Southern Lights: The Seller Of Fish, Film Companion
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A journalist is in search of a story, a story about a man named Ritchie. One of the people she interviews, a cashew nut seller named Shailesha, tells her, “Ritchie was a bully since childhood. At the age of 12, he stabbed a boy to death, defending his friend Raghu. Raghu disappeared without a trace, and Ritchie was sent to the remand home. He was released after eight years. He returned to Malpe and looked for Raghu in vain. But Raghu was nowhere to be found.”

It’s fitting that we hear about Raghu through someone else. The name of the film, after all, is Ulidavaru Kandante (As Seen by the Rest). The journalist asks Shailesha how he found Raghu. He says by chance, when he visited Bombay to show cashew nut samples to an exporter. Raghu was the exporter’s acquaintance. “We visited a ladies’ bar for dinner, and Raghu joined us there.”

Raghu was now a criminal. He hadn’t come home in 15 years. He didn’t know his father was dead until Shailesha told him in the lurid light of the ladies’ bar. Raghu reacts by covering his face with his hands, a cigarette burning away between two fingers.

The next day, staring at boats at the Bombay harbour, Raghu asks Shailesha about his father, his mother. The former died of liver cancer. He asks if his mother is happy. Shailesha says, “I don’t know. She is alone. How can she be happy?” Raghu says he cannot return to Malpe. He hands over a wad of cash and says, “Keep it. Meet my mother frequently. Let me know if she needs money. I’ll send more.” He leaves.

But it’s never that easy. Raghu decides to flee the country, to Dubai, and take his mother along. He returns to Malpe, takes a car, drives to his home, to his mother. A song plays over the background, with this lyric: A full-grown tree is eager to see its roots. He walks to the door, knocks hesitantly, turns to leave. But his mother has heard him. She comes to the door. Raghu turns, looks at her, tears streaming. We expect a reunion, but that’s for later, much later.

We slip back to the journalist listening to this account from Shailesha. He says, “After visiting his mother, he called me around midnight. He was overjoyed. His mother had agreed to go with him…”

In a sense, this is all one needs to know about the mother. That her son ran away. That her husband died. That the son returned after 15 years. That he’s now making a new life in Dubai and wants her with him. After all, this isn’t really her story. These are more than enough events to make us imagine a certain kind of woman.

But these are also events that define her through others. She’s a mother. She’s a wife. She’s an acquaintance of Shailesha. What was she all about when she wasn’t any of these things, when she was just herself, just a woman?

That’s what we learn after the interval point. For one, we learn her name: not mother, not wife, but Ratnakka. We see her life as a fish seller. A customer asks if she can sell the fish she’s bought for Rs. 180. But Ratnakka’s paid Rs. 200. Meanwhile, Ratnakka’s friend, Anita, another seller of fish, keeps this commentary going about someone they know. “She’s in her prime and not getting any younger. She has an elder brother, but he’s busy drinking.” The customer returns. “Ratnakka. That’s my final offer.” Ratnakka snaps. “Do you think I’m selling peanuts?” Anita, meanwhile notices something. Reaching for Ratnakka’s ear, she asks, “Are these new earrings?”

In a sense, this is all one needs to know about the mother. That her son ran away. That her husband died. That the son returned after 15 years. That he’s now making a new life in Dubai and wants her with him

A little later, Ratnakka and Anita head home, baskets on their heads. They’re stopped by a voice. Ratnakka looks around and finds who it belongs to, a toddy tapper, perched mid-tree. “What do you have?” he asks. Ratnakka says, “Ladyfish, mackerel.” The man asks if she has sardines. She doesn’t. But she has clams. The man asks, “How much for the ladyfish?” Ratnakka says, “The usual. Five fish for 30 rupees.” The man says, “My god, that’s expensive. Maybe tomorrow.”

So there we were earlier, around the point we first heard about Ratnakka (which was around the point Raghu heard about her from Shailesha), painting a picture of a sad woman waiting by a sad door. Now that we finally see her, we realise that she may be sad and she may be, at times, waiting by that door. But she’s also working, bargaining. She’s also gossiping. She’s also bought herself new earrings. We tend to look at people we’ve wronged through the prism of our guilt, and we forget, sometimes, that their life hasn’t come to a standstill just because we’re no longer in it.

Watch the trailer here:

 

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