Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ullozhukku: Parvathy and Urvashi together on screen are just priceless. (Review 802)

Release date:

June 20, 2024


Christo Tomy


Urvashi, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Arjun Radhakrishnan, Jaya Kurup, Alencier Ley Lopez, Veenah Naair, Prasanth Murali 




There are few places on Earth more devastatingly beautiful than Kuttanad. Few settings better suited to a film named Ullozhukku.   


The title is the Malayalam word for undercurrent. Kuttanad in the monsoons, with its vast, often intimidating expanses of water punctuated by thick greens and islands of human habitation, is home to many such hidden tides.   


The placid liquid terrain on which Ullozhukku unfolds is a metaphor for the outward calm of conservative societies. In these circles, silent suffering to keep up a fa├žade of ‘respectability’ is valued over the truth, and the floodwaters of social conformity often drown happiness.   


The protagonists in this story are Anju (Parvathy Thiruvothu) and Leelamma (Urvashi). Anju had an arranged marriage with Leelamma’s son Thomaskutty (Prasanth Murali). Rains are lashing Kuttanad, and the swollen backwaters have covered the grounds of their home when he dies following a grave illness. With preparations underway for Thomaskutty’s burial, long-submerged secrets rise to the surface and lies are unexpectedly exposed.  


Ullozhukku is written and directed by Christo Tomy whose firm hold on the material at hand, aided by Kiran Das’ editing, complements the casting coup of the season. The joy of seeing Urvashi, a giant of her craft, share the screen with Parvathy Thiruvothu, one of the finest actors of her generation, is enough to make a cinephile dizzy. When the gripping narrative culminates in a satisfying climax, there is reason for even greater euphoria: because here at last is a script worthy of these wonderful women who have snatched stardom from the jaws of patriarchy but deserve far more than they’ve got in India’s men-obsessed film industries.  


From the moment we first meet Anju and Leelamma, it is evident that they care for each other. Gradually though, we see that nothing is as it should be in this tharavad.   


Mainstream Indian cinema rarely explores relationships between women at length or sans  stereotyping. Jeo Baby’s The Great Indian Kitchen (2020) showcased female allyship for a change when it defied the social stereotype that daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law are forever at war. While that was just an aside in that film, albeit an important one, Ullozhukku in its entirety is devoted to a complex ammaayiyamma-marumakal bond written without pre-conceived notions.  


Anju and Leelamma’s sense of desolation is mirrored by their desolate surroundings.   


Shehnad Jalal’s exquisite panoramic views of the scenery in Ullozhukku hark back to M.J. Radhakrishnan’s glorious frames in Jayaraj’s Ottaal (2015) which, to my mind, featured arguably the best use of the camera ever in Kuttanad. When Shehnad’s lens is trained on people, he seems to shadow rather than just observe them. The effect, when teamed with Sushin Shyam’s music and Jayadevan Chakkadath and Anil Radhakrishnan’s sound design, gives the film a brooding thriller-like air, although it is more social drama than mystery.  


The quiet of the countryside belies the churn in and around this extended family. The elders among them presume the right to decide their offspring’s future. One man grants himself the right to violently subjugate an ‘errant’ woman. Society grants another the right to use her without a care for her wishes. And a seeming progressive momentarily reveals a regressive mindset. 


Ullozhukku features a disturbing scene of spousal violence, but not of the sort one is accustomed to. Physical abuse is not normalised here in the way abuse by husbands often is in mainstream Malayalam cinema (Exhibit A: Ayyappanum Koshiyum). Instead, the implication is that domestic violence is the stuff a woman’s nightmares are made of possibly because it has been her reality. Over the course of the narrative, the film also invites us to reflect on a husband’s disregard for his wife’s reluctance to have sex with him on a particular occasion.  


Christo’s script has an interesting take on the manner in which society and family lay claim to the female body, more so a pregnant woman’s body. Malayalam cinema has already engaged in depth with the pro-choice debate in Jude Anthony Joseph’s Sara’s (2021) – a theme that the rest of India’s cinemas largely avoid. Ullozhukku nudges us to ponder over maternal rights instead through characters aggressively describing a foetus to its mother as “my son’s baby” and “my child” rather than hers. Their attitude is reflected in a woman clinging creepily to the belly of an expectant mother despite the latter’s obvious discomfort at being touched in this fashion.  


For the record, Anju and Leelamma’s families are Christian, a fact that’s there for all to see but becomes a point only in a fleeting flash of sectarianism in their midst. Ullozhukku’s representation of the community is different from the cinema of Lijo Jose Pellissery and Don Palathara that are packed with Christian symbolism and customs. This spectrum of portrayals is in keeping with the normalisation of Muslims and Christians as a whole in Malayalam cinema, and a divergence from Hindi cinema’s idea of Muslims as a homogeneous bloc to be featured in scripts if their religious identity plays a part in the plot, while Christians are more or less invisible these days. Normalisation makes space for depictions of class and caste hierarchies within a minority group. In the case of Ullozhukku, the starting point of Anju’s troubles is that her parents wanted to marry her into a wealthy, reputed family, unlike theirs, irrespective of the emotional cost to her.


Because of the maturity and nuance on display almost throughout Ullozhukku, two elements stick out for suggesting that all parties here are equally culpable in the goings-on. No, they are not. Some deserve to be held to account more than others. The first instance of this balancing act is a conversation between Anju’s mother-in-law and her sister who is a nun – it is jarring but excusable. The second is Anju’s father George (Alencier Ley Lopez).  


(Minor spoilers in this paragraph) Hypocrisy can be debated. Beating a woman cannot. The glint of peace in George’s eyes as the camera rests on his face one last time in the finale is unearned. Every other individual in this saga may merit redemption, not he who assaulted his daughter. The script, however, finds another lying relative to blame for Anju’s present misery.


This absolution for a fictional man is a glaring contrast to the eagerness with which a real-life woman was convicted on screen by Christo’s true crime series, Curry and Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case (2023) on Netflix. That show was beset with loopholes and unaddressed questions, while it damned an alleged serial killer whose trial is still on in a lower court in Kerala.


The indulgence towards George in Ullozhukku parallels the long rope that the film industry has given Alencier himself for his transgressions including sexual misconduct, while women like Parvathy have faced consequences for speaking out against patriarchy and violence in the industry. Before anyone brings it up, I’ll add: no viewer is obliged to separate the art from the artist, more so when the art mirrors the artist (in this case, when a writer’s sympathy for an undeserving character mirrors society’s high tolerance levels for the wrongdoings of the actor playing that part).


Unwittingly then, the leniency shown towards a man in the script underlines Parvathy’s brilliance alongside Urvashi’s towering performance.  


It has been too long since we last saw Parvathy as a well-written lead. Anju’s trauma and anger are the pivotal ullozhukku in this film. Aided by excellent characterisation, Parvathy gives Anju a compelling interiority that pulls us along as she oscillates between kindness and deception, fear, desperation, indecision, barely controlled rage and assertiveness in rapid succession.  


In a sense, Leelamma is the most challenging role in this script because she is not always likeable but it is crucial that the audience does not outrightly reject her. In Urvashi’s hands, she becomes a person towards whom one feels anger, even irritation, yet also, empathy. Her vulnerability is a constant. Unlike George, Leelamma’s redemption is well-earned. 


Men-centric cinema routinely treats women as dispensable addendums in a world that is rightfully male. Ullozhukku’sclearly delineated supporting characters are the nth example of how women-centric cinema is never similarly dismissive of men. My reservations about Anju’s father are to do with the politics of the writing, not its rigour. The most comprehensively written man in the story is Arjun Radhakrishnan’s Rajeev. Arjun is a perfect pick to play a person who automatically invites warmth, and when he attracts disgust, is not completely diminished by it. 


Ullozhukku marks the Malayalam debut of the Hindi film major RSVP (producer Ronnie Screwvala’s company) along with Honey Trehan and Abhishek Chaubey’s MacGuffin Pictures. They have chosen well. In a year in which the biggest Malayalam blockbusters have either sidelined women or failed to acknowledge their existence, Ullozhukku – like the exceptional Aattam before it – spells hope. Powered by Urvashi, Parvathy and consistent direction, Ullozhukku is everything that is precious about the best of Malayalam cinema: naturalistic, realistic, and an illustration of how both qualities could be a source of edge-of-the-seat entertainment, contrary to conventional wisdom in commercial cinema elsewhere.  


Rating (out of 5 stars): 4   


Running time:

123 minutes 


Visuals courtesy: IMDB 


RELATED LINK: Read my column in The Economic Times on Premalu and the sidelining of women in films that claim to represent us, published on March 2, 2024