September 6, 2017
Manju Warrier, Anaswara Rajan, Nedumudi Venu, Joju George, Mamata Mohandas, Abhija Sivakala, Sudhi Kopa, Alencier Ley Lopez
Writer-director Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari’s Nil Battey Sannata was one of the finest works to emerge from Bollywood in 2016. It starred Swara Bhaskar as a mother who goes back to school to teach her difficult daughter a life lesson. Tiwari herself remade the film in Tamil as Amma Kanakku starring Amala Paul. It is lovely to see Nil Battey travelling across Indian languages. The latest version is the official Malayalam remake with Manju Warrier, which is a comment on how impactful the original was if you consider that Bhaskar is still establishing herself in her industry whereas Warrier is a Mollywood superstar.
Debutant director Phantom Praveen’s Udaharanam Sujatha (Example: Sujatha) is faithful to its source material for the most part, with a couple of changes that merit discussion. Warrier here plays Sujatha Krishnan, the harried, impoverished parent of a Class X student. Athira Krishnan is a layabout who barely manages to scrape her way through exams. Her mother holds down multiple jobs – as household help, factory hand and more – to save money for her daughter’s higher education, an education that the child has no interest in whatsoever.
Sujatha is frustrated that she cannot even try to tutor Athira since she herself dropped out of school after flunking Class X. She is also heartbroken to discover that the girl has zero ambition since, as she tells her Mum one day, children follow in their parents’ footsteps so it goes without saying that a housemaid’s daughter will grow up to be a housemaid.
A kind employer, the celebrated screenwriter George Paul, suggests that Sujatha enroll herself in Athira’s school and class. Athira reacts with ferocious spite that may make an observer wonder why Sujatha is bothered about this nasty, ungrateful wretch. Well, she does. Good parents tend to be bottomless wells of forgiveness that no offspring deserves.
Udaharanam Sujatha is about this mother-daughter clash, the mother’s continuing struggles and how she ultimately dramatically changes their lives.
If Nil Battey Sannata was outstanding, in some ways Udaharanam Sujatha is even better. It takes courage to do what Warrier does in this film, surrendering herself to the part to such an extent that she obliterates her glamorous personality to transform herself into Sujatha of the garish saris and boring, practical hairdo. She takes a huge risk by doing so considering that she is a major mainstream star in an industry that values women primarily for their looks, and in any case rarely sees women in their 30s and beyond as worthy of being deemed glamorous, unlike their male contemporaries. Ah well, Warrier is used to making her own road as a post-divorce returnee to films, occupying the kind of space Mollywood rarely gives women of any age.
As it turns out, she is smashing in Udaharanam Sujatha.
The beauty of the screenplay, Phantom Praveen’s interpretation of the adaptation by Naveen Bhaskar and the casting is that though the film revolves around Sujatha, it is packed with memorable performances by other actors in well-defined roles, big and small. Child actor Anaswara Rajan, for one, is so solid as the second lead, Athira, that I can picture her as an artiste of Warrier’s standing in years to come if she keeps at it. They are a perfect match for each other.
Of the remaining cast, Joju George stands out for his turn as the eccentric, misguided school principal who thinks public humiliation is a legitimate teaching method, and Abhija Sivakala is flawless as a coconut vendor to whom Sujatha owes money.
Nedumudi Venu imbues George Paul with empathy, sensitivity and decency, without defying believability. That said, and while it is always a pleasure to see the legend in action, the writing of George Paul includes the only disappointing change the Malayalam screenplay makes to the original Hindi story in which Chanda Sahai’s compassionate employer was a woman, not a man. The scenes between Chanda and Dr Diwan (Ratna Pathak Shah) were a rare instance of female bonding in Hindi cinema, which is otherwise brimful of stories on male friendship.
This alteration by Team Udaharanam is telling. Our cinema finds it hard to portray women as mentors of women or men, as thought leaders and agents of change in their own lives and the lives of others. “Man rescues woman” is viewed as being more saleable, I guess, than “woman supports woman”. It is highly possible that if Vidhu Vincent’s Manhole had been produced by a commercial heavyweight, it would have told the tale of the Dalit son of a manual scavenger growing up to become a lawyer who fights for the rights of his people, or – even more likely – of the Brahmin friend of the Dalit son of a manual scavenger... This is not to say that such men and Brahmins do not exist, but that these are the people most filmmakers prefer to focus on. So while celebrating the fact that in Udaharanam Sujatha, the female protagonist holds the reins of her existence, it is important not to excuse the switch from Dr Diwan to George Paul.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
Another gender switch in the film, on the other hand, is heartening. In Nil Battey Sannata, Chanda gets the idea to make her daughter a collector when she sees the local collector played by Sanjay Suri. Mamta Mohandas has been cast in that cameo here. One of the things holding girls back from pursuing careers is that society constantly reminds them to be good wives and mothers, but rarely prods them to work outside the house and be good at it. Female role models who have made it in various professions are reminders to these little ones that they can be more than what they are told they ought to be. Keeping this context in mind, Collector Madam in Udaharanam Sujatha marks a significant – and positive – writing modification.
The other is the introduction of a suitor. Sujatha’s reaction to him does not in any way indicate a sacrifice for her daughter, but genuine disinterest – clearly, she does not feel compelled to be with a man just to conform to social diktats that assume a woman is helpless on her own.
(Spoiler alert ends)
Besides, the sore point about gender notwithstanding, Sujatha’s conversations with George Paul underline an aspect of class relations usually ignored (without ill intentions) in the mainstream liberal discourse, because highlighting class wars is such an urgent and time-consuming cause. Privileged social groups always have and will include people willing to stand by those from marginalised sections of society who are fighting for their rights. Udaharanam: George Paul.
Udaharanam Sujatha then is an intelligent, enjoyable, well-acted, well-written story about looking beyond the cards we are dealt at birth. There are those who might see this film as an instance of a mother forcing her dreams down her daughter’s throat. It is not. At the end of the day, Sujatha’s worry is not merely that Athira does not look beyond the possibility of becoming a housemaid or does not dream of being a collector, but that she does not dream at all.
This is not to say the film makes no flawed arguments. Despite its overall broad-mindedness, it has a seemingly progressive character perpetuating a widely held stereotype that is used to discourage women from entering fields related to Science, Technology and Mathematics: when Sujatha laments Athira’s fear of Maths, George Paul laments “the long-standing troubled relationship between girls and Mathematics”. Why the generalisation? Et tu, Brutus?
Then there is that incongruous closing line from Athira unwittingly dissing the work done by Sujatha and millions like her who perform a crucial function in keeping the wheels of the nation running. There is no indignity in being the household help in a home that treats you with respect. The larger point the film is making until then is that no one should be fatalistic, we must all have dreams for ourselves, and instead of relying on words like luck and destiny, we must see where sweat and toil may take us if we wish to be somewhere other than where we are.
Udaharanam Sujatha could also have done without that maudlin line flashing on screen right at the end about mothers being God’s greatest gift to the world. Not mothers in general, please, but the good ones. It is important and okay to make that distinction.
These are debates worth having because Udaharanam Sujatha is worthy of being debated. None of these arguments in any way alters the fact that Phantom Praveen has zeroed in on a fantastic theme, he has effectively walked the fine line that allows a film to offer viewers entertainment combined with introspection, and he has done so with the assurance of a veteran.
Udaharanam Sujatha is one of the best films to emerge from the Malayalam industry this year. It is about courage in the face of poverty. It is about small joys and big dreams. It is about wanting the world for your child even at a time when the only treat you can financially afford to offer her is a packet of instant noodles that you gleefully share in your grubby one-room tenement. It is a thought-provoking, heartwarming film of immense sadness, laughter where you least expect it, and over-arching hope. I am already looking forward to Praveen’s next project.
As for the leading lady of this film, she is an udaharanam among udaharanams. Manju Warrier, you are a rockstar.
Rating (out of five stars): ****
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/pg/udhaharanamsujathamovie/