Iratta Is A Grim Marriage Of Greek Tragedy And Film Noir

With Iratta, one might be tempted to think of South Korean neo noir Oldboy, but the Malayalm film has circled back to one of the oldest dramas in human history — Oedipus Rex
Iratta Is A Grim Marriage Of Greek Tragedy And Film Noir

“Am I all evil then? It must be so…

If I was created so, born to this fate, 

Who could deny the savagery of God?”

-Oedipus Rex, Sophocles (429 BC)

When Iratta opens, Deputy Superintendent of Police, Pramod (Joju George) is in the hospital, recovering from a panic attack, attempting, like several noir protagonists before him, to repair his relationship with his estranged wife over a phone call. When he gets an urgent call from the police station, in a surreal sequence, he walks in and looks at himself laying on the floor, shot dead. This is, of course, his twin brother, Vinod, but the cinematic implications are unmistakable — this literal death of his double prefigures the figurative death of Pramod himself.

The film is a grim tale of the twins, both policemen, framed as a whodunit. Separated as children, one of them, brought up by his mother, turns into an upstanding cop, albeit with a broken personal life: an estranged wife and a daughter who doesn’t know about the existence of her father. The other, brought up for a brief while by an abusive monster of a father, turns into something of a brute. But this is no Deewar (1975).

While investigating his brother’s death, Pramod learns something unnerving: that his brother raped a teenage girl, abusing his authority as a cop. Piecemeal, we learn about the history of the twins, how their father’s physical abuse and infidelity forced their mother out of the house and split up the twins, with the father carrying Vinod away with him. Significantly, we learn that the father was a sexual predator who preyed on underage girls, an act for which he is ultimately killed. The revelations about the father contextualize two events — Pramod’s own abusive behaviour which led to his wife abandoning him, and Vinod’s sexual violence. The twins are thus circumscribed by the father, blood-bound, not just to each other, but to the sins of the father.

But then, something interesting happens—we see Vinod falling in love. When he first lays eyes on Malini, she comes into the police station to escape her abusive husband. He looks at her lasciviously, grooms himself in the mirror, asks to be appointed to her case, apprehends her husband, and then asks her to move in with him. When she does, he tries to coerce her into sleeping with him, but she resists and leaves. He searches the town for her, finds her, and then promises her that he will never try it again. 

Here, the film deliberately transports us into contentious territory—it seeks to humanize Vinod, who we know has committed a monstrous act;  It forces us to evaluate him as a victim of his circumstances and his upbringing—a person who is capable of being something other than what he is. How justified is the film in doing this? Is this semi-redemption only possible in a story written from a fundamentally male perspective?  Iratta provokes us to ask these questions of itself, and ourselves, pushing us beyond our instantaneous moral revulsion at his acts.

In the final moments of the film, we learn that Vinod’s death wasn’t a murder, but a suicide — an act he commits when he realises that the teenage girl he raped was Pramod’s estranged daughter. Here too, within the most disturbing revelation, there is an element of humanity — Vinod, who we so far have been told hates Pramod, commits this act out of contrition for having harmed him and his daughter. One might be tempted to think of Oldboy (2003), but Iratta has circled back to one of the oldest dramas in human history — Oedipus Rex. 

Like Iratta, Oedipus Rex starts off as a mystery — Oedipus, King of Thebes makes enquiries into why his city is cursed with a plague, only to realise that he has inadvertently married his own mother and murdered his father before assuming kingship. In despair, Oedipus gouges out his eyes with gold pins. Like Oedipus, Vinod doesn’t know who the victim of his crimes is; but unlike him, he was fully aware that he was committing a heinous act. However, similar to Oedipus’ questioning of fate, the film urges us to see Vinod at least partly as a product of his circumstances, a man who has learned from his father to communicate with women only through violence and coercion. The signature element of Greek Tragedy is the fatal flaw of the hero that leads to his downfall — Vinod’s is his inability to exorcize his father from his soul in time. When redemption comes in the form of Malini, it is already too late.

A still from Oldboy
A still from Oldboy

Both Greek Tragedy and Film noir are nostalgic for an irretrievable past, a past in which the protagonist knows little about the murkiness in his future, a past from which he (it is often a he) falls like Lucifer from heaven. This past is not one that is materially ideal (or ideal for anyone other than the protagonist), only one in which the protagonist is protected from the knowledge of sin, from the knowledge of the cruelty of fate. In Iratta, both Pramod and Vinod are wrenched from this oasis of blissful ignorance by the horrific knowledge that their father has lived on within them, perpetuating destruction through them. There is something haunting about it, as there is in essential neo-noirs like Chinatown (1974) — a suggestion that the wheels of violence and cruelty continue to spin inevitably, even when they are out of sight. 

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