Cast: Parvathy, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli
The number three appears to have gripped Vasanth. His last feature film, Moondru Per Moondru Kaadhal, narrated three love stories set against three different geographies. In Sivaranjaniyum Innum Sila Pengalum, which had its world premiere at the Jio MAMI 20th Mumbai Film Festival with Star, the geography stays the same — the confines of a house, the confines of patriarchy — but this is still about three women, as imagined in the writings of three men (Ashokamitran, Jeyamohan, Aadhavan) and set in three time periods: 1980, 1995, 2007 to the present. (I was reminded of Sivasankari's serialised novel, Paalangal, though that was more about women across three generations).
All three episodes open with a shot of the sea. All of them feature the distinctive calls of our three major religions. Plus, each of these women – in chronological order, Saraswathi (Kalieaswari Srinivasan), Devaki (Parvathy Thiruvoth), and Sivaranjani (Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli)– gets a shot where she climbs and reaches for something in a loft or a top shelf. Vasanth leaves it to us to search for meaning. Perhaps the tides are these women, whose lives are in constant churn by external forces. Perhaps the climbing denotes aspiration, a better life. Perhaps the religious angle signals the promise of deliverance, so near yet so far.
But at least one aspect of the film's construction leaves no room for alternate readings: the home, generally considered the safest space for women, can be as dangerous as the outside. Even today. Sivaranjani's story begins in 2007 and lasts well past demonetisation. You might think the most recent story in the film would be the most progressive, or that education would ensure emancipation, but Sivaranjani — a promising athlete — is thrust into marriage while in college. A sad visual joke emerges, when a heavily pregnant Sivaranjani greets her heavily pregnant teacher. Sivaranjani's husband, Hari (Karthick Krishna), has her under his thumb, and her mother-in-law keeps whining about her cooking. (There are subtle links between the three stories — in the first one, the old woman next door praises Saraswathi's cooking.) Sivaranjiniyum doesn't make the mistake of painting all women with the same brush. Some of them are sensitive. Some, like Hari's mother, have bought into the patriarchy that surrounds them like air.
Here's another link between the stories of Saraswathi and Sivaranjani: these women have children (a girl each), but the husband is the real child in the house. If Hari asks Sivaranjani to fetch his glasses, his towel, his tiffin, Chandran (Karunakaran) stands outside their locked house, leaving Saraswathi to fumble for the keys, one hand holding the child on her hip, the other rifling through her bag. Hari is churlish about letting Sivaranjani go home to meet her parents. Chandran wolfs down dinner without noticing that there's very little food left for Saraswathi. Are all men like this? Couldn't the film have found space for one nurturing man? We seem to get one in the second episode, set in 1995, where Devaki drives a scooter and her husband, Mani (Sundar Ramu), is content to ride pillion – but he, too, inhales the air around him and changes. The story ends with three males on a bike.
The Vasanth we know from his mainstream movies is a very different man: a maker of pleasant, middlebrow dramas about the middle class. But in Visaranai Commission, his 2009 telefilm, a very different director emerged. Unshackled from commercial constraints, he exhibited a hitherto unsuspected interest in form. He let shots play out in real time. The framing (like in the procession scene, where people were blurred out) was more deliberate. This is the Vasanth we see in Sivaranjiniyum, where Sreekar Prasad's elegant segues function as ellipses. (After Saraswathi files a report at the police station, we move to a shot of her grown-up daughter. A single cut leaps across time and a complicated series of emotions.)
I sat up during the long take, early on, that shows Saraswathi walking behind Chandran, trying to keep up. (The first two stories are shot by Ravi Shankaran.) It's more than just about the logistical mechanics of a tracking shot. It lays the foundations of the characterisation that drives the story. Later, note the framing of Chandran as he sleeps, stretched from one end of the screen to the other, as Saraswathi is reduced to a doll-sized prop behind him. In Sivaranjani's story (shot by NK Ekhambaram), a continuous shot shows her going about her exhausting morning routine. It plays like the domestic equivalent of a tightrope walk across two skyscrapers. When she sank into a chair, afterwards, the audience applauded. (A similar set of chores is performed by Saraswathi, too, further linking these two episodes.)
The deep lensing in Devaki's episode turns her large house (a contrast to Sivaranjani's claustrophobic living quarters) into an urban nightmare — there's the illusion of personal space, but it's just that, an illusion. My favourite shot, though, is that of Sivaranjani in the godown of her college, surrounded by forgotten trophies and other memorabilia. Painted in delicate shades of light and dark, she looks like she's been forgotten, too. The mainstreamy touches are minimal, maybe in the use of 'Dheemthana', from Vasanth's Rhythm, or in the scene where Devaki wonders why women always end up standing next to their seated husbands in wedding pictures. (It's too insistent a line). Otherwise, we see Saraswathi sitting in her husband's chair, transformed from the quivering creature she was earlier. We now sense in her a quiet confidence. That's all. And that's enough.
It hardly needs stating that the actresses outshine the actors. (All of them are superb, but a special shout-out to Kalieaswari Srinivasan, who strips away the inherent melodrama in the part with a series of exquisitely timed gestures.) Which episode is the best? I found the one with Sivaranjani — good though it is — the weakest. The closure is too tidy. It's too much of an "ending". We catch a whiff of this tidiness in Saraswathi's story, too — she borrows an appalam from her neighbour, and she ends up working in an appalam-making unit. But the rest of her story is a fascinating study in psychology. Devaki's episode is far and away the finest. The story is "seen" through her young nephew, whom we follow in and out of and around the house. This (young) male perspective deepens the female-oriented story, because of the boy's age. This episode contains the worst kind of heartbreak. Devaki ends up betrayed by the males she trusted the most. If you think that sounds melodramatic, mainstreamy, relax. The last shot of Devaki is as casual as drinking a cup of tea. Like her compatriots in the other stories, she's saying: This, too, shall pass.