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Southern Lights: A Reliably Unreliable Narrator

A look back at a scene from Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s ‘Anantaram’, which turned thirty this year

Baradwaj RanganBaradwaj Rangan

November 23, 2017 | 01:11 PM

Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Ashokan, The Catcher in the Rye, Mammooty, Oedipus Complex, shobana, fc south, film companion, southern lights, baradwaj rangan,

About the genesis of Anantaram (Thereafter), Adoor Gopalakrishnan had this to say: “When my wife was pregnant with our daughter, she came back from the hospital and told me this story of a child who was abandoned in the hospital and later adopted by one of the doctors there. That was the spark.” The film, thus, opens with a wailing infant – though the voice over this visual is a man’s (Ashokan). He introduces himself: “My name is Ajayan. I am also known as Ajaya Kumar. Neither my father nor mother gave me this name. I have no father and mother. Perhaps the woman who gave birth to me paid a price for my birth. She unburdened her shame in the labour room of this hospital and escaped into anonymity.”

Anantaram (whose English title is ‘Monologue’, which is what we hear from Ajayan) does begin with the anecdote the director heard from his wife – and builds into an affecting meditation on a man who attempts to explain himself with two stories. The film builds the first story, stops, then starts the second story from scratch – it’s a stunning formal experiment, the equivalent of starting to read The Catcher in the Rye (to take another first-person narrative with an unreliable narrator), reaching the point where, say, Holden Caulfield is talking about being in a room with a sex worker, and then resetting the clock, with Caulfield narrating a different (yet complementary) story about himself.

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Both of Ajayan’s stories revolve around a woman (played by Shobana). In the first, she is Suma, the wife of the foster brother (Mammooty) he regards as a father-figure. (Somewhere, Freudians are stroking their beards and turning to the page on Oedipus Complex.) Ajayan can’t take being around Suma anymore, so he decides to move to his college hostel. After bidding his brother goodbye, he goes to Suma’s room to take his leave. The music on the soundtrack can only be described as emotional, violins and flutes underlining the churn of his heart. Suma asks if she is the reason Ajayan is leaving. By way of a reply, he asks her to extend her hand. The soundtrack goes silent. He buries his face in her palm, as though kissing her, inhaling her very essence. She draws back, shocked. He leaves.

The next scene is what I wanted to talk about, really – it’s my favourite scene in the film, about a letter read out as (what else?) a “monologue.” (Though we are going to try and “explain” the scene, it’s a beautiful instance of what Adoor Gopalakrishnan said: “After seeing a worthwhile film, it is not the visual details that we carry with us, but its inexplicable impact.”) From his desk in the hostel, as the camera zooms in, Ajayan reads: “My dear brother, Forgive me. I don’t wish to hide anything from you. What use will it be to do so? I don’t know how to say it. I cannot forget the look of her. I cannot forget her eyes. However much I resist, her presence haunts my mind. The more I struggle, the more she stays with me. However much I fight it, my love for her grows stronger.”

“This letter could have been written to her, ignoring the respect one owes a brother’s wife. But would that do any good? You are the one who should know about this. It’s like I’m burning all over, with forbidden passion. I long for you to be cruel to me. Why did you shower your love on me? Why make me feel so guilty? No, I cannot forgive you. I hate you.” By now, the camera has zoomed in to a close-up of the letter, which doesn’t seem to be a letter at all – it’s just a blank sheet of paper. And yet, in the next scene, Suma is weeping. “What wrong have I done?” she asks her husband. He says “Let me read it again. It can’t be from Ajayan.”

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And then we get the twist. We return to the hostel, to Ajayan at his desk. Only, this time, the camera is zooming out from the letter. It’s another instance of how unreliable a narrator Ajayan is. He continues his monologue: “Had I written such a letter, I know what the consequences would be. But I could not write even a single line.” There’s a knock at the door. It’s Ajayan’s brother. He’s annoyed that he hasn’t heard from Ajayan in a while. “What is this?” he says. “Don’t you have time for even a letter?” If only he knew.

It’s interesting how the director “explained” the film. “Everything is ambivalent about [Ajayan’s] upbringing. The doctor whom he calls his father is not his real father... His brother is not his real brother, but like one. There is a certain duality about his perceptions... As soon as we start making sense of reality, it turns into something else... Cinema is after all a series of frames and the reality within them. But then there is a reality outside it as well. Which one is real, the one within the frame or outside of it? When the camera changes angles, lenses, or alters positions, the frame also changes. So here the reality is altered, qualified or even negated... The film, in fact, is a more organized dream made up by the conscious mind.”

Watch Adoor: A Journey In Frames here: