Mainstream cinema almost always struggles with the concept of depiction. The appropriation is hyper-visible when the cinema revolves around a minority; the trope is simple: you have a protagonist who is physically, sexually or culturally different and subject to alienation in society. The people around them question their identity as if this particular person just fell on the face of the earth out of a spaceship, and you have the protagonist explain themselves in a stunning emotionally exhaustive fashion with a pinch of touchy background music. Somebody understands them unconditionally, it blossoms into love or things take a dark turn. Roll end credits.
The problematics of such stereotypical depictions are obvious: you reduce the identity of an individual or a group to their plight and do not give them the space to exist beyond that.
This is where Aalorukkam (2018) directed by VC Abhilash differs.
Aalorukkam follows Pappu Pisharady, an aged Thullal artist (a dramatic art form performed as a satire that often asks relevant social-political questions and makes a mockery of prejudices and human pedigrees) in search of his son Sajeevan, who left home 16 years ago after a heated argument. Pappu is a chatty, witty, liberal-minded man. After succumbing to an injury, Pappu is admitted to a hospital, where the kind doctor and staff agree to find his son for him.
Soon, Pappu is able to locate his child. He prepares himself for the reunion. He is excited to meet his long-lost son.
But, when Pappu's child stands before him, he is unable to recognize him. 'Where is Sajeevan?' Pappu asks his child, dressed in a colourful saree.
The beauty of Aalorukkam lies not in its cinematography or direction but in conscious scripting. Sajeevan is no more and in fact, has never been. Pappu's child, now Priyanka, confuses Pappu. The chatty old man is speechless.
The attack here is on two fronts: Pappu strongly believes that his estranged son, as a consequence of being a man, is bound to look after him in his old age. 'My wife and I raised a boy for 20 years. This is not my child,' he tells the doctor on one of his visits. He believes his son has donned the costume of Shakuni (an androgynous character from the Mahabharata) and the person before him, Priyanka, is a façade. There are devious forces at play and Pappu affirms even in the final moments of the film that his wife gave birth to a boy, who simply cannot be a girl.
The second and the deeper front, perhaps questions the extent of one's supposed open-mindedness. We do not know of Pappu's stance on queer people, but there are moments early in the film that suggest he is fairly liberal. When a fellow patient, gossips about how the nurse that looks after Pappu might have a boyfriend, his reaction is simple: 'How is that any of your business?' he smiles and asks.
There is a stark contrast between the compassion that one offers to a stranger and one's own. The Pappu that respected the privacy and choices of the young nurse that looked after him, is unable to do the same when it comes to his child.
What makes Aalorukkam unique and, in a broader sense, a better successor to films that have explored similar themes before is the lack of melodrama and the earlier mentioned self-exhaustive emotional exposition. We understand Priyanka's life not through her words but through her actions and by the words of those around her. Priyanka looks after her father, her child and her husband dedicatedly. She has friends who come over and people who make her laugh. If there is any sympathy at all, it is directed towards Pappu and his inability to understand Priyanka. There is voyeurism that VC Abhilash carefully constructs, as if looking through a window into the life of a person without violating their dignity or disrespecting them. There is an attempt to escape appropriation and embrace a consciousness that does not need long, overdrawn existential essays to understand a person.
Aalorukkam is in no way a perfect film, but it can teach us a lot about what makes a film perfect and unproblematic. Storytelling is a difficult task, more so when handling characters that aren't typically offered a lot of screentime. I believe the title of this film means to prepare oneself, and that is exactly the emotion that it elicits. This movie is a preparation, for those watching, to expect better cinema that can logically and politically dissect our problematic notions about masculinity, gender and sexuality whilst directing the camera towards the source of the problem.