In Ram's Peranbu, there are two interesting and intriguing exchanges between the protagonist Amudhavan (played by Mammootty) and two other male characters. The first one is between him and his housemaid-turned wife Viji's real husband, who is pretending to be her uncle. It is a dark comical scene where Amudhavan, oblivious of being taken for a ride, listing one by one the virtues of his new wife to her real husband; he gets increasingly uncomfortable listening to it, and mechanically repeats 'Hmm..' to all the praises. The second encounter happens in front of a church – it is between Amudhavan and the father of one of the boy-inmates living in the rehabilitation institution. If it were two husbands married to the same woman in the earlier scene, here it is two fathers who have sent their sick children to the same institution talking. Amudhavan urges the boy's father to rescue his son from the institution, but the latter expresses his helplessness. What marks both these situations is the vulnerability and despair of men, signifying a certain kind of emasculation and total lack of control over the outside world. This is indicative of the crisis of masculinity one finds recurring in contemporary film narratives, where male protagonists seem to have lost their grip over things and confidence about themselves. With an established star like Mammootty playing that role, these scenes also evoke an added resonance in the contemporary, post-MeToo scenario.
All the more so, because Peranbu features one of the most masculine of Malayalam film actors, even as it dismantles his macho star persona and all its stereotypical components. For instance, in Peranbu, he is not the 'Valyettan' (big brother) who rules over the female subjects, or a macho hero who puts women in their place; nor is he the patriarch in full control of things, righting all wrongs, executing revenge and establishing orders. In the film, he is also not a protector or savior or a romantic idol adored by women. Women do acknowledge his handsomeness, but they don't fall for him; some in fact even take him for a ride. As a husband or father he is not a great success; in the beginning of the film, we meet a confused Amudhavan whose wife has suddenly left him for another man who she says, is capable of love and care. She has also left behind their adolescent daughter, suffering from cerebral palsy, for him to take care of. He is neither a good, dutiful son, as he is unable to put up with his mother or sister-in-law, nor does he possess adequate social skills to appease the angry neighbourhood. The same predicament follows him in the remote mountain valley where he seeks refuge. There he meets with two women who come to him as house maids; while the first one is forced by her jealous husband to leave the job, the second one, Viji, who eventually starts living with him, goes on to cheat him. As it turns out, it was all a sham, and he had no clue that she was there just to grab his land. Hounded out thus from the idyllic valley, he moves to the city, where he meets another woman, Meera, who is a transsexual sex worker. He strikes a friendship with her that is asexual and formal from the beginning. But it is Meera who finally rescues him and brings him back to life. So, we have an unusual male hero here who consistently fails in all his manly roles – as father, son, husband, and lover. In contrast, all the women he comes into contact with uninhibitedly express their wishes, embrace their desires and pursue their schemes even in the face of hurdles and opposition. Sometimes they do it assertively like his former wife who leaves him on her own or cleverly like Viji who cheats him. Others do it compassionately as in the case of Meera, or unconsciously like Paapa. In Ram's earlier film Taramani also, the male hero is a damaged, fragile, indecisive and given to impulsive reactions, but Peranbu takes the emasculation of the masculine hero further and deeper.
Nature is another major trope in Peranbu; Amudhavan is obsessed with it and his narration too is structured around different facets of nature. What is the nature of the nature in Peranbu? Obviously, it is not just the physical landscape, seasons, or the flora or fauna, but one that encompasses society and people, institutions and professions, drives and desires. If physical nature visually predominates in the first half, it is the urban social atmosphere that animates the second. From both, he is ousted and thrown out. His shift to the city is forced and also prompted by the need to provide his daughter with a social environment to grow in. But this shift from 'nature' to 'culture', physical to social, is one that exposes Paapa to the world, from which he had once run away. Though always shut up in rooms, Paapa compulsively peeps at people, peers through the window to the outside world or into the television screen for its magical, alluring images. It is as if the nature in her is bursting forth seeking reciprocation from culture and everything is suddenly beginning to take on an erotic charge. Amudhavan is caught between the irrepressible urges of nature and the threatening provocations of culture that manifests in various forms in Paapa. Amudhavan has no answers, nor does the world offer any; the institution where he puts her up has only physical punishment to offer. Finally, it is the transsexual Meera who literally drags him back from the mouth of death; it seems as if she rescues him from culture to take him back again to nature.
In the process of rehabilitating the male hero and saving him from death, the film compromises on one of the most poignant dimension it opened up in a bold and striking way: that of the question of sexuality and sexual needs of someone like Paapa
In the end, we find the trio – Amudhavan, Meera and Paapa in a house surrounded by verdant green landscape. If it were the mist and mountains that marked the first refuge, it is sprawling fields and green vegetation now. Amudhavan's narration has come to an end, and we are in the present, where we see a carefree Paapa merrily walking along and Meera rushing out to attend to her, while Amudhavan, now clean-shaven and pleasant, amusedly watches them from above. But in this newfound haven, the only casualty seems to be sex and sexuality. The sexual awakenings of Paapa, which in the first place drove Amudhavan to the edge of death, is totally ignored or nullified here. It is as if she is pulled out of the urban surroundings and its umpteen lures only to merge and dissolve in nature all over again. In the case of Amudhavan and Meera, there is never an occasion where we find them sexually attracted to each other; though he does help her and even visits her home twice, he is embarrassed by the banter and cheer of her transsexual company. So, the haven the trio finds final refuge in is an asexual one, one that is uncorrupted by carnal desires.
In the process of rehabilitating the male hero and saving him from death, the film compromises on one of the most poignant dimensions it opened up in a bold and striking way: that of the question of sexuality and sexual needs of someone like Paapa. In Indian cinema, the differently-abled are invariably sexless; they are portrayed as perpetual children devoid of sexuality. Here is a girl, who, in her peculiar mental condition, openly and unabashedly seeks sexual pleasure; and it is what all institutions in our society desperately suppress, punish and banish from within them and without. But the film, even while posing it up front, dares not take it forward. Instead, the film is driven by the existential crisis of Amudhavan and seeks refuge in a solution that suits him and him alone. Like any other Indian social, the film ends with the founding/formation of a family, though this family is marked by the diversity and disparity in their sexual orientations and hence, asexuality.
So, when are we going to give women and the aged, the sick and the differently abled, the transsexual and homosexual, the pleasures that are rightfully due to them? Are the crumbling male bastions finding their way back by banishing carnal desires totally and withdrawing into asexual havens?