In Kattathe Kilikkoodu (1983), a Kerala State Award winning film, 'Shakespeare' Krishnapilla, a respected English professor, walks out of his idyllic marriage, leaving a doting wife and four children behind. In Mattoral (1988), a critically-acclaimed film that came out five years later, Susheela, an unhappy housewife, flees her dysfunctional marriage, leaving a distant husband and two children behind.
The two films came out within a few years of each other and were expertly handled by acclaimed directors Bharathan and K.G.George respectively. Both portray upper middle class, nuclear families that are blown apart by forces internal and external. But the treatment of each and the consequences for the straying spouses and the people in their lives, are dramatically different.
At first glance, you may think that Susheela in Mattoral (played by Seema) has ample reason to want an escape. From the first scene in the film, the silence in the house speaks volumes. Kaimal (Karamana Janardanan Nair), Susheela's husband, is a senior government official getting ready for work. Susheela moves in and out of the scene, handing him towels, laying out his clothes, and preparing his breakfast. For a full four minutes, until he gets into his car and drives away, they do not exchange a word or even look each other in the eye. Yet, you instinctively know this is not because of a lover's spat. This is how everyday life is in Susheela's household.
In contrast, Professor Krishnapilla (played by Bharat Gopy, who won Best Actor for this role) inhabits a home full of companionable noise and chaos. He, his wife Sharada (Sreevidya), and four children, all sleep on the same bed in a cozy tangle of arms and legs. It is every bit a kilikkoodu (bird's nest) as the title suggests. Here too, the wife brings him tea and towels, but there is playful banter and genuine affection between them.
Over the next hour, both movies slowly unravel the events that lead to the betrayal. In Mattoral, the claustrophobia of Susheela's life becomes evident with the arrival of a younger couple, Balan and Veni (played by Mammootty and Urvashi). Balan is an old friend of Kaimal's and they have presumably worked together. Unlike Kaimal, Balan is a liberal. He and Veni lead independent lives and he actively encourages her to find work and go out.
Veni is a free spirit and soon finds a job at an ad agency run by Mahesh (Murali). In a telling scene, she comes looking for Susheela to borrow some money. "I want to get some new clothes for my new job and I don't want to ask Balan. I'll pay you back when I get my salary." Susheela is embarrassed by Veni's presumption that she will have any money of her own. Squatting in the backyard washing clothes, she has to confess to the young, well-dressed Veni that all money matters are handled by Kaimal. Once upon a time, she too had wanted to work but Kaimal had not approved. "Veni parakkukayanallo!" Susheela says wistfully. "Yes, I like to fly. I have got wings!" Veni exclaims, caught up in the excitement of her life, and skips out of Susheela's.
The next thing we know, Kaimal is coming back to an empty house and despondent children who don't know where their mother is. At first bewildered, then angry, Kaimal goes out on an aimless search. Later that night, when he is sitting in the semi-darkness with Balan, a boy comes bearing a message from Susheela. She has left Kaimal and eloped with Giri, a local mechanic. She will not be coming back.
The viewer is as stunned as Kaimal is. Until this point, even when we are shown how stifling Susheela's life is, we don't believe she will do anything about it; such is the passive, dumb suffering on her face. Giri is shown in just one scene early on when he arrives to fix Kaimal's beloved car. He is a ruddy-faced, slick salesman who tries to convince Kaimal to get rid of the old car and buy a new Maruti. Kaimal is visibly irritated as he asks Giri to leave. There is a moment when Susheela catches Giri's eye—but her expression is inscrutable.
Whereas Susheela seizes a chance to escape the drudgery of her life, Krishnapilla of Kattathe Kilikkoodu is tempted by something he has not experienced in a long time: the headiness of adventure. That he is a scholar of some repute hardly matters to his wife, Sharda. To her, he is the father of her children, almost a fifth child to be indulged and coddled. When his student and neighbour Asha (an absurdly young Revathi in her Malayalam debut) expresses her everlasting love for him, he is startled — "I don't like hero worship. It is sheer nonsense!" he exclaims. At first, he does not even take her seriously, asking Sharada, "Aa kuttikku valla vattum undo?" (Is the girl mad?)
But slowly, his defences loosen. The movie has multiple readings from Othello and I was reminded of Agatha Christie's Three Act Tragedy in which she exclaims, "Yes, Othello dazzled Desdemona with his tales of adventure. But did she not, equally, enthrall him with her rapt listening, her hero worship?" That is what Asha goes for. She sighs and looks at him with soulful eyes and plays the role of a lovelorn Shakespearean heroine, until Krishnapilla is utterly smitten. When Asha is chastised by her aunt, she packs a bag and leaves, and the professor defies his wife to find her a room to stay at the YWCA. Later, after an ugly confrontation with Sharada, he too storms out of his house and into a hotel.
There is tragedy in both affairs. Susheela realizes very soon that she has exchanged not only a large house with a yard, a maid, and a car for two rooms in a shady locality, but also one toxic relationship for another. Giri makes it clear that she is no more than a fling. On their first night together, he mocks her reluctance to sit down and eat with him, calling her a'salguna sambannayaya bharya (a virtuous wife). The character's name Susheela, no doubt chosen deliberately, also means a woman of virtue.
We watch, fascinated, their silhouettes through the curtain, Giri's head looming large over Susheela's, his jaws rhythmically chomping thattukada chicken while hers is small, bowed as if in shame. The same perturbing silence pervades in all her scenes with Giri, even when he brazenly brings home another girl he is sleeping with. Susheela, it seems, has run out of words.
For Krishnapilla, the tragedy is not revealed until almost the end of the movie when it becomes obvious that Asha has no feelings for him. She set out to woo him in a childish attempt to get back at her lover Unnikrishnan (Mohanlal). She misunderstands Unnikrishnan's fondness for Sharada, the professor's wife, and wants revenge. When the magnitude of his folly dawns, the crestfallen professor collapses on a sofa with his head in his hands.
In both movies, there is a third party who tries to play mediator. In Mattoral, this is the idealist Balan, who is convinced that if Susheela can be persuaded to return home, Kaimal will forgive her and all will return to normal. Veni is the realist and in spite of sympathising with Susheela and indeed, for the plight of women everywhere, she doesn't believe things can be set right. "Nothing will ever be the same. Her children will never forgive her." she declares. Her own faith in the fairness of life and the limitlessness of her freedom has been shaken by her ugly encounter with Mahesh who has taken advantage of their friendship to make a pass at her.
In Kattathe Kilikkoodu, the mediator is Unnikrishnan. While Balan seems to be more altruistic in his concern for Kaimal and Susheela, Unnikrishnan actually has skin in the game. He sees Sharada as a mother figure and is disturbed at how Asha's actions have destroyed her life. In Mattoral, Balan talks to all the involved parties: Giri, Susheela, and Kaimal. But in Kattathe Kilikkoodu, there seems to be a clear 'villain'—Asha—and Unnikrishnan spends most of his time chasing her down and trying to talk to her.
Marital discord is often complicated by the presence of children. In Mattoral, Kaimal puts them on a bus to his parents' place a couple of days after Susheela leaves. In the interim, he struggles to take care of their daily needs, let alone comfort them. He is clueless about household chores, turning first to his teenage daughter to make dinner and then to his maid for breakfast. For Kaimal, it is his inability rather than grief that stops him from comforting his children. But Sharada in Kattathe Kilikkoodu, though a loving and expressive parent, chooses to give in to her sorrow instead. She takes to bed for most of the day and it falls on another woman, her neighbour and Asha's aunt, to bring food over for the children. Her children mill around in distress, talking to their father on the phone but helpless with their mother.
It is worth noting that this neighbour does not cook herself but has an elderly man to cook for her and manage the house. This subtle switching of conventional gender roles makes me ridiculously happy, especially in how nonchalantly it has been done. It would have been easy for the director to show Sharada wiping her tears, bent over a pot of rice to feed her children. Or a female neighbour stepping into the kitchen in her place. How often have we seen women portrayed as such self-effacing angels or bringers of culinary comfort! But here, Sharada's character, in spite of being a mother many times over, is given enough time to wallow in her personal tragedy.
Does Kaimal grieve? Not overtly, though the lines on his face seem deeper and he sits staring into the darkness for long periods. Unlike Sharada, who firmly blames Asha for her troubles, Kaimal makes no mention of Giri. Nor does he express any anger towards his wife's lover. Over and over, in his conversations with Balan, he seems to be trying to discover who or what could have driven Susheela to this drastic step. He gropes for clues in their marriage.
Earlier in the movie, there is a scene in which Kaimal and Susheela drive to the beach. The children run to get their feet wet and the parents sit down, Susheela one step behind Kaimal. They both gaze at the sunset, together, yet far apart from each other. "Do you remember the first time we came to the beach?" Kaimal asks, turning to her. His expression hardens as he realizes Susheela's thoughts are far away, and he turns back, not bothering to complete the sentence. This is the only time we see any softness from him and it dies in a matter of seconds. In this moment, Kaimal is unhappy too, but he does not probe deeper. He is resigned, accepting what he sees as the inevitable state of his marriage. It is how Susheela has lived too, until the day she throws caution to the winds and sets out with Giri.
Kattathe Kilikkoodu focuses not so much on Krishnapilla's betrayal as on the circumstances and the person that drive him to it. In contrast, Mattoral barely spends time on the events that directly led to Susheela's elopement with Giri. We don't even know what she saw in him or who made the first step. The movie focuses instead on Kaimal's response in the aftermath. He does some intense questioning: who is the mattoral, the other person in this marriage who has cleaved it in two? Who is the mattoral (other man)?
At one point, his shock turns into anger as he brandishes a knife and follows Susheela down the street—but when she gets into a rickshaw, he seems to give up. Later, in Balan's company, he nearly weeps, "Aval oru pavamayirunnu. Avale kollunnathu oru kroorathayanu. Oru aattinkuttiye kollunnathu pole" (She was innocent. To kill her would have been cruel, like killing a lamb). So we watch as Kaimal goes through the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and, it seems, acceptance.
There are some minor but amusing coincidences in the two movies. The first is bread. In Mattoral, the household is bereft of love but the plates are heaped with good food: idlis, sambar, eggs, tea. Bread is the last resort, the temporary meal that everyone eats while reeling from the shock of Susheela's leaving. On the other hand, bread is the default breakfast in Kattathe Kilikkoodu. As Sharada places a plate piled high with bread slices on the table, Krishnapilla and the kids revolt, shouting "We want idli-dosa!". But Sharada shuts them up: only bread will be served in this house, she says firmly, take it or leave it. There may be no idlis or dosas for breakfast, but there is plenty of love. So they take it.
The second coincidence is the car. The only time we see Kaimal smile is when he steps into his car. When he invites Susheela and the kids to go to the beach, he couches it as a need to take the car out for a spin. Ironic that the mechanic Giri comes into his life and Susheela's because the beloved car breaks down. Krishnapilla also has a car, a vintage open-top, that is shown to be temperamental like him and an object of ridicule for his wife and kids. He loves it though and proudly drives it to college. Ironically, Asha engineers her first private chat with him by wrangling a lift in the car. Thus, in both movies, the car becomes an important prop.
Rarely can the unravelling of a marriage be kept under wraps, out of the eyes of society. In Mattoral, the maid who arrives the next day is all agog, as are Kaimal's colleagues. His gruff demeanour has not endeared him to coworkers and they are delighted at his misfortune. Even when he tries to pretend that nothing has happened and goes to work as usual, he is uncomfortably aware of the sneers and pointing. It is perhaps Kaimal's ego, more than his heart, that has been hurt.
As the other injured party, Sharada gets better treatment and even sympathy from her neighbours. But then, her world is confined to her home and she hardly cares what the people outside think. She cries only for herself and her children. Any bruises her ego has suffered are strictly private.
The climax of both films, one shocking and the other poignant, are stunning in their own ways.
Balan visits Susheela again and again in Giri's house, moved by pity at her condition, and urges her to return to Kaimal. At the end of her tether with Giri's other woman in the house, Susheela agrees. But in spite of her straitened circumstances, she expresses no regret or gratitude. She is still reluctant, as though she knows she is going back into a prison. Balan suggests that Kaimal and Susheela meet at the beach, a neutral third place and one known as a lover's haunt, and from there, go together to their house. But you get a sense of foreboding when you watch Kaimal dress up in his customary white full-sleeved shirt and pressed trousers—and puts the gleaming knife into his pocket.
In Kattathe Kilikkoodu, the broken Krishnapilla drinks himself into a stupor. Now reunited with a chastened Asha, Unnikrishnan finds the drunken professor and brings him home. Sharada is shocked, saddened, worried, but as Unnikrishnan and the children plonk the professor under a cold shower and turn it into a game, she is quietly elated. Her kilikkoodu was shaken by the storm, but it has weathered it. Now the storm has died down and the birds will huddle together once again with their chicks.
There is one more scene after this that feels almost like an epilogue. Day breaks just as it did in the first scene of Kattathe Kilikkoodu and the family of six is huddled together in the same bed. Before the cuckoo clock chimes, the professor gets up and makes a cup of tea for his wife. It is an admission of guilt, a seeking of forgiveness, a peace offering. Their eyes speak volumes and as they embrace each other, you feel the love and the strength of their marriage fill the room like sparkles.
In Mattoral, it is dusk. Balan hurries Susheela across the beach, eager to reunite the couple. It is he who has seemed most visibly agitated all through, his idealism that is blind to the private hells that those around him are inhabiting. The two stumble across the sand to where Kaimal is waiting, only to find him dead by his own hand.
Kaimal, it seems, has found the other person, the mattoral who was responsible for the breakdown of his marriage. Himself.