Movie Review: Nayee Neralu

Intriguing shadows

Print edition : September 08, 2006

Pavitra Lokesh as Venkatalakshmi.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT Photo: BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Girish KasaravallI. He captures the essence of the Kannada novel. - V. SREENIVASA MURTHY Photo: V. SREENIVASA MURTHY

At the centre of Girish Kasaravalli's Nayee Neralu is the character of Venkatalaxmi, who uses a superstitious belief to subvert tradition. (Published in the issue dated September 8, 2006.)

METAPHORICAL meanings cast intriguing shadows on a period film that is impeccably researched, sensuously imaged and richly nuanced. Girish Kasaravalli's enthralling new film Nayee Neralu (In the Shadow of the Dog) allows meanings to emerge out of the interplay between people, their precise location in a culture-specific time and space, hinting at inchoate feelings under the seemingly tranquil surface. Even as Nayee Neralu leaves one replete with the satisfaction a complex story told with superb craftsmanship can give, there follows a disquieting aftermath as imponderable questions continue to haunt.

Foremost among these is the fate of the protagonist Venkatalaxmi - a widow who is forced by circumstances and her own dormant sexuality to co-habit with Vishva, a younger man who is believed to be her husband's reincarnation. Linked to this is her benevolent father-in-law's mindset that is torn between scepticism and loyalty to his frail wife Nagalaxmi's need to believe that her son has come back in another form. Rajalaxmi, Venkatalaxmi's teenaged daughter studying in Mysore, is so appalled and angered by the turn of events that she takes recourse to legal action to prove Vishva an impostor. Three generations of women represent three attitudes - faith, ambiguity and rationality - but they are also three individuals driven by their own unique needs.

Nayee Neralu sidesteps the predictable dialectics of faith versus reason, tradition versus modernity. Instead, what Kasaravalli evokes is a complex web of emotional need and societal pressure, of human vulnerability and strength working their way through the overarching forces of philosophical beliefs, the implacable weight of orthodoxy and the slowly grinding wheels of social change. As one absorbs the lingering impact of all these seen and unseen factors influencing the course of action, the symbiotic relationship between literature and cinema surfaces again.

In an age of quickly devoured and as quickly forgotten airport fiction, here is a rare film that makes you want to read the original novel - preferably in Kannada. Having read a couple of Dr. K.L Bhyrappa's (he has a Master's in philosophy and a Ph.D in Aesthetics) other novels, I come away with an intangible sense that Kasaravalli has captured the essence of the book - its psychological truths, intellectual questions and moral dilemmas - through a quiet mastery of the cinematic language. This formidable writer delves into the interplay of individual psychology, societal forces and philosophical ideas to create compulsive narratives rich in subtexts. Bhyrappa challenges a film-maker to match his range of complexity. Kasaravalli is more than equal to the challenge. Gone is the didactic (even if well-meant) tone of the earnest Haseena. He has regained the subtleties of ambiguity in Nayee Neralu, something that was absent in Haseena.

This raises an interesting question: Is Kasaravalli more at home in a period setting where he can unobtrusively insert contemporary relevance while we are lulled by evocative details and artfully recreated ambience? True, if we think of Thayee Saheb, Ghatashraddha and Tabarana Kathe (to an extent). The vastly underrated Kraurya - a clinically unsparing study of lonely old age - and parts of the unevenly realised Mane reveal a director who can confront contemporary themes head on. In Dweepa, Kasaravalli shows how the tide of change (a dam that will submerge the ancestral homes of people stranded by `development') that has overwhelmed a traditional society, has made islands of individuals and isolated them from each other and from an ethos that had long nurtured this society. Dweepa squarely poses the unanswerable question: Does the wider good of the many have to be at the expense of the few?

The individual is at the centre of Kasaravalli's world; it is his abiding preoccupation. He admitted in an interview (Mumbai's Third Eye festival screened Dweepa after it won the Swarna Kamal): "In fact, even in my earlier films, this isolation, some kind of alienation from one's surroundings, has been coming back again and again. It is not a conscious decision though." Nayee Neralu's Venkatalaxmi (Pavitra Lokesh) is one such individual uprooted from her old surroundings.

The lot of a youngish widow in an orthodox Brahmin village (of the 1940s) is no bed of roses but at least it does not throw up surprises as long as the woman conforms to customary regimen: shaven head, no food at night, sleeping on a hard bed. Her in-laws, Achchannaiah (Sringeri Ramanna) and Nagalaxmi (Rameshwari Verma), are kind, even compassionate. Achchannaiah is a thoughtful man, heard out in respectful silence by the village panchayat. He is a doting grandfather to Rajalaxmi (Apurva Kasaravalli) and wants her to be educated. It is almost as if he wants her to replace his only son who had died young.

Incidentally, Kasaravalli has changed the novel's grandson to a feisty grand-daughter to underline the feminist theme. Rajalaxmi hates it when her mother's head is shaved and wants to stop the degrading practice but Venkatalxmi knows that her old mother-in-law will not even let her enter the kitchen if she goes against orthodoxy.

Achchannaiah is driven by curiosity and finally gives in to the badgering of a friend to visit a small town in northern Karnataka where a young man called Vishva reportedly talks of his previous birth as Achchannaiah's son. Vishva (Ashwin Bolar) lives with a cousin who sees an opportunity in the reincarnation story to lay claim to Achchannaiah's considerable property. Something - a whim, perhaps a need to test the claim or maybe offer some solace to his heartbroken wife - makes him bring Vishva home for a visit. The supposedly brief visit becomes permanent, in no small measure owing to Vishva's ingratiating ways and Nagalaxmi's utter conviction that he indeed is her son. Venkatalaxmi is repulsed and afraid, so she keeps out of Vishva's sight. The small, close-knit community is all agog and there is a hint of speculation as to how Venkatalaxmi might respond to this improbable (but not impossible, goes the consensus) situation.

Kasaravalli captures this interplay with expected acuity and unexpected humour, building up to the inevitable meeting/confrontation between Vishva's overtly displayed masculinity and Venkatalaxmi's repressed emotions. The unlikely catalyst is Nagalaxmi, who begs, wheedles and cajoles Ventakalaxmi into wearing a brightly coloured blouse and sari, bangles and kum kum just once so that Vishva does not have to see her in the inauspicious widow's garb. The scene between the women, seated apart and the old woman sliding closer to Venkatalaxmi as she pushes the sari along the ground, is played out like a slow, mesmerising dance ending with the widow's capitulation.

Then begins the elaborate dance of courtship between a pair yoked by strange circumstance - of advance and retreat - in a variety of settings: a glimpse through a window of the lovely old house (a pleasure guaranteed in a Kasaravalli film where architecture almost takes on a dramatic persona), a languid walk through the lush greenery outside. It is the sudden assault by a swarm of bees (from a hive that Vishva disturbs) that catalyses the physical contact. Venkatalaxmi's transformation is amazingly swift. One by one, she discards the outward symbols of widowhood. She sends the barber away, wears kum kum, lovingly takes out the old saris stored away in a trunk. The old couple watches in consternation but all Nagalaxmi can do is to protest feebly and bar the erring daughter-in-law from the kitchen.

Kasaravalli accelerates the pace from this point, juxtaposing the shocked reaction of the village elders with Venkatalaxmi's continued defiance, Rajalaxmi's shock and Vishva's insouciance. There is no place for this unlikely couple in the village and Achchannaiah escorts them to a friend's property further south. The film captures the splendid variety of landscape in loving, differentiating detail.

Now begins yet another chapter of travails in Venkatalaxmi's tumultuous life. She sees - and accepts as inevitable - Vishva's roving eye that has settled on the charms of the ferryman's nubile daughter. Vishva has no sense of responsibility expected of a husband and soon-to-be father. He is behind bars because Rajalaxmi's lawyer manipulates a charge of molestation against him. The incarceration changes Vishva, but not into assuming responsibility for his `wife' and little daughter. Rajalaxmi extends a hand of reconciliation to her estranged mother and picks up her little sister Bharathi.

It is the time of the freedom movement and Venkatalaxmi has made a gesture of breaking the family tradition, at least in the matter of name. Will the change of name bring a change of identity, for herself and this new child? Kasaravalli suggests that she is on the brink of independence, however uncertain. She is also located beside a river, a symbol of continuity and probable journeys. Nayee Neralu is deliberately open-ended, leaving us with questions of negotiating with a traditional society for individual space.

Kasaravalli once spoke of the resilient quality of the women in his films: they do not break down. "They don't even have some great, romanticised vision of themselves. They are very practical and without making any compromises, they adjust. It's a kind of negotiation they make with the circumstances." He said this in the context of Dweepa but it is true of Nayee Neralu too. Here, the uncompromising individual is answerable for her own deeds. This is the dog's shadow of the title, a reference to the dog (which symbolically represents the individual's good and bad deeds) which is the only being that follows Yudhishtira till the end in the Swargarohana Parva (Ascent to Heaven episode) of Mahabharata.

Allied to this mythic invocation is Kasaravalli's concern to reclaim the subversive strain that works in subterranean ways under a seemingly change-resistant orthodoxy. He is wary of Western writers who "always picturised India and other Oriental countries as the society without resistance. According to them, in traditional societies people accepted the diktats without questioning. But post-colonial studies and the writings of Ashish Nandy and D.R. Nagaraj disputed this and showed with examples various other modes of circumventing the strictures which these Western writers failed to notice. According to D.R. Nagaraj, our myths and folklore is full of such subversion. Here in this film Venkatalaxmi uses the belief of society to achieve all that was denied to her."

So goes the director's note. The critic's job is to examine if the film realises the stated objective.

Nayee Neralu adds a touch of ambiguity to Venkatalaxmi's subversion of orthodoxy. The film's mise en scene works its own magic to imbue Venkatalaxmi's fate with uncertainty, subverts in a way her feminist assertiveness with the vulnerability of waiting indefinitely for an unreliable man. Instead of diminishing the film's overall impact - with notable contributions from S. Ramachandra Aithal's marvellous cinematography, Ramesh Desai's impeccable art direction and the mastery of three Kannada dialects spoken in the three different areas of Karnataka - this note of stoic (but not resigned, there is a difference) waiting makes Venkatalaxmi a believable character. Heroism lies in scaling down to everyday reality, not holding up implausible banners of cardboard radicalism.

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