Chemmeen reportedly earned on its release, it also became the first south Indian film to win the National Award for Best Feature Film. The accolades have run parallel to criticism from the start, and not from feminists or rationalists alone. For decades now, some leaders of Kerala’s fisherfolk have accused both the book and the film of inaccurately portraying the community’s attire, dialect and customs, and maligning them. I am not qualified to judge the specifics of the clothing and language shown in Chemmeen, and the objections of marginalised communities to their representation in cinema should certainly not be ignored, but the minutiae of a statement given in 2017 by V. Dinakaran, state general secretary of the Akhila Kerala Dheevara Sabha, not only echoed the literalness of the analysis discussed in the previous paragraph, it also illustrated precisely the mindsets described in the film.
“Our community is not made up of prostitutes and drunkards,” The Times of India quoted Dinakaran as saying, among other things. “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 is no “prostitute” in Chemmeen, unless Dinakaran counts love or marital infidelity as “prostitution”.
Fact: only one primary character is an alcoholic, and it’s a stretch to protest against this considering that widespread alcoholism across communities is one of the gravest social challenges Kerala faces even today.
Fact: only one man in Chemmeen is shown to be irresponsible to his family and that is Chakki and Chembankunju’s neighbour Achankunju. To take umbrage at this solitary character borders on a demand that no individual from a socially marginalised group should ever be shown in a poor light in a film. The call for representation has to be for normalisation of communities through portrayals of the good, the great, the bad and the ugly within, not deification or romanticisation.
Comment: Dinakaran’s aversion to the flirtation between Karuthamma and Pareekutty by a boat demonstrates the very regressiveness Chemmeen seeks to convey. QED.
If indeed, as Dinakaran further claims, the fishing community has been stereotyped and taunted in Kerala at large because of Chemmeen, that is condemnable but the flaw lies in people, not Thakazhi and Kariat. Because the cultural detailing in Chemmeen notwithstanding, the fishing community here serves as a microcosm of Malayali society and frankly Indian society at large that continue till date to situate community honour in a woman’s vagina and womb.
Fifty-five years since its release, Chemmeen’s evocation of a doomed Hindu-Muslim couple is even more relevant in today’s India where right-wing conservatives aggressively and often violently oppose inter-community romances.
Although the novel is more emphatic about Pareekutty’s religious identity, the film makes its point just as strongly through the inconceivability of a marital alliance between him and Karuthamma in the eyes of her people.
In more ways than one, Chemmeen shows itself to be progressive. Indian cinema has only in recent decades begun to widely acknowledge female sexual desire, but Chemmeen is unambiguous about Karuthamma’s physical reaction to Pareekutty. (Spoiler alert for those who have not yet seen the film) And her sole act of rebellion in the story, when she abandons her child and seeks him out, thumbs its nose at the cliched assumption that once a woman becomes a mother, her maternal instinct takes precedence over every other aspect of her being. (Spoiler alert ends)
The film also exposes the weaponisation of social ostracism under publicly proffered pretexts unrelated to the actual reasons for boycott. For instance, Karuthamma’s relationship with Pareekutty becomes an issue in her village only when professional rivals of her father Chembankunju (Kottarakkara Sridharan Nair) get irked when he buys a boat and nets. Later, residents of her husband’s village rake up gossip about Pareekutty only after they get jealous because she outdoes other women in fish sales.
In her essay “On Adapting Chemmeen: Myth As Melodrama” accompanying Nair’s translation, Kerala-based academic 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 mind though, they do the opposite: they depict the impossible burden society places on women by identifying them “as keepers of eternal transcendental values”, whether by putting the onus of a spouse’s life itself on a fictional Karuthamma via the dread of Kadalamma’s fury, or in real 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 moment she steps out of line.
Elsewhere in her write-up, Pillai accurately observes that the film excludes certain “female-action oriented scenes” from the novel, such as when Karuthamma “pesters Chakki to steal from Chembankunju, and mother and daughter try to pay back Pareekutty’s debt...” I disagree though with her take that these choices in the screenplay serve to represent Karuthamma as “more detached” with “a self-conscious ambivalence towards patriarchal mores”. Karuthamma is not “detached” at all in the film – she is miserable. I would submit that by deleting these scenes, the film underlines the magnitude of the scrutiny women are subjected to, such that the mere act of loving a man from another community is viewed as a transgression worthy of life-long derision; Karuthamma’s submissiveness throughout the narrative also serves to stress the extent of revolt in the decisions she makes in the explosive end.
Chemmeen is a landmark in Indian cinema not just for its immersive storytelling, but additionally because it is a truly all-India project, its credits serving as a roll call of cross-country icons: cinematographer Marcus Bartley (along with U. Rajagopal), Hrishikesh Mukherjee as editor (sharing a credit with K.D. George), and music by Salil Chowdhury making his Malayalam debut here with a soundtrack featuring singers K.J. Yesudas, P. Leela and several other artistes, including, for one song, Manna Dey. For the record, Dey’s Malayalam diction was flawed, but his intonation was spot on and his rendition of Manasa maine varu is haunting.
The entire package is tied in, of course, by the charming, gifted cast, and it does not hurt at all that the leads – Sheela and Madhu – and Sathyan (playing Palani, the man Karuthamma ultimately marries) are gorgeous. Although Madhu’s and Sheela’s acting (his in particular) in Chemmeen is somewhat mannered, it is in keeping with the film's fable-like tone and does nothing to lessen their impact. Sathyan is just marvellous.
When I re-watched Chemmeen for the nth time this week (on Youtube), I was still mesmerised by its magnificence and music. I was also struck by how current its visuals look and how topical it remains in 21st century India, ravaged as the country is by the horrific campaign titled “love jihad” and the killings of Dalits who dare to fall in love with upper castes.
In the latter half of the 20th century, Kariat’s Chemmeen memorably captured the despair of ill-fated lovers along with the irrepressible nature of love in the face of social opprobrium and even possible death. The point is exemplified by the night-time vision of Pareekutty in the shadows on a beach singing Manasa maine varu in Dey’s voice while Karuthamma listens in her hut. Early in the film she succumbs to social pressure, but in the finale, she cannot be held back, for as Vayalar Ramavarma’s lyrics unequivocally state:
Kadalile olavum, karalile mohavum,
The waves of the ocean and the desires of the heart,
Will never abate, my dear, will never abate.
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