Sunday, May 12, 2019


Release date:
March 8, 2019
T.V. Chandran

Akshara Kishor, Lal, Iniya, Narain, Renji Panicker, Priyanka Nair, Indrans

Back in those days, Azhagan tells little Radha, we could not walk on the road.

The child asks: Why?

Because our bodies were filthy from the work we do, the old man replies.

She is unrelenting: Could you not simply wash yourself and walk on the road?

No, he explains, the dirt on our bodies was centuries old and not that easy to wash off.

This simple question-answer session between a middle-class upper-caste girl and a poor old Dalit man encapsulates the essence of Malayalam cinema stalwart T.V. Chandran’s new film. Pengalila does not have the depth, detailing and plotline intricacies of Kammatipaadam, Rajeev Ravi’s spectacular indictment of caste structures released in 2016. Nor does it have the benefit of the almost spiritual cinematography in Jayaraj’s Ottaal and the resultant speaking silences that punctuated the impoverished Kuttapaayi’s relationship with his grandfather in that film. What Pengalila does have are Radha’s beguiling innocence, Akshara Kishor’s loveable presence and Lal.

The bonding between Radha (Kishor) and Azhagan (Lal), she as yet untainted by caste and class considerations, and the child protagonist’s enchanting artlessness are what lend poignance and charm to this otherwise uneven tale of caste and patriarchy in contemporary Kerala.

The story takes off when Radha’s father (Narain) shifts from Mumbai to rural Kerala for work, bringing with him his wife and children. Her mother (Iniya), a former NGO worker, is feeling suffocated in this conservative, slow-paced environment where the husband has persuaded/bullied her to confine herself to the care of their home.

With more spare time on her hands than she would like, and a spouse who taunts her for not earning money even as he bars her from doing so, the young woman encourages Radha to roam unfettered with her thoughts.

It is here that the child befriends Azhagan, a sociable elderly chap who rakes muck in the fields and on the roads to earn his living. Through her conversations with him, Radha begins to understand casteism. Through her observations of her mother’s frustrations and her parents’ troubled relationship, she begins to understand patriarchy.

Considering that Pengalila comes to us from award-winning director T.V. Chandran (Ponthan Mada, Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilapam), its patchy quality is surprising. The multiple flashbacks to Azhagan’s past that include anti-establishment protests dating from the 1940s look like something out of an average high-school stage production. They are superfluous anyway, and come across as a pointed effort to convey an impression of scale. So does the occasional self-indulgent shot that lingers longer than it needs to without making a point.

Just as bad, all the characters other than the main four, but most especially Azhagan’s wife and a newly married woman in despair, are superficially written. And it does not help that some satellite parts have been given to disinterested extras, or that the great Indrans is wasted in a barely there, awkwardly handled role.

Chandran even resorts to an amateurish graphic to illustrate how Kerala’s Dalits greened this land, which was then grabbed from them.

That map of the state may, at best, have worked in A Child’s Introduction to Oppressive Social Systems in a junior school.

These disappointing elements in Pengalila are an exasperating distraction from what lies at its core: a very small child’s emerging awareness of the harsh realities she was born into. It is, after all, a joy to hear the girl’s guileless, unwittingly sharp questions to the ever-patient Azhagan and to her dynamic, fiercely independent mother who is straining at a leash forced on her by a regressive husband.

While the focus is on them, the film is a rewarding experience. Akshara Kishor is aptly chosen to portray Radha’s wide-eyed innocence, while Lal plays Azhagan with equal parts zest and grace. They are an endearing twosome and make Pengalila, for all its follies, a film worth watching.

Rating (out of five stars): **1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
111 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

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