Woman Power: Adoor's 'Four Women'
by Elizabeth Menon
The only Malayalam film at The Times BFI 51st London Film Festival this year, was Adoor Gopalakrishnan's 'Four Women'. It is quite different from his earlier films in many ways. The film is based on four stories by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and it's Adoor's journey through the lives of four women who have different standing in the society who are distanced in time, spanning two decades from 1946: the prostitute( Oru Niyamalamghanathinte Katha), the virgin(Kanyaka), the housewife( Chinnuamma) and the spinster( Nithya Kanyaka). This is the first time in Malayalam Cinema that a film was made with four separate stories with no continuity except for the common thematic thread. This film was shown in full houses at the Odeon West End and the Tricycle.
Adoor's previous films portrayed men as the main characters and women were in the background either suffering or retaliating silently, as the society demanded of them at the time. When I spoke to Adoor about this he insisted that women in all his films have been quite powerful. He also said that he is very much on their side and he can not go against the true situation as it exists in our society. He added that in most of his films the weaker and indecisive ones are the males! He has made ten feature films during the past 35 years: Swayamvaram in 1972, Kodiyettam in 77, Elipathayam in 81, Mukhamukham in 84, Anantharam in 87, Mathilukal in 89, Vidheyan in 93, Kathapurushan in 95, Nizhalkkuthu in 2002 and now five years later, 'Four Women'. He is the recipient of the highest Cinema Honour by the Government of India, Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 2004 and the second highest Civilian Honour, Padmvibhusan in 2006 and many other awards in India and abroad.
Adoor's films have always focused on many things and he told me that films should serve as faithful documents of the history of a particular time, the time in which they are set. His new film, 'Four Women' is about four women in four different stories with no continuity except for the theme.They are caught up in their own battle of survival, submissive and passive in the beginning, but ultimately each one makes a choice, irrespective of the wishes of the society or rest of the family. Though these stories take place more than 60 yrs ago the thematic conflict is still relevant, especially in small villages and it shows how women were beginning to change their attitude, all those years ago.
'Oru Niyamalamghanathinte Katha' tells the story of Kunjupennu (Padmapriya) who changes her profession for Pappunni( Sreejith) who loves her and decides to live with him in an informal marriage. They slept on the pavement as they were very poor and the police arrests them for immoral behaviour because they were not officially married. Their defiance in telling the judge repeatedly that they are husband and wife was quite touching and the attitude of the legal team, pitiful. Adoor clearly shows the atrocities of the legal system here. Padmapriya is very relaxed and in tune with the character. Sreejith shows promise. Manoj K Jayan as 'Ousepachan', lives the part.
'Kanyaka' is about an aging father ( Gopakumar) getting his daughter Kumari (Geethu Mohandas) married to Narayanan (Nandu) without even consulting her. The man has no interest in his bride and it's almost comical to see his passion in life, 'food' and thereby the audience is assured that his lack of interest in his beautiful wife is perhaps not due to his aberrant sexuality or inability! He takes his wife to her house and what follows is both comical and a lesson to all; the family was shocked to see their new son-in-law's voracious eating! He leaves his wife and never returns. Then there is gossip in the village blaming the girl for the break up. She then decides that she has had enough and tells everyone defiantly that there never was a marriage and walks away! Adoor is focusing on the society and showing how gossip and marriage break ups can affect the family life and how a woman is blamed in such circumstances even by her own people. Adoor has brought out the best in Geetu Mohandas, acting at its best and sheer delight to watch!
'Chinnuamma' is about a housewife, 'Chinnuamma'( Manju Pillai) who looses her babies within days of their birth. She is married to Raman Pillai(Murali) and they both have tried different medicines and been to Ayurvedic doctors, but they are not blessed with a child. Nara pillai (Mukesh), an old classmate turns up who tells her that her husband is to blame for her predicament. He offers himself as the 'surrogate stud' and she refuses, telling him that her moral principles do not allow her to do that! Strict moral values of the women are upheld here. Chinnuamma and Raman Pillai are portrayed so brilliantly that Manju Pillai and Murali disappear, showing the greatness of these two actors!
'Nithya Kanyaka' tells the story of a long suffering submissive woman, Kamakshi (Nanditha Das) who is left behind while her brother (Ashokan) and both her younger sisters get married. Kamakshi's life becomes a real torture after the demise of her mother ( KPAC Lalitha) and she had to live with her sister( Kavya Madhavan), almost like a servant. Finally she decides to live on her own in her old house which was left to her by her mother. The defiance in her voice was very clear when she told her sister that she does not wish to stay with anyone and would rather stay alone. KPAC Lalitha gives a brilliant performance, showing why she is still at the top! Nanditha Das does justice to Kamakshi. There are lessons to be learned here about individual choices and learning to look after one's own personal needs, being part of a family structure and making sure that one is not left behind while taking care of the others.
This film explores the life of four women, distanced in social status and time, 1946-1960 and the difficulties they encounter in their homes and society and how they emerge defiant, if not victorious, at the end. Adoor has raised moral and social issues in this 'poetry in motion' and succeeded in showing the power of women in the changing society. When I talked to Adoor, he told me that he has tried to show the problems women are faced with even today and he is hoping that they would take these issues on board and stand up for their right. If I were to choose one woman from these four outstanding women, I would find it quite difficult, but Geethu Mohandas's 'Kanyaka' would be my choice! A film not to be missed.