Njan Marykkutty movie review: Jayasurya’s unaffected performance as trans woman is landmark for Indian cinema
Not once does DoP Vishnu Narayanan objectify or exoticise this unconventional lead.
castJayasurya, Jewel Mary, Innocent, Aju Varghese, Joju George, Shobha Mohan, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Malavika Menon, Siddhartha Siva, Kochu Preman, Jins Baskar And Advaith Jayasurya
Mathukkutty has been torn by internal conflict since his childhood. Though born with the external appearance of a boy, he has always identified as a girl, and grows into adulthood feeling like a woman trapped in a man’s body. Realising that this inner turmoil will haunt him forever if he does not become who he believes he was meant to be, he quits his high-flying corporate job in Chennai, undergoes gender reassignment surgery to begin the physical transformation to a woman and returns to Kerala for this arduous journey.
Writer-director Ranjith Sankar’s latest film is the story of Marykkutty nee Mathukkutty – not necessarily told in the order followed by that opening paragraph – and the many battles she must fight in a society that not merely rejects her but reacts viciously and even with physical violence towards this new challenge to the patriarchal status quo.
Men molest, humiliate and defame her. A female government official snarls at her for giving up the huge social advantages of being a man. Shunned by some, ridiculed or assaulted by others, she also finds kindness in unexpected places.
The most notable aspect of Njan Marykkutty is the normalisation of a character who, across Indian film industries, would usually be a source of humour. When Marykkutty is lampooned, the lampooning comes from people in the film, not the tone of the film itself.
This is significant because mainstream Mollywood in particular is unapologetically patriarchal and frighteningly misogynistic too often. Ranjith Sankar himself has revealed disturbing gender politics in earlier works: his supernatural flick Pretham (2016), for instance, among other things featured an ugly rape joke by Jayasurya’s character.
Njan Marykkutty appears to emerge from conviction, so hopefully he has evolved. If his writing of this transitioning woman can be faulted at all, it is for its inability to see any faults in her. A member of a marginalised community does not have to be a saint to deserve equal rights, and this sanitisation is another form of othering to guard against.
That Sankar needs to evolve further becomes evident in a scene in which a Collector (Suraj Venjaramoodu) snubs a man for his transphobia by insinuating that he is a eunuch. Err, if you see eunuch as a pejorative, then you are part of the problem, no?
In another scene, Sankar seems to imply that reservations are for untalented individuals through a conversation between Marykkutty and the Collector, which fails to grasp the social complexities that give rise to the need for affirmative action.
In its own way Njan Marykkutty buys into prejudice again in an unthinking scene in which Marykkutty is asked by her teacher, “Are you a feminist?” and she feels the need to issue a clichéd denial. “No, I am a humanist,” she says. Umm, you are not a feminist, Marykkutty? So you are against gender equality? Duh.
The screenplay also needed greater clarity in a conversation in which Marykkutty states: “I am not a transgender, I’m transsexual.” Since transgender is an umbrella term that covers transsexual, it is unclear whether Marykkutty is not aware of this or whether she objects to being labelled with a general rather than specific term. Yeah yeah, I know what some of you are saying – this is not a documentary. But when you choose to make a film on a theme about which there is such widespread ignorance, you need to find ways to disseminate correct information without sounding like a PhD thesis.
These questionable portions in Njan Marykkutty do not, however, eclipse its over-arching inspirational spirit. The fulcrum of the film is Jayasurya’s interpretation of Marykkutty shorn of all tropes that have been seen as a compulsory aspect of LGBT+ individuals by most Indian filmmakers and actors, with a few exceptions. Don’t come looking for a limp wrist, over-the-top camp mannerisms, swivelling hips and a high-pitched voice here – this is not to say that trans persons with such characteristics do not exist, but that there are different kinds of trans persons and Indian cinema has rarely acknowledged that fact.
The only overt changes Sankar and Jayasurya make involve a visible touch of makeup, a switch to saris and blossoming breasts – the rest is barely discernible. Arun Manohar and Saritha Jayasurya are credited for the film’s costumes, and Saritha reportedly designed the endless array of gorgeous cotton saris that Marykkutty wears. Her wardrobe too defies Indian cinema’s stereotypes of trans persons.
Jayasurya’s sensitive portrayal of Marykkutty sans caricature is on a par with Sanchari Vijay’s National Award-winning turn in 2015’s Kannada release Naanu Avanalla…Avalu (I Am Not He, I Am She). As he did with the relatively ordinary Captain recently, here too he has shown his determination to be an actor rather than a star in his roles.
The most credible aspect of Sankar’s powerful screenplay is the equation between a transphobic policeman (Joju George) and Marykkutty. The defining passage in Njan Marykkutty comes when that cop takes sides in a fight between the heroine and some hooligans. The manner in which he, his colleagues and those goons manufacture a series of believable lies playing on prevalent biases against transsexuals and women is chilling.
It is interesting that through her struggles Marykkutty seeks refuge with a woman friend (Jewel Mary) who herself is widely reviled for her non-conformist life. Although the characterisation of a friendly RJ (Aju Varghese) is briefly confusing – creep or nice guy? – and Siddhartha Siva’s acting when his character flirts with Marykkutty borders on comedy that is incongruous in the kind of film this one clearly wants to be, it is interesting too that Sankar does not see a romantic relationship with a man as essential to complete a trans woman. Self-realisation and the acceptance of the self are far more important than the approval of others, even our loved ones, Njan Marykkutty tells us.
Barring Siva and Venjaramoodu, who does not quite pull off his nice-guy act here, the rest of the supporting cast do a good job of their roles, big and small.
Though the film’s background score gets mushy and over-emphatic at times, the camera’s relaxed gaze on Jayasurya is crucial to viewing Marykkutty as a regular person. Not once does DoP Vishnu Narayanan objectify or exoticise this unconventional lead.
This then is Ranjith Sankar’s great achievement here: that he sees Marykkutty not just as a trans person, but as a person. Jayasurya’s unaffected performance in Njan Marykkutty is a landmark not just for his career or Malayalam cinema, but for Indian cinema at large.
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