Ms. Representation: An ode to mothers
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week we take a look at Shanti Krishna's character Sheela Chacko in Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela
Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela (An interval in the land of crabs) belongs to Shanti Krishna’s (who makes a superb comeback) Sheela Chacko in its entirety. Shanti Krishna is not new to Tamil audiences either. We have seen her iconic films like Panneer Pushpangal, and who can forget that fresh-faced adolescent experiencing first love as Ilaiyaraja’s Poonthalir Aada plays in the background? Or the wife caught between a rock and a hard place in the Visu caper Manal Kayiru? And still fresh in our memory is Shanti’s restrained performance in director Vasanth’s Nerukku Ner. Directed by Althaf Salim, who was seen in small roles in films like Premam, this new film pushes the envelope for what to expect from a regular comedy film, and what can be done with faces one has seen in a highly successful, commercial film recently. (A lot of the people we’ve seen in Premam appear here too.)
Sheela’s sudden illness and her own as well as others’ in her family’s reaction to the illness, makes up this perfect slice-of-life film. It does so with genuine warmth and humour. The film isn’t trying to do anything lofty, and that is the reason for its success. I had heard that it was a funny film, but all through the first half hour, I was nervous because it looked like the mother of three, who was the heartbeat of this storyline, was about to be declared seriously ill. How could the film keep going in this vein, while doing justice to Sheela’s role? My apprehensions were entirely misplaced and boy did Althaf deliver a winner. I teared up a bit, laughed a lot, and at times, when the entire cinema hall laughed, I was pretty sure we were all also thinking, ‘Wow, that was morbid, why am I laughing like this!’
Adding to many recent Malayalam films that have had well-written roles for women, Njandukalude… goes one step further, in normalising the trend. It does not make a show of it. That is not the point of this film. Its point is something else and it also shines in that area – I am sure a lot of families that have had old, ailing, or close relatives with a serious illness will find some parts of this film relatable. It never crosses the line of propriety, and I think, delivers humour that respects not only the artiste at the helm of the project and women who go through this trauma in real life, but also the audience in general.
Sheela is a working woman (a lecturer) with a grown up son, Kurien Chacko (a lovely Nivin Pauly who isn’t the hero of this film as I went in thinking, but pulls off a low-key performance as a supporting artiste) who lives in London but is visiting, and two daughters, one of whom is married and has a daughter of her own. Sheela lives with her husband (Lal), an old and ailing father-in-law, and the unmarried younger daughter Sarah (Ahaana Krishna) who works and has a boyfriend. Sheela enjoys walks with her female friends in the morning, cooks and pretty much runs the house, even when she is unwell, initially. That part of the film rings true and stays with you. How many of our mothers, despite being unwell and having careers, were expected to run the house, cook and clean after us, as we grew up, before we all started posting ‘woke’ messages on social media? Without saying much, Althaf says a lot in those scenes about an entire generation of women.
Shanti Krishna plays Sheela Chacko in the most relatable manner. Her restraint, comic timing, bravado, and ability to get people to rally around her even as they sink under the weight of her disease, that weary look that isn’t asking for your sympathy, exasperation… all make the film what it is.
There are some true heart-warming moments, such as when Sarah takes off from work one day, and spends the day at the mall and at home with her mother, helping her with her new ‘look’. Or her boyfriend’s suggestion that they have their engagement earlier so that Sheela can be a part of the celebrations. And then there’s this stunning moment when Kurien recollects to his siblings the quiet resilience that comes naturally to their mother. He describes how she fled with her three young children alone from Kuwait to Kerala, many years ago, after Iraqi soldiers knocked on their doors, asking them to leave.
A big service to mothers as well as those battling a disease – that is the subject of one too many melodramatic films – that this film does is to not ride on either of those ‘sentiments’. It delights in ways unexpected and I cannot wait to see more from both Althaf and Shanti Krishna.