‘Bharathapuzha’, directed by Manilal, is about the never-say-die attitude of a marginalised woman
Manilal’s Malayalam film ‘Bharathapuzha’ starring Siji Pradeep compares the protagonist’s life to the ebb and flow of a river
The iconic Bharathapuzha that flows through South Malabar in Kerala has been the muse for poets, writers, artists, lyricists, playwrights, and filmmakers. Documentary filmmaker and television producer Manilal’s début feature film, Bharathapuzha, compares the flow of the river to the ebb and flow of life. Written and directed by him, the movie tries to convey a range of women-centric gender issues in general and of marginalised women in particular.
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Instead of the male gaze, Manilal’s attempt has been to focus on the perspective of a woman, Sugandhi, a sex worker in Thrissur. The filmmaker presents different aspects of her life as she goes about her daily routine.
Sugandhi, enacted by Siji Pradeep, is not subservient or apologetic about her work and life but makes no attempt to glorify it either. But Bharathapuzha makes it clear why Sugandhi has a certain kind of freedom and more choices than the average middle class woman living in a stifling patriarchal society. However, those choices, as depicted in the film, has a blinkered view of what exactly is ‘freedom’ for a woman. Sugandhi’s determination to experience life to the full is combined with a pining for a place of her own and a desire to find her place in society.
Manilal says that he wanted to make a film that talked about gender and women without trying to restrict the subject within any kind of boundaries or pre-set notions about sex workers.
“Nalini Jameela, author of The Autobiography of a Sex Worker, is a close friend of mine. It was an eye opener to spend time with her and learn about how she views life. I have drawn upon my interactions with women in different roles, such as my mother, sister, friend and so on. All those views reflect in the film,” says Manilal. Be that as it may, the dialogues range from the natural dialect of the region sans any artifice to the clichéd and the theatrical.
Filmed by Jomon Thomas, Bharathapuzha’s cast includes actors who hail from Thrissur and its vicinity. Actors like Jose Payyamal, Sreejith Ravi, Dinesh Engoor Vijayan, Manikandan Pattambi, MG Sasi, Jayaraj Warrier, Sunil Sukhada, Irshad and Dinesh Prabhakar effortlessly slip into their roles. Nalini Jameela is the costume designer of the film.
‘Not one to dwell on the past’
Although the film shows that Sugandhi takes up the profession after being abused as a child, she is not one to dwell on the past. The multiple roles she plays in her interactions with men changes subtly when she opens her heart with women and transgender persons who are in the same profession. They discuss their lives and hopes, making those scenes some of the most memorable in the film. Her story is woven into the cultural milieu of the city. In a dig at uber masculinity, the Pulikali, when men, donning the colours of the tiger take out a procession at the fag end of Onam celebrations, is shown as a vain show of machoism by some of the participants.
Although the theme is not new to Malayalam cinema, the non-linear narrative makes it a different experience.
Manilal says during an assignment in Kolkata to shoot a convention of sex workers, he was surprised to see the way they were speaking for themselves and fighting for their rights. “I felt those women’s lives were like the rivers of India. They are part of our mainstream society and yet, like many of our rivers, we take them for granted. That is why I called the film Bharathapuzha,” he explains.
Finally, when Sugandhi occupies the driver’s seat in an autorickshaw driven by one of her friends, it is her confidence and never-say-die attitude that linger in the mind of the viewer.