Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum review: A stunning anthology about three faceless, voiceless, choiceless women

Vasanth’s anthology of three shorts, spanning from the ‘80s to the 2000s, takes a close look at women’s lives and labour.

Subhash K Jha December 03, 2021 09:22:58 IST

4.5/5

This is just not done! How can an anthology about women who are so ordinary be so extraordinary? Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum is an experience that words cannot describe. Words are redundant in writer-directors Vasanth’s vision of what it is like to be a housewife in an average Indian marriage. The three women protagonists seldom speak. The men do all the talking.

In the first of the three sharply evocative, deeply ruminative stories we see a very ordinary woman evidently from an underprivileged section, walking behind a self-empowered man who strides imperiously ahead of her. She carries a baby in one hand, and a jhola in the other. As they reach a bus, the man climbs, uncaring about whether the wife has also boarded. The woman, who we later come to know—much later—is named Saraswati (played with an exceptional self-obliteration by  Kalieswari Srinivasan who was outstanding in Jacques Audiard’s Palm d’Or winning French film Dheepan ).

Saraswati is one of the millions of housewives in the country: are faceless, voiceless, choiceless.

Saraswati’s story is so commonplace that we would not even talk about it. That a film captures her catatonic miserable life, is a miracle. This film is a marvel of nature, unique in its commonness, exceptional in its unsentimental perspective of housewives who make sacrifices with every breath they take.

The handheld camera(N. K. Ekambaram) quivers precariously at times. It is the most emotional component you will encounter in this remarkably dry-eyed tragedy. Each of the three women is felled by the musk of masculinity that shrouds them in marriage.

Also read: Tracing the culture of anthologies in Tamil cinema, from Penn to Paava Kathaigal

In my other favourite story  Sivaranjini(Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli) a former athlete has throttled her dreams of an athletic career to fit into her husband’s cosy cloistered household. The numbing monotony of Sivaranjini’s frantic daily routine is captured with the same disturbing comprehensiveness as that wonderful Malayalam film The Great Indian Kitchen.

As opposed to the brutally insensitive husband in the first story set in 1983, the husband in the third story set in 2007 is rational, kind ….normal. This is what makes the anthology so persuasive, relevant, and evocative: the men are not especially insensitive to the needs of their wives. They are more products of their times than oddities. More rules than the exception.

Also read: With Jai Bhim, Tamil cinema yet again depicts caste realities more vigorously than any other contemporary film industry

In the second story which is my least favourite of the three episodes(and not because it is any less powerful but simply because the other two stories are more powerful), we meet Devaki(Parvathy Thiruvothu). This is 1990, and things have changed for middle-class women at least on the surface. Devaki is a working woman. But hang on. She is constantly answerable to not only her husband but also to his family. When Devaki is “caught” keeping a diary all the hell breaks loose. Devaki must explain her behaviour.

The entire story unfolds through the eyes of Devaki’s little nephew who becomes the non-judgmental male gaze in a patriarchal household. Remarkably the entire segment is shot in longshots—we barely get a glimpse of Devaki’s face-- expressing a deep soulful distance between the world created on screen and the world inhabited by the child.

All three stories have sterling lead performances by actresses who merge into the crushing milieu with heartbreaking authenticity. Each of the protagonists gets her liberating moment at the end of each story. But there is no triumph in their belated victory. This is not the world of Mahesh Bhatt’s Arth and these women are no Shabana Azmi. They are women we never notice. Never acknowledge their inert lives. About time someone shook up the status quo.  Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum does it with a gentle yet savage grace. Never overstating the women’s right to protest. But not undermining it either.

The film is now streaming on SonyLIV.

Rating: ****1/2

Subhash K Jha is a Patna-based journalist. He has been writing about Bollywood for long enough to know the industry inside out.d

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