Somewhere in the back of my mind, Lijo Jose Pellissery's women have begun to stand for the women in my family, each of them with such an intensely vital sense of personality that she withstands all efforts to be altered by the machinations of a plot, a plot which attempts to vilify or deify her according to its convenience, observes Sreehari Nair.
'Women have nothing much to do in Lijo Jose Pellissery's movies' is a cliche, and as it happens with all cliches thoughtlessly uttered, this one too has hardened into some sort of a gospel truth.
Recently, while executing an indictment on Facebook, a gentleman flew so high as to proclaim, 'Pellissery has NO WOMEN in his films; just repressed angry men with a taste for esoteric violence.'
To begin with, I would like to know who all constitute the 'unrepressed angry men with a taste for non-esoteric violence' species.
Do the men in Lokesh Kanagaraj's Vikram, the ones who go on coolly shooting down people and slitting their throats under the pretext of drug-busting, qualify?
That said, there is significant merit in the reasoning that LJP, our leading metaphysical thinker of the movie-land, has, since the third act of Ee.Ma.Yau., been growing increasingly despondent about the general state of humanity, so that his male characters have begun to seem more and more like abstractions, like concepts.
But even as I concede this fact, I cannot look away from something equally true: Pellissery's women continue to express the beauty in our common humanity. And often, these women go so far into expressing our hopes, desires, absurdities and follies that they end up acting at variance with the ethical prescriptions of our age. And this, I believe, is precisely why they remain 'invisible' to a whole bunch of viewers.
LJP's women are idealisations of the imperfect.
They are brilliant, sly, fierce, warm-spirited, keen-eyed, compassionate, jostling, and cynical; they have sex in their gaits, wit about their words, and sinews in their synapses.
The mother in Angamaly Diaries, who pushes onto her boy's plate an extra cylinder of steamed rice cake (interspersed with coconut shavings, of course) while callously dismissing her daughter's demand for the same is also a veritable Artemis.
This fast-talking, quick-moving lady (played by a resplendent Jolly Chirayath), who openly plays the game of gender discrimination ('You be satisfied with just that much,' says the mother to the little girl), who sings her putdowns, has a toughness of spirit that's second to none: She holds up her end of a debate while simultaneously bending down to put coconuts out to dry, and walks into her living room like a funambulist balancing a cup of tea in her right hand and a poppadom in her left.
Also flitting between her kitchen, hall and backyard, is Elizabeth in Ee.Ma.Yau., a whisperer of suspicions, a heckler of youthful liaisons, and an expert at working in a dash of black magic to the duck curry sizzling in her earthen pot.
Arya Salim plays Elizabeth as a woman too nervous to please her family, an odd mixture of reserve and eagerness, and since Ee.Ma.Yau., she has regularly appeared on screen with a ladle in her hand (a piece of imagery used to wonderful comic effect in Minnal Murali).
I suppose memorable female characters like these don't get their critical due because they are too free, aren't spokespersons for an ideology, and because they are perceived as being tied to their hearths than arguing from the pulpits.
You cannot broadcast their thoughts on Twitter, and expect the applause of your followers.
But when you consider how 'alive' these women are, how much physical and psychic energy there is in them, you come to understand that they weren't born in the melodramatic imagination of hack writers, that they have been plucked out of those parochial Kerala households, ludicrously conservative but completely real, lovingly rendered and then allowed to take over their scenes.
Taking over her scenes similarly is Pennamma, Ee.Ma.Yau.'s leading light, that wondrous Latin Catholic Signora, who pocks at fragile egos, and after her husband unexpectedly plops down dead, empties her lungs out for us.
Her wailing chronicles are no doggerel, thank you, and even her most banal notations, you come to realize, are sodden with feeling.
And yet, she's no sentimental construct, this Pennamma of the coast; her instinct for mischief shines as bright as her tears; and when her husband is alive, she reads off of his each move the double life he is leading.
As Pennamma, Pellissery casts the legendary Pauly Wilson, and it must be as a tribute to those days and nights she had spent on the theatre circuit observing grandees like Thilakan and P J Anthony -- whose excesses glistened like the tufts of hair on their knuckles.
In Ee.Ma.Yau., Wilson first appears on screen stamping her feet and repeating in babyish tones the coquettish fibs that her husband tries to put on her.
It must, I agree, come as a shock to many that Lijo Jose Pellissery's women are not your classic men-haters; on the contrary, the women find the lying, brawling, ranting men hopelessly unable to control their impulses and for that very reason also hopelessly adorable.
Even so, you get this feeling that the rhetorical queries posed by these women are nothing less than silent rebellions.
When Lichi, the ostensible heroine of Angamaly Diaries (and aren't each of these women, the lead in her own story?), is quizzed by her prude hero if she drinks -- 'Lichi, do you, really?' -- she responds with calf eyes, 'Why da, am I not allowed to?'
Yes, Pellissery's women may be narrow-minded, but they have consciousnesses that are wide, and, therefore, have more speed than do his 'conceptual men'.
When the philandering graybeard of Ee.Ma.Yau. goes down, it's the daughter-in-law, Elizabeth, who puts aside her ladle, picks up her shattered husband, gets him a-going, and who stage-manages many of the minor background details of the funeral.
And yes, these women intuitively understand the limited games that men are capable of playing; they know how to set the bait, and know when to draw the line.
In Jallikattu, Santhy Balachandran's Sophie teases her lover boy and gets him to deliver some fish, but later, when piggybacking on this favour, he tries to act too cuddly with her, she spits out her rebuttal.
'Ptooey,' she answers his advances, and then goes on brushing her teeth among the blooming environs.
Sophie is styled and photographed almost like a Dryad, a nature spirit who has descended from the pepper and rubber trees, and who spends her time on the ground tying and oiling her hair, tending to the chickens, and munching on the grains that the birds have left for her.
For every Pennamma, Lichi, Elizabeth and Sophie, there are dozens of female characters in Pellissery's movies who are not even named -- and yet, what spiritual power there is in everything they say and do!
In his latest film, Churuli, it's only the women who swear with any real authority: When they let go of their decorum and let their tongues rip, their intonations seem to mirror every loop, twist and turn of the body part they are trying to evoke.
Even as Pellissery's men turn into stand-ins for his theory that human beings are insensitive and cruel and selfish, and even when the women betray these very characteristics they still seem more at ease, more relaxed.
As a rule, these women may have foot-corns and swollen feet, but they run in all possible directions, often run aslant Pellissery's film-making energy, and in consequence they wind up composing little short stories within the larger fiction they find themselves in.
In Jallikattu, a buffalo escapes its fate and goes berserk, the men in the village use that as an excuse to get in touch with their beastly side, and Pellissery's restless camera sweeps up into action.
And in the midst of all that cacophony, one of the great gossip sequences of Indian Cinema takes shape -- proving yet again that there's such a thing as gossip that's good for the spleen.
A gang of women, with their maxis tied taut around their waists, sit by a stream, boiling tapioca, and trading salacious notes.
They don't bother to complete their sentences; someone floats a juicy bit and waits for someone else to press on with the thread, and it passes through the gang like a livewire: the women are so excited that they seem to be communicating through their out-of-breath selves.
Suddenly, a man from across the stream orders them to go inside, lest they get knocked over by the rampaging buffalo -- and the women shout him down, so secure they are in their fortress of muck-racking.
They continue to lubricate the rumour mills, checking at the same time if the tapioca has been seasoned right.
Pellissery's films are filled with magical sequences like the aforementioned one, even if they don't come together to give you the pleasure of well-oiled, over-familiar arcs (the 'wronged woman who turns strong', or some such trinket).
But these sequences and the female characters in them burn with the joy of creation, with the joy of having made 'vivid' on celluloid something gleaned from the corner of one's eye.
I have grown up among such women -- ones who exist to defy the limitations of conventional, melodramatic fiction.
In the ancestral house on my mother's side, the man-woman relationship was never about domestic justice, or about good and evil characters; the setting was a lot more complicated, rich, and ironic.
The comedy was in the details that didn't add up when taken together: It was a fast-crumbling house of laterite and lime and sun-dried tiles, and pictures of my grandfather in his air force uniform, looking awfully pensive and squint-eyed, projected out of every cracked wall.
As it happens, my grandfather was an ex-Master Warrant Officer, a man on the make who had got himself so engrossed in a book by Ramakrishna Paramahamsa that he had woken up in the middle of a clear night crying, 'I want to give up this material life and take up Sanyasa!'
Voluntary discharge followed, and my grandfather had come back home to spend the largest part of his days on a cot in the utility room.
In honour of the above incident, my grandmother brought up her four daughters (including my mother) with something like a fatalistic view of life, a view that you can plan and plan and bad things will still happen, and a concurrent opinion that the grandeur of men is a subject to be treated with humour than outright respect or straight malice.
When the daughters got married, they carried such airy perspectives over to their spousal dens.
About one of the four husbands, I once heard the following comment being made, 'Oh, he is so possessive that if I were to ask him permission to get a dog, he might allow me, but on the condition that it be a bitch.'
My mother rehearsed her cosmopolitan image by putting on a stoic appearance -- and that, by and by, became *her act.* But the other daughters, while never sappy, were candidly theatrical; with a standout talent for dramatizing their unfulfilled dreams and nutty thoughts.
The second of the four daughters, a wallflower, once showed me her private notebook of revolutionary poems, pages of which were stained with Sambar and had on them blotches of what looked like tears; while the fourth daughter had a most annoying habit of protruding her eyeballs and sticking out her tongue right in the middle of a conversation, and asking you with a visible distension of her facial features, 'Suppose I looked like this?'
My grandmother is, quite evidently, the fountain from which the daughters have drawn their free-thinking, pessimism, combativeness, brio, superstitions and cancer-love -- one of those peculiar combinations of attributes that make for interesting characters.
And when I once tried to do an idealistic portrait of my grandmother, I realised that there was so much more to her than can be contained in that facile arc of 'the woman who overcame a thousand difficulties to triumph in life.'
As a matter of fact, on a future date, I would prefer to remember her as someone who knew everybody's dirty secrets.
Once, while gouging out the eyes of a fish, she told me a tale of doomed lovers from the 1970s, a tale she had witnessed firsthand.
The man of that romance, the scion of a wealthy family, used to live opposite our ancestral house and had, much to the chagrin of his parents, married a woman from a lower socio-economic background than he.
The avant-garde lover had died suddenly after getting an epileptic attack on his gable-style porch, but my grandmother knew, oh she knew, that there was some rat poison involved.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, Lijo Jose Pellissery's women have begun to stand for the women in my family, each of them with such an intensely vital sense of personality that she withstands all efforts to be altered by the machinations of a plot, a plot which attempts to vilify or deify her according to its convenience.
In truth, Lijo Jose Pellissery, unlike, say, a Bergman, isn't interested in exploring women's minds and emotions.
Pellissery is more interested in the qualities of a particular woman -- how she moves, how her voice booms or cracks in a high-stakes situation, her brief grimace that causes the mole underneath her nose to explode, the way she pauses before turning one of her arguments into an aphorism. And it's not Pellissery's weakness but his strength that he doesn't 'automatically' understand his female characters; that he allows his actresses to discover them for him.
When it's a matter of directing men, Pellissery appears to be full of 'precise notes'.
A video clip of the film-maker at work has him yelling instructions to his male actors: 'Charge like animals'; 'Give it to him'; 'Act like you are losing it'.
He is, in those moments, all pelvic thrusts and heaves and grunts: It's a moving demonstration of how to get a bunch of happy souls hooked on nihilism.
There are no similar clips floating around of LJP directing his actresses. But if his female characters are any evidence, with the women, he is neither putting on airs of being a deep thinker nor trying out any cinephilic pyrotechnics; in those instances, he is a worshipper of mystery, pure and simple.
And the women in turn seem to be telling him, 'Store your notes away; let us show you how it's done.'
It was Angamaly Diaries where you felt LJP's hitherto scattered energies gathering into unity.
Since then, he has been blending his always-present affection for mysticism and folklore with his newfound love for the metaphysical plane, and feverishly making movies, while taking on one aspect of Kerala's landscape after another -- small town, coastal land, treacherous high-range.
By the end of Churuli -- a piece of trumpery; yet one that only a single-minded artist could have attempted -- I got the impression that he had painted himself into a corner.
If this is indeed the case, then the women in his films, always marching to their own drum, might have a message for him.
'Slow down', is something like it, and a passing scene in Churuli almost gets the message across.
In the scene, one of the protagonists comes up on a female figure carrying a load of freshly-cut grass on her head.
Our hero trots up to this darting dame, not merely nameless but also faceless (her visage obscured by the blades of grass), and tries to ask for directions to the eponymous village of Churuli, where most of the film's action is slated to take place.
But before he can even enunciate his first syllable, the load-carrying figure exits the scene, without paying the slightest heed to our hero, who stands there lost and waiting for the film to proper begin.
And I couldn't help smiling at this. 'There it is,' I thought, 'as it often happens in Lijo Jose Pellissery's films, the story wants to go one way, and the woman goes another.'
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com