Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam movie review: Deliciously cheeky yet debatable take-down of the romanticisation of parenthood
While the characterisation of the woman is troubling, I love the ways in which the script snubs its nose at the conventional social romanticisation of parenthood.
Shakespeare’s Juliet may have declared with finality that “a rose by another name would smell as sweet,” but that’s a questionable conclusion. Because Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam would have lost a whole layer of delicious impertinence if the makers had opted for another title.
Director Don Palathara’s film is about a couple in Kerala on their way to a doctor’s clinic to confirm a suspected pregnancy. The entire narrative of 85 minutes rolls out in a single shot set in their car ride to the medical facility. The drive is fraught with so much tension over this unwanted pregnancy that they fight every step of the way.
This makes Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, which translates to The First Secret of Happiness, an ironic choice of name since it lays bare a truth that society tries to keep hidden, especially from those who are not parents, in a bid to ensure that they opt to have children some day: the truth that parenthood is not the source of unbridled joy it is claimed to be nor is it necessarily universally anticipated with undiluted celebration by those who are about to become mothers and fathers.
Taking the point a step further, the film’s given English title is The Joyful Mystery and not a translation of the Malayalam Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. The Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary recited by Catholics cover episodes from the Bible including what is called The Annunciation – the mythical announcement made to Mary by the Angel Gabriel that she will conceive and become the mother of Jesus, the Son of God. This story is presented as the ultimate example of obedience to the Creator, but devotees choose not to dwell on what a terrible trauma it would have been for a teenager in the Middle East 2,000 years back to be pregnant outside wedlock; or the lack of female agency involved – she is ‘told’ she will be a mother, she is not asked.
And so in one fell swoop, Palathara not just rips through the global penchant for romanticising motherhood that is used to convince women across communities that there is no higher calling for them, he also calls on Christians to take a relook at the glorification of Mary’s predicament by Christian lore. Brilliant.
The couple in the car in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam are Maria (a variant of Mary) and Jitin, played by Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthanchery who have both been co-credited for the dialogues alongside Palathara himself. Maria is a journalist, Jitin an aspiring actor. Life is serious business in her eyes, he is more laidback. They are stressed because they were not planning for a baby, they are not married but are living together without the knowledge of their parents, and he has not yet settled down in his career.
Palathara’s decision to make the film in one shot was a smart choice that exacerbates the urgency of Maria and Jitin’s situation. Confining the action to a single closed space helps underscore their nail-biting anxiety and the claustrophobia they are experiencing in this chapter of their relationship. The muted colour palette minimises distractions. The effectiveness of Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam comes from the fact that the excellent execution of these cinematic devices by DoP Saji Babu and the sound team enables the storytelling rather than distracting from it.
With this, Palathara carries forward the reputation for experimentation he has built through his brief career, which is also evident in his other new offering, 1956, Central Travancore aka 1956, Madhyathiruvithamkoor that is being screened at the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala along with Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam.
(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) In fact, there is a hilarious interlude in Maria and Jitin’s squabbles during which she interviews a famous director on the phone and he explains his reaction to people describing his works as experimental. Here, Palathara is protesting against the public and media view of his work and simultaneously laughing at himself. That he chose to lend his own voice to that character on the phone makes the scene all the more amusing and impressive. (Spoiler alert ends)
There is even more to it than that. Each time a third party enters this car ride, the dynamic between Maria and Jitin changes visibly as they take a break from sniping at each other – this, we realise, is what their relationship probably is usually; this is why they are together, notwithstanding the present unpleasantness; there is a meeting of minds between them that does not always require words to transmit thoughts.
Kallingal and Puthanchery, who are first-rate throughout the film, are superb in these moments. Just as the characters comprehend each other without speaking here, the actors too make dialogues redundant. The fleeting change of expression on their faces, the flash of a glint they summon up in their eyes is enough.
That said, the film is restricted by the fact that Maria and Jitin are not married and by the specific reasons for their worries about impending parenthood. Conservatives may frown on live-in relationships but would have no problem accepting that an unmarried couple would not want to be parents, and are likely to assume that social opprobrium alone is the reason. The story would have a completely different dimension– and would irk conservatives at another level – if Maria and Jitin didn’t want a baby because they are simply not interested in having children, especially if they were married. If you disagree, ask child-free married couples about the prejudice they face. That would be a different film though, and for the record, Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is important, necessary and enjoyable in itself.
Much as I liked so much about this film, however, I have not been able to shake off an overriding concern even after a second viewing. At first, on that car journey, Maria is on tenterhooks in the way any normal woman in a similar position would be, but as the story progresses, we get to see an absurdly unreasonable woman who is spoiling for a fight with her paavam man.
(Spoiler alert in the next sentence) Maria is in one instance even mean to Jitin, and in a brief moment, violent. (Spoiler alert ends)
He, on the other hand, is considerate towards her because, ultimately, if a pregnancy is confirmed, it is she who has to bear the physical brunt of it. He even rattles off a politically impeccable explanation for whether or not they should have the child, sounding a bit like a feminist thesis while doing so.
An argument could be made that she is written thus because she, being a woman, has far more reason to be apprehensive than he does. It takes a supremely sensitive human being though to see her that way, and as one of those human beings who are supremely sensitive towards women’s concerns, even I found myself losing patience with her. Despite the lovely ending, Maria comes across as a bit of a jerk in much of the film.
Jitin’s only flaw is exposed in a fleeting mention of birth control. Without giving away spoilers, let us just say the script glosses over a key point by making even that element as much her fault as his. One of the biggest hurdles population control experts in the real world face is the global male tendency to place the onus for contraception on women, although every single birth-control method for women has side effects, some even grievous, whereas the methods for men are simple; men tend to think vasectomy affects their manhood, and are averse to the condom on the grounds that it interferes with their pleasure. This treatment of a subject so crucial is unacceptable in a film that is purportedly about a man and a woman being equally difficult with each other.
Setting aside the tricky topic of contraceptives, what we get in Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam then is a man being what he ideally ought to be in such a situation, while she is what men largely think women are at all times. To be fair, this does not seem to have been done with insidious intent in the way last year’s multiple award-winning Hollywood film Marriage Story made an appearance of being balanced though its sympathy lay with the man. Palathara clearly has his heart in the right place, but his writing of Maria unwittingly reveals a self-limiting male gaze.
So, I am conflicted about Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. The characterisation of the woman is troubling, yet I love the ways in which the script snubs its nose at the conventional social romanticisation of parenthood, I love the finale, the acting and Palathara’s persistence in pushing boundaries with technique. This is a debatable film, but the good thing is that it is certainly worthy of being debated.
This review was first published when Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam had its world premiere at the 25th International Film Festival of Kerala in February 2021. July 2021 update: the film is now available on Neestream, Cave, Saina Play, Roots Video and Mainstream TV.
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