Fight against patriarchy

G. Prabha’s Sanskrit film Ishti pits the feminine spirit against patriarchy while weaving a riveting tale of transformation within the Namboodiri community.

Published : Sep 14, 2016 12:30 IST

A still from the film.

A still from the film.

The slow fire for the yagna that sparks to life at the beginning of the film is a symbolic synopsis of things to come. The pace, the spark and the purpose are all indicative of what we are about to witness. And the friction takes its own sweet time to achieve ignition.

G. Prabha’s Ishti in Sanskrit tells the story of Ramavikraman Namboodiri, much-married head of the family, who yearns to be spiritually elevated at the expense of everything else, including his family’s survival. When realisation dawns, and then the will to act upon it, his family members leave or rebel. The threads come loose, tearing apart the rigid traditional fabric. It is a story that rides on the simmering discontent that grew into a movement within the Namboodiri community in mid 20th century Kerala.

Interestingly, the intellectual stimulation and impatient push for change that soon reached the inner rooms and pulled out cloistered women to join the fight for equal participation came mostly from within the community. Thus, the film, while talking of one family’s struggle, tells the story of the movement.

Ishti is a film that is seriously relevant today. We are in the grip of a grim construction industry busily building edifice, wall and prison around and about us to restrict us from living life as we see fit. This industry is widespread, tilted in favour of a few, and includes governments, religious groups, communities, friends and family. The perpetrators include the physically and financially strong as well as those that tradition has deemed superior, as it is in the case of Ishti . The sparks, generated by friction, depicted in the film are just as necessary for us today. That is the main reason Ishti should be watched. Not merely because it is made in Sanskrit, which is its apparent USP.

Though shocking in its individual manifestations, the awakening in Namboodiri Kerala was less of a flagrant revolution than a slow burning that kindled thought and began to break edifices. V.T. Bhattathiripad’s clarion call to women to vacate the kitchen and enter the arena came as a timely thrust in the wake of the country’s freedom struggle and the self-realisation regarding egalitarianism. Pamphlets, magazine articles, speeches and robust theatre spread the message. Men and women within the community who had been deliberately left illiterate were made aware of what they were missing.

The film illuminates the reach and result of this call. It is the feminine spirit, kept under tight control, that is responsible, in many shades, for the new force unleashed in this particular family. The younger brother loses his son and the respect of his concubine before he says enough is enough, engineering the first open conflict in the family. The young girl who teases Ramavikraman Namboodiri’s illiterate son provokes the boy to think seriously about his condition and make amends.

His young stepmother who actually initiates him into action and the old Namboodiri’s young daughter who turns around in a dimly lit room to unwittingly teach the old man a shocking, sobering lesson are indicators of growing enlightenment.

When the stepmother assists the young girl in her first step out of illiteracy, she is handing her a baton. This becomes clear in the closing minutes of the film when the former walks out of the house and the latter watches her leave from an upstairs window, ingesting yet another life lesson.

Every antagonist requires an opposite to enable his reformation. In this case, patriarchy runs into the feminine spirit.

But it would be simplistic to say that the difficulties in a patriarchal society are measured in terms of being man or woman. The older women in the household labour equally hard to maintain the feudal, sexist status quo. The men on the lower rungs have enough reasons to rebel against it. The feudal hierarchy is cleverly and methodically constructed to perpetuate the arrogation of power at a delegated, traditional place—a taken-for-granted apex point that controls everything.

Ramavikraman Namboodiri, being the eldest brother, can marry a Namboodiri woman and have children to continue the line. His younger brothers can only have concubines and visiting rights at the homes of women of lower caste. Thus, when the younger brother asks his eldest brother for money to treat his dying son, he realises there is no scope for such a request in their lopsided system. His son isn’t a son of the family. Physical satisfaction is all that younger brothers should expect from their women, not propagation of the family. Abandoned thus, his child dies without treatment and his woman turns bitter.

The younger brother realises that there is no place for him in the illam (homestead). Ramavikraman Namboodiri is obsessed with his own spiritual progress and is willing to run the household to the ground to achieve it.

In a calm but deeply felt scene just before the interval, the younger brother does away with the symbols of his Brahminhood and begins his journey out of captivity. Disgusted and miserable, mourning his son’s death, he walks out of the illam , slicing off his tuft and discarding his sacred thread.

He is representative of a generation of youngsters grabbing at the chance to fashion a brave new world to savour the spirit of awakening lighting up the land.

Consider now this scholarly, closeted community that interprets the religious rules of the land. The eldest male can marry any number of times: for variety, for pride, for progeny, and even for dowry.

With only the eldest male licensed to marry, the fallouts are on expected lines: a line of frustrated younger brothers with no family and no stability. Another line of unmarried young girls. And the girls who do get married are fodder to the lust and greed of old husbands and, soon enough, end up as widows. Married to elderly men past their prowess, these young girls stepping out into life find themselves in the company of co-wives, each more frustrated than the next.

The system is terrifyingly simple, with no room at all for negotiation. It makes disobedience all the more deadly. And weakens everything, including the man at the apex point. In the present case, the head of the family is ruined in many ways by his own compulsive desire to be the best. Picture a stubborn old man clinging on to his little hillock of a fiefdom which is being steadily eroded by the new waves lapping at its previously impervious sanctity.

Ramavikraman Namboodiri is a scholar and a priest. He has conducted the Somayaga and earned the title of Somayajippad. The expense of the yagna has taken a toll on the family exchequer. To raise more money, he marries a third time.

His new bride, Sreedevi, is 17 to his 71, and is more educated than other women in the house. She is more educated than his son from his first marriage, Raman, who can recite Vedic hymns by rote but cannot read or write.

Ramavikraman Namboodiri is right. When education insinuates itself into a well-organised and intellectually cleansed household like his, it can only result in chaos. And that is exactly what happens. Sreedevi shows interest in Raman’s craftsmanship as he chisels Kathakali masks and musical instruments. They discuss books. They discover they are kindred spirits, both suffocating in the confines of a sanitised household. They kindle each other’s interest in the world outside. Their constant conversation is misconstrued as an illicit, incestuous bonding, and soon the “community” comes to know of it too. Ramavikraman Namboodiri agrees to make amends and atone for the “sin”. Raman rebels and shouts at the community members, insisting that no sin has been committed. Ramavikraman Namboodiri asks his son to leave the house, which he does. Sreedevi then rebels, breaking off her thali and walking out, discarding the symbols of “protection” as she leaves. Hers is the third rebellion in the film.

For all this rebellion, G. Prabha’s film is, for the most part, slow, poetic and brooding. There is less immediate theatricality and more that can be chewed upon once the viewer goes home and reflects on the film. Coming in the tradition of Malayalam films like Hariharan’s Parinayam (written by M.T. Vasudevan Nair) and Shyamaprasad’s Agnisakshi (based on Lalithambika Antharjanam’s novel), which spiralled themselves to dramatic emotional climaxes, Ishti handles its burden far more lightly, leaving viewers to handle its message on their own terms.

Prabha is assisted in weaving this poetry by the remarkable cinematography of B. Lenin. He captures the dense darkness of night, the sombre reflectiveness of a traditional, ritual-bound household and the claustrophobia of the namboodiri illam , absorbing the spirit without sacrificing detail or nuance.

The background score is mostly restrained and helps magnify the depth of silences. Some of the night scenes, punctuated by the barking of dogs and enhancing the loneliness of the illam ’s inmates, are brilliantly crafted.

Nedumudi Venu as Somayaji Ramavikraman Namboodiri lives the role. Athira Patel lights a sensitive new spark with her Sreedevi. Anoop Krishnan as Raman is brooding, jumpy and intense. All the others in the cast lend adequate support.

The reason for making the film in Sanskrit escapes me, unless it is to propagate a loved language the maker had once taught. It sounds quaint at times and rather laboured in a few places, but it does add a touch of classicism that ultimately enriches the ambience.

Shreekumar Varma is a novelist, poet and award-winning playwright. His novels include Lament of Mohini (Penguin) and Maria’s Room (HarperCollins). He is a recipient of the R.K. Narayan Award and the Charles Wallace Fellowship. His website:


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