Adoor Gopalakrishnan is, above all, a social crusader whose cinema since 1972 has critically explored the concerns of his native community. Except for his 1993 Vidheyan -- which was set in Karnataka, though very close to the State’s border with Gopalakrishnan’s Kerala -- all his films have been shot in God’s Own Country. However, even this country is not without its blemishes, and Gopalakrishnan has been bold enough to talk about these, to analyse them with the critical eye of a master.
His latest outing, the 12th feature, Pinneyum (Once Again) -- which opened on August 18/19 -- takes us back to the 2000 era in Kerala, which was beginning to see the ugly face of consumerism. It was a time when Kerala’s Gulf boom was on with just about every other household having at least one member of its family on the deserts of Arabia. It was not uncommon to see Malayalees flush with money, which they liberally used to shower themselves with all kinds of goodies. Huge, garishly painted bungalow standing rather forlornly bang in the midst of paddy fields was a common sight! Towns brightened up with men and women sporting expensive clothes, and driving around in the fanciest of cars. These jalopies were insanely priced.
And those who did not have these aspired, often desperately, to up their status with Gulf money by chasing sometimes almost impossible dreams.
The Nair family in Pinneyum also has its aspirations -- only that in this case they stoke the fire of avarice. The family comprises a retired school-master, Pappu Pillai (played with a touch of brilliance, as ever, by Nedumudi Venu), his rather sickly son, Kuttan (another great performer, Indrans), daughter Devi (Kavya Madhavan, a fine piece of acting here), her husband, Purushotaman (a controlled Dileep) and their little daughter, Revathy (who grows up to be newcomer Meera Nalloor). And there is also Devi’s maternal uncle, Kuttan Pillai (another riveting performance by Vijayaraghavan).
The Nairs’ dream begins on a low key. Pappu wants his son-in-law, Purushotaman -- who lives with him --- to find a job, which he has not been able to in many years, with the family depending largely on Devi’s salary from her teaching assignment in a local school. Purushotaman is the butt of ridicule. His father-in-law and Devi’s uncle never let go a chance to criticise him -- the exceptions being his wife and her brother. And while “ghar-jamai” Purushotaman punctuates his time between job interviews by devouring the works of Agatha Christie and Arthur Conan Doyle, Gopalakrishnan drops a hint here of the menacingly dark clouds which are gathering on the horizon.
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When Purushotaman finally clinches an opportunity in Dubai, the family is deliriously happy, and his frequent visits home bring in a lot of joy -- and envy. Neighbours and long forgotten relatives begin to troop into the Nair household seeking favours. And the Nairs themselves begin to feel their feet going off the ground. Their needs multiply, their wants even more so.
Till a time comes when Purushotaman, Pappu and Uncle Kuttan plan an insurance fraud. Devi is not happy with the idea, while her brother, Kuttan, is kept well out of this devious plot, which involves a murder.
Unfortunately, the murder goes wrong, and the beggar whom the three men had planned to kill and pass his body off as Purushotaman’s (which will enable his wife to claim the huge insurance money) escapes. In their desperate hurry to execute their plan, the three men get hold of a bystander on the road, who asks them for a car lift.
Some of the marvels of Gopalakrishnan’s work have been his disarming narrative simplicity even when he is tackling the loftiest of social issues. We saw the degeneration of landed gentry in Kerala through Elippathayam (Rat-Trap). We have seen the misuse of political ideology in Mukhamukham (Face-to-Face). We witnessed sheer abuse of power and brute force in Vidheyan (Servile, Adoor’s most violent movie). Probably in a first ever in cinema, Gopalakrishnan traced the guilt of a hangman, a royal servant in the state of Travancore, in pre-independent India.
In fact, each of his 12 films has been a fascinating study of Kerala’s social order, of the community’s pride and prejudices and of the way societal transformations happened and marred relationships. The effects of these on the ordinary man and woman have been examined with touching sensitivity.
Pinneyum is not different, and one is shocked at the way the Nairs turn into ruthless killers from the simple god-fearing people that they were -- kind and considerate and compassionate. So much so that when one watches that crucial scene in the movie, one is shocked into a state of disbelief.
Gopalakrishnan has this ability to let the river run its placid course before pushing the waters into a swirling, monstrous form. We never, for a moment, imagined that Mammootty’s Bhaskara Patelar would end up throttling his loving wife, Saroja (Tanvi Azmi). We could not have had had an inkling that Sreedharan (enacted by P Gangadharan Nair), once a great community hero to his comrades, would meet such a ghastly end, orchestrated by his own men.
Similarly, could we have even imagined that the unassuming, simple Nair folks in Pinneyum would turn into an epitome of evil --and all for furthering their materialistic pleasures!