Biweekly Binge: Nathicharami - Rules of Entanglement
A fortnightly column on what’s good – old and new - in the vast ocean of content in the streaming platforms around you
In director Ram's latest film, Peranbu, Amudhavan (Mammootty) is a father, only recently present in the life of his child Paapa (Sadhana) who is disabled, affected with cerebral palsy. Everything is new to him - from developing a relationship with his daughter to having to deal with her disability. There is more. She is also a teenager going through familiar adolescence and the motions associated with it, the changes happening both in body and mind. Paapa develops a liking for actor Surya and Amudhavan observes this from a distance. He begins to cry at his helplessness, at the absence of a mother figure in both their lives. The next few scenes involve him, with the help of his friend, a trans woman sex worker Meera (Anjali Ameer) but unbeknownst to her, looking for a male prostitute. This is a sequence in Peranbu that is bewildering, his misplaced conclusions from what he has observed and what needs to be done. It's almost as if both Ram and Amudhavan don't realize that Paapa is a minor. What about the immediate realization that Paapa is a Surya fan and therefore showing her a Surya film to begin with, for her to enjoy. This part of Peranbu deals in extremes, its handling of sexual awakening existing as binary. One is either blissfully asleep or conscious with powerful knowledge.
In director Mansore's Kannada film Nathicharami (now streaming on Netflix) starring Sruthi Hariharan, a widow goes through sexual reawakening, amidst grief and feelings of guilt. Yes, one needs to note that compared to Paapa, Gowri (Sruthi Hariharan) is able, privileged, older and was in a brief but happy marriage. Some time has passed, and her repressed sexual desires conflict with her feelings of loyalty towards her late husband. In a telling initial scene that gives us a glimpse into her past life, she says she likes the darkness in her house because then she can find her husband and cuddle with him in the dark. There is a different kind of darkness surrounding her now - that of grief, societal prejudice, pressure from parents to remarry, workplace sexual harassment and the inability to articulate her feelings even to her friends or colleagues. She looks at a dildo on the internet and considers it for a long time before deciding to purchase it. Around her, people go through their lives like usual - mornings at the park, at work - but she is the lone occupant of the two-seater on the bus during her office commute. Someone advises her to install a dating app. While doing so, she gets a call from her father-in-law to talk about some pending money matters. She's caught in a transitional phase even as the worlds collide and enclose her from within. When someone like Gowri must renegotiate her desires, learn and unlearn in the big bad world, Ram's quickfire handling of Paapa and Amudavan's complications rings untrue, almost to the point of coming across as exploitation.
Nathicharami handles its conflicts with more nuance and doesn't shy away from examining the same issue across classes. There is Jayamma, Gowri's house help, who says she still harbours feelings for her first husband - whom she had to leave because of his abusive family - and how she is reminded of him every time she cooks his favourite dishes. Gowri develops a friendship with a fellow jogger at the park, Suresh (Sanchari Vijay), a civil engineer of modest means who has his own domestic issues - married to a woman not exposed to the city life, he sees her only as a sexual object and ill-treats her at every turn. In a glorious scene, he is refused sex by his wife Suma, who tells him that it's not just his desire, she has to feel the need too. He keeps yearning for a city-bred girl as a future partner but when he learns of Gowri's expectations, he feels slighted, the experience urges him to rework his theory on women of the city. He ends up concluding that woman and land are not in his destiny, making him - the educated Indian male that he believes he is - the bigoted one, and not his wife from the village who is adept at self-preservation - with her time, with her life.
Gowri's counselor is the only male in Nathicharami who is able to understand what she is going through. It's refreshing that the sessions between them don't happen inside a well-furnished, meticulously decorated office. They happen in the counselor's home while his dog creates a mess or his help makes his presence known, when he is tending to his plants or is cooking. He is surrounded by nature (incidentally what Peranbu refers to in its chapter titles) and uses them as analogies to explain to Gowri - that humans forget that they are animals too and carnal desires are only natural, or how we use social power structures to normalize and rationalize practices that don't make any sense. In an early scene, Gowri finds a leaking tap in her home. She asks Jayamma to get someone to fix it but Jayamma uses a cloth as a temporary fix. It enrages Gowri. Mansore's film is about understanding that sometimes there are no permanent solutions, especially when temporary ones can go a long way in effectuating a more satisfying release.