Chemmeen: A Perenially Misunderstood Film

Despite its unambiguous climax, Ramu Kariat's 1965 film is often woefully misinterpreted, even by its admirers
Chemmeen: A Perenially Misunderstood Film

"'Her laughter ringing across the shore’ introduces Karuthamma to the audience, even before we see her", says critic Anna Vetticad, citing Chemmeen as one of the films that sparked the critic in her. In her insightful piece on the film, she systematically debunks the claim that Chemmeen libels the fisherfolk of Kerala. She also mentions how the makers of the film have been wrongfully accused of perpetuating superstition through the narrative. Chemmeen tells the love story of Karuthamma (Sheela), a Hindu fisherwoman and Pareekutty (Madhu), a Muslim fish trader. The film revolves around the myth that a fisherman’s safety in the sea depends on his wife’s chastity. The welfare of the community depends on the womenfolk’s “purity”. The audience and Karuthamma are reminded of this several times by the characters and even the songs in the film. Karuthamma obliges to marry another man, fearing ostracism. But, a prying society does not give her any peace even in her husband’s place. Finally, Karuthamma fed up with her husband’s doubts about her chastity, commits suicide with Pareekutty. The ending where Karuthamma, Pareekutty and her husband (who gets caught in a current) lie dead on the shore has been interpreted as reaffirming the aforementioned superstition. This article tries to show how the climax actually debunks the superstition and bares the tricks society employs to ensure conformity to its ideals.

The much discussed climax intercuts between the estranged lovers Karuthamma and Pareekutty meeting for the last time (this is also the first time Karuthamma uninhibitedly professes her love) and her husband, Palani (Sathyan) getting caught in a current while trying to catch a shark. This can seem like the superstition playing out in real time – the wife’s “infidelity” is juxtaposed with the husband’s death. But, on a closer look, one sees how Palani invites his death. “Nee ene kadalamede kottarathilekk kondupovano? Njan nine vidilleda (Are you taking me to the depth of the sea? I’ll not let go of you)," he says to the shark. Palani’s death is nothing but a suicide. However, when the people of the shore discover the bodies in the morning, it strengthens their belief in the superstition. Little do they know that they are the ones who led Palani and Karuthamma to take such dire steps.

Chemmeen: A Perenially Misunderstood Film
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Karuthamma tries her best to leave Pareekutty behind and move on with her life. Initially, she finds happiness with Palani. Palani, an orphan, finds his home in Karuthamma. He is not ashamed to buy the utensils for home (considered to be a woman’s job) and is unfazed by the ridicule he receives for doing so. Both of them try their best to build a family. It is the constant comments and gossip spread about Karuthamma and her relationship with Pareekutty that sows the seeds of doubt in Palani. He brushes them aside, taking Karuthamma’s word. But, dregs of doubt loom over their relationship. Society, with its leering eyes, follows Karuthamma everywhere and finally Karuthamma throws caution to the wind and asserts herself by declaring to her husband that she still loves Pareekutty. Palani’s world crumbles before him and he takes to the sea in a fit of rage and gives himself up to death.

Being privy to all this information, the audience can see how a community drove three people to suicide. The myth was just a ploy to control people’s personal lives. We also realize that despite the loss of three lives, nothing would change. The superstition would become stronger than before and the community would continue to live without any awareness about its role in the tragedy. The blame would fall squarely on Karuthamma and Palani would be pitied for not being “man enough”. Sadly, the climax has been ripped off its layers and misinterpreted. While the makers intended to show how it was society’s scrutiny and not Karuthamma’s “infidelity” that led to Palani’s death, many spectators seem to have completely missed the point. The film also anticipates society’s capability to turn anything in its favour. Chemmeen is a close study of the propagation and endurance of superstitions and the insidious role communities play in them. The community was not afraid of the Kadalamma’s (Mother Sea) wrath but what Anna Vetticad calls Karuthamma’s ‘unfettered merriment’, Karuthamma being a symbol of all women in a patriarchal society.

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