Thoovalkottaram

This movie revolves around two characters- Appu (Jayaram) and Devaprabha (Manju Warrier), both immensely attractive with regard to their take on life. While Appu has learnt the art of cleverly masking his vulnerability and taking life in its stride, it is the immensely vulnerable Devaprabha who surprises us in the climax of the film, demonstrating the ability to rise above the mundane. The movie draws an important inference:
Love is the sole negotiator in the equation of life. It caters gently to one’s vulnerability, unmasking the potential to rise beyond conventional expectations, defeating adversity.

Lohithadas leaves his imprint in the script. The script attends to the magnitude of struggle involved in the balancing act of our lives. In Appu’s words:

Life has this uncanny ability to push you into deep waters of the sea…without the slightest warning. It does not ask you if you can swim. It does not give you the opportunity to protest. You can choose to swim, or you can drown. And so, you just learn to swim.

The movie introduces us to Appu– the jack of all, master of none, happy-go-lucky character enacted by Jayaram.

Appu is a role-player- a volatile performer. This moment, he is in the garbs of a music teacher. The next moment, he has switched to the role of a percussionist at the sopanam, putting his heart and soul into the performance. We see him as an electrician, a plumber, an assistant at wedding sadyas…the list is endless. There is no role that Appu will refuse. His zeal, good humour and high-spiritedness cleverly conceal the fact that he plays up to all these roles for a livelihood. As a lawyer who is a novice with frugal earnings, and who has to cater to siblings who have endless needs to be met, he is left with no choice. To his mother who is concerned about her daughters, to his brother who aspires to become a doctor, to his married sister who turns up faithfully for financial assistance and to his younger sister who is to be married off, he never lays bare his tight balancing act. They are so conditioned to his role as provider that they never question the unfairness of it.  Nor do they dwell upon the intensity of the struggle it involves. Instead, they express their dissent at the slightest lacuna on his part. And so, he fulfills the role to his best, despite the lack of sensitivity on the part of his family.

He is a character who asks little of life, and who holds his self-worth above everything else. This aspect of his character forms the soul of the movie.

Amidst his role playing, he finds solace in his relationship with the beautiful Sujatha (Sukanya) who is a skilled classical dancer and who takes dance lessons at Balan thampuran’s illam. His closest companion is Sujatha’s father, a fellow-percussionist and the housekeeper of all his emotions.

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Appu confides in Sukanya’s father, his closest companion

As we fall in love with Appu’s character and get a glimpse of his life, Devaprabha makes her appearance.

Prabha, as she is addressed, is the only daughter of Balan thampuran, and is much talked about in the context of a childhood tragedy that has deeply scarred her. As a 13-year old, Prabha loses her brother, with whom she shares a deep bond, to an accident in which she chauffeurs the car. The incident has a deep impact on her mind and her reaction is in the form of detachment. Instead of grieving and reacting, she withdraws and alienates herself. Her parents go to great lengths to pull her back to life, seeking the help of psychologists and psychiatrists, but the detachment persists as a failure to accept and come to terms with the loss, despite the passage of time. And so, the movie introduces us to this character whose vulnerability is perceived as a weakness by a conventional society. Prabha arrives at the village with her ever-compliant grandfather, who tries extra hard to keep her cheerful. The women who take dance lessons at the illam, label her as mentally ill and having passed this judgment, they are happy to alienate her.

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Manju Warrier as Devaprabha

Prabha’s first encounter with Appu is an important event in the unfolding of the plot. Appu carelessly rides his bicycle and narrowly escapes being run over, as Prabha slams the brakes of her car. For a brief moment, she is shocked and speechless as the event recreates in her mind the trauma of the past- the accident to which she lost her brother. But when she catches sight of Appu riding off hastily, his black robe fluttering like the wings of a bat, she smiles at the victim’s happy exit. And it is here that Appu earns his new nickname- Mr. Bat.

To the vunerable Prabha, Mr. Bat is the survivor in every sense.

Prabha finds herself immensely attracted to Appu’s personality. While the others label her as mentally unsound, she sees in Appu what they have never been able to see- his tight balancing act. She loves the appeal of this man who masks his vulnerability by refusing to take himself seriously, taking on all his roles in good humour, almost as if he were performing for a fancy dress. And thus, the vulnerability of Prabha captures the strength of Appu’s character. She discovers in his companionship a security she has never felt after the tragedy in her life. Appu displays the deep maturity of a man who has the ability to absorb the diversity of the personalities in his life, and his receptivity allows Prabha to unfold her personality in an unrestricted fashion. Appu is always guided by instinct in his relationships with people, and this works wonders for Prabha, who feels the relief of moving out of the umbrella of sympathy and resentment that she is constantly exposed to, on account of the fragility of her mind. It is a child that we see unfolding- zealous, happy, curious and high-spirited.

Manju Warrier handles with finesse the switch between vulnerability and strength.

Her family notices this change in her – the transformation from the withdrawn personality they had seen for years, and they realize that Appu has filled the void in her life, and achieved what psychologists and psychiatrists could not.

Meanwhile, Sujatha and Prabha enter into hostile zone. To the conventional Sujatha, Prabha is only a spoiled brat- the one and only daughter of Balan thampuran, accustomed to giving orders and being obeyed. She fails to see the fragility and vulnerability beneath Prabha’s tough exterior. Prabha’s father complicates the scenario by deciding to get Prabha married to Appu.

Jayaram delivers a brilliant performance in portraying the helplessness of Appu in this phase.

As Appu silently grieves, there is none who understands his predicament and feels his grief. His siblings only wound him further. The movie sensitively takes us through helpless moments in a man’s life- through paths we have all walked, hoping to be understood and comforted, but only being wounded deeper.

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Prabha’s father requests Appu to marry Prabha

And thus, we are led to the climax, where the vulnerable Prabha shocks everybody with her perspective. Prabha describes the significance of Appu in her life and analyzes what he means to her. When she reveals that Appu fills in her life the void created by her brother’s loss, and chides her father for the selfish step he took in order to see his daughter happy, her father takes pride in her character- in her ability to defeat life and adversity.

Thus ends the movie, but Prabha and Appu linger in our minds…

Independence versus Interdependence

In the progress of personality, first comes the declaration of independence. Then comes the realization of interdependence.

I have been pondering on the independence-interdependence equation for quite some time now, especially in the context of Indian marriages.

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I look at my colleague whose life revolves around social networking and fashion- the only highs in her life at this point in time. She has been married for 8 years now and when I look at her life now, it is hard to imagine that love must have been a component of her marriage at some point in time. But it was, and she recollects the initial years of her marriage as very happy and fulfilling for they revolved around companionship.

She remembers the endless conversations about everything and nothing…she remembers all the sharing and caring…she remembers the energy and enthusiasm the relationship instilled in her. But she does not recollect when the magic faded away. She only remembers how the challenges grew as life unfolded, for there were pressures- sometimes from both families, sometimes at work, and these only multiplied as children came into the picture. Housekeeping itself seemed a mammoth task.

Listening to her, I couldn’t help thinking how she regarded each of these as her individual problems. I guess that is ingrained in the mindset of a traditional Indian woman that the problems are hers alone, and it is up to her to strike a balance. Meanwhile, her husband started to focus more on his work, and his preoccupation stole away the qualitative time they had spent in the initial part of their relationship. As the environment at home became more charged with responsibility, her husband responded to the stress by finding outlets to unwind and relax. He loved his job for it gave him a sense of productivity and achievement. He socialized with people at work and outside of work. He lead an active life on all fronts- career, social circles and recreation.

For her, it was the other way round. Work reduced to just being a source of income and a distraction from the responsibilities. She no longer had the energy to define or chase her career dreams. Fighting the variables dominated the equation of her life. Frustration gradually crept in, for most of her energy went into the mundane things that she did not enjoy doing. Her husband distanced further for he did not look forward to spending time with a woman who radiated negative vibes most of the time.

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I couldn’t help thinking how this was the story of almost every Indian woman today. On the Indian landscape, there are women who have never explored their potential, for they just move in from the protected environment of their parents’ home to the protected environment of their husband’s home. They are women who have never defined independence- the very first step in the progress of personality. These women will continue to limit themselves to a small world for the rest of their lives and may never explore their potential.

Then there are the more fortunate women – fortunate to have been raised in a more liberal environment. These are women who are given the freedom to dream. For these women, marriage can be a sophisticated affair. When challenges enter the marriage scenario, these women often feel the currents for they find themselves robbed of their dreams. Some will rebel and opt for separation. Others will hang on a trifle longer for the sake of children, banking on temporary outlets such as social networking and extramarital affairs. Yet others will rediscover individuality and liberate themselves within the framework of the relationship. The tragedy is that in each of these cases, the relationship has been emotionally severed, irrespective of whether it is legalized or not…

Once companionship absents itself in a marriage, the marriage has lost its essence.

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The interesting fact is that this attitude is more prevalent in Indian men, especially of this generation- this escapist response to stress. It is often not the case with men from other races or even with Indian men raised abroad. For them, a problem is something that binds both people involved in a relationship. A man’s role or a woman’s role are not charted in black and white. In fact, a man feels responsible for the woman, for she is emotionally vulnerable and fragile.

Who doesn’t wish for long lasting companionship in a relationship? It is the one dream that brings two people together into a relationship. And if one sheds off all the social conditioning, one would realize that expression of one’s personality to its fullest potential would be the ultimate motivation of every individual, man or woman. A relationship can only provide a source of strength and energy in this process. And so, independence rests on interdependence.

In a world where every external element tries to extinguish the flame that characterizes the richness of one’s spirit, the purpose of a relationship must be to provide a cover that shields one from these external elements and helps maintain the flame, nurturing it, amplifying its brightness and warmth.

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