Watching Nathicharami can be deeply cathartic. It can also trigger change, and nudge people to look at varied perspectives. Director Mansore's sensitively-made movie written by Sandhya Rani speaks of the sexual desires of Gowri, who is still in love with her dead husband Mahesh.
Regular commercial cinema inspired the director to create this gem of a Kannada film that released on the last weekend of 2018. "Kannada cinema of the 70s and 80s spoke of the woman's soul, but later, she was mostly restricted to her body. That was a trigger to make something different. I have seen the women around me — my mother, sister and friends — locking themselves into society's idea of what a woman must do, despite being strong individuals. Almost like a parrot in an astrologer's cage; even though it keeps emerging, it does not know it can fly away. I discussed the storyline with Sandhya and she developed it."
Mansore, who is 35 and whose debut Harivu won the National Award for Best Kannada Film in 2014, credits his thought process to three people — his family, especially his father M Somakeshava Reddy, Kannada writer MS Asha Devi and his teacher, art historian HA Anil Kumar. Growing up in N Venkatapura, near Kolar, he saw patriarchy thrive; those around him believed that men were powerful and that women were meant to stay at home. But, his father, a Group-D employee in the State Government's Adult Education department, thought differently. "He was my first inspiration and led by example. My sister got married in her 30s after she had studied all she wanted," he reminisces. And then, there was Asha's column Naarikelaa in Prajavani that made "me realise men stumble and fall when trying to read women", he says. Finally, when studying at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath, he met Anil, who taught him to see every art form with depth, to focus on the minutiae, be a neutral observer and to look at the bigger picture. And so, Mansore is often a lonely viewer, who delights in cinema that is not celebrated by the masses. "There is the joy of making a parallel film but you also have to take into account the concerns of the producer," says Mansore, who closely follows the 'small, beautiful' film movement in Tamil which has also seen box office success. "It is important that reigning stars promote films that strive to be different. I still remember how Rajinikanth met with the cast and crew of Aruvi, because he loved it."
Nathicharami's release was not without issues. Its lead, actress Sruthi Hariharan, who lent Gowri a rare dignity, was all but ostracised for accusing actor Arjun Sarja of inappropriate behaviour while filming the Tamil-Kannada bilingual Nibunan/Vismaya. The trolls were out in full strength, with vile comments on Sruthi and the film, and Mansore says the comments hurt, especially because most of them passed judgement without watching it. "I did remove some scenes for the theatre. As a team, we had to protect Sruthi's dignity; everyone who worked on the film is family and I can't bear to see them being slandered." The director is attempting to hold private screenings for film clubs so that people who missed it in theatres can watch it.
Among the relationships the film explores, the one that most impresses is shared among three women — Gowri, Suresh's neglected wife Suma (Sharanya) and the domestic help Jayamma (Shantala). Jayamma is twice-married, but still fondly remembers her first husband when Gowri gives her a curry made of greens. The actors are pitch-perfect in expressing an unusual but important bond. Mansore says he could only think of Sruthi after writing the script. "I like her urban voice. And she's a very sensitive, expressive actor. I needed someone strong yet vulnerable," he says, because, "the film is not just about her sexual desire but also her identity at the workspace". As for Jayamma, he loves the character's ability to stick to simple philosophy. That's where Gowri learns that one can hold on to memories and still move on.
Suresh (Sanchari Vijay), the person who treats his wife like a doormat, is awed by Gowri, but also berates her when she says she seeks sex. And none of this is overt. His friend Ravi is the fish-lover who hurriedly wipes his caste mark when crab ghee roast is placed on the table. Mansore says this is a hit-tap to a scene he's witnessed in many bars in Mangaluru where he lived for six months. These scenes also ensure the film is not a mere statement but an experience.
Kannada cinema of the 70s and 80s spoke of the woman's soul, but later, she was mostly restricted to her body. That was a trigger to make something different.
As some people guessed, the character of the psychiatrist Carvalho is an ode to litterateur Poornachandra Tejaswi. "He was keen on agriculture and eventually settled in Mudigere and continued writing from there. While the film has no obvious reference to him, Carvalho (named after the protagonist in his novel Carvalho) is infused with his characteristics. He loved jamun and okra, and they find a presence in the film. He loved dogs, gardening… like Carvalho does in the film." Eventually, it is his philosophy that helps Gowri. Hopefully, it will help others like her make a choice.
For Sruthi, the film has broken stereotypes and redefined a woman's choice to do what she wants with her sexuality. "Cinema has largely been regressive in representing women, but some have explored the female perspective on choice, consent and the fact that she has a body and mind of her own. Nathicharami has also asked a very important question about marriage and sex, and the fact that the two don't have to, all the time, go hand in hand."
The film speaks of emotional fidelity. For Gowri, sexual needs apart, her idea of marriage rests only with Mahesh. "It speaks of how whom you give your mind and whom you give your body to need not be the same person," says Sruthi.
In a strange way, amid all the trolls, there's also been a positive spin to her role. Some wondered if she was comfortable with the intimate scenes in this film and not so during Nibunan that was not as intense, she was probably not imagining the harassment. "I'm glad some see it that way, because I've only received the exact opposite reaction. They wonder that if you agreed to so much intimacy in this film, why was his touching you a problem. That's a terrible question, but it speaks of consent, good touch-bad touch, and comfort-discomfort. But, this film is proof of the director's sensibility and how he chooses to showcase a woman sensually and beautifully rather than sexually and vulgarly."
The actress too chooses the triangle of Jayamma, Suma and Gowri as an interesting one. "Usually, domestic helps are shown carrying gossip from one house to another. Here, Jayamma helps Suma repair her marriage by speaking of Gowri and Mahesh; the two never meet, but influence the other."
But what shines through in all the characters is the effortlessness of living. From re-arranging pillows to making tea, to drinking in a bar to cooking and meetings, there's no drama. "Usually, you are constantly thinking of the graph an audience goes through while watching a film. Here, it was about making a film to experience your actions and reactions. It was great to be a part of such cinema," concludes Sruthi.