Ms Representation: The flawed man
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author talks about Ram's Peranbu
Peranbu touches upon two important issues, the sexuality of persons with disabilities, and the gendered issues of caregiving. It has great cinematography, great moments for Mammootty the actor–long shots where he performs for the camera and his daughter, potential for awards for Sadhana who plays Pappa, etc. After Onayum Aatukuttiyum and Aruvi, Peranbu too casts a trans woman in an important role. I do hope however that there are roles with bigger character arcs, different career paths and not just the ‘saint’ or ‘sinner’ arc written for trans women as we move forward. Also when persons with disabilities are invisibilised by the film industry, both on screen and off of it, when a plum role at the heart of a film about a person with cerebral palsy does not feature someone with the disability, it is a letdown. Representation is not just about what we see on screen. It also has to do with access to jobs, the monetary benefits and accolades that come with it. These are denied to those with disabilities the most by the film industry. It needs to do better.
At the centre of this film is Pappa, who has cerebral palsy. Her father, Amudhavan, finally has his comeuppance, for abandoning her and her mother and going to Dubai. He doesn’t visit either of them, not often enough to be involved in their lives anyway. Then his wife leaves him for another man. She says in a letter, “I looked after her all these years. You do it now.” Amudhavan, hereafter, is completely in new territory, because he has finally been asked to take responsibility for his daughter. There are some good moments in the film, where Amudhavan is trying to gain the confidence of his daughter. But there are also some very flawed ones.
In a throwback to the 1990 film Anjali, neighbours land up in Amudhavan’s house to ask him to leave because his daughter is loud, and his sister-in-law tells him that her ‘normal’ daughter is ‘acting’ like Pappa and she is scared that she too will become like her. Amudhavan angered by all this, moves his daughter to the middle of nowhere. Where it is beautiful, no doubt, but she has no one to talk to besides him. Which is when Vijayalakshmi enters their life. Anjali as Vijayalakshmi has an interesting role in the film and is the only person who points out to Amudhavan (apart from an NGO head played by Samuthirakani) that instead of mainstreaming or allowing her to mingle, he has brought her away to isolation and that that is not good for her.
When things come to a head with this isolated house (real estate mafia want the property), he takes Pappa to Chennai where he locks her in, in a hotel room. She watches TV all the time. She then comes of age and grows more aware of her own sexuality and personhood. She wants privacy. When she tries to put on a pad herself, and is unable to, he is devastated. Amudhavan’s fears in this film of his daughter being subjected to sexual assault or other forms of abuse are not misplaced. In his inability to deal with these complex issues that are traditionally dealt with only by women, Amudhavan feels lost. He moves her to a shelter while he works as a driver. But the problems seem relentless.
He finds that the caretakers at the shelter he’s left her in hit her because she touches herself. He immediately moves her out of there. The film indeed does deserve credit for talking about sexuality in this context. Amudhavan breaks into tears when he comes face-to-face with Pappa’s desires. He decides to find his minor daughter with cerebral palsy a gigolo. His logic is, ‘Why does a father look for a groom for his daughter, for this too right? Nobody will marry my daughter so I want her to experience this.’ The absence of the concept of consent, the leap from masturbation to sex, and his decision to give her what he thinks she needs, even though she’s a minor...I wish he at least acknowledged some of the flaws in his ‘plan’ for her, while also coming to terms with how this sense of shame associated with sexuality is the problem.
Amudhavan is finally only relaxed, even glowing, when there is a woman in his life. (However, earlier he seems to have shunned his wife because Pappa was with her.) Is he happy when there is a woman around to care for him? Is it unconditional love - Peranbu? Or is it because he can finally delegate the job of caring for Pappa to a mother-like figure? If it was Vijayalakshmi who came to work in his house earlier, in the end it is Meera who stops him from killing himself and his daughter.