Cast: Sruthi Hariharan, Balaji Manohar, Poornachandra
I watched Nathicharami two months ago in Mumbai as it was screened at MAMI under the India Story section. When I re-watched it today to file this review, my opinion of the movie hadn't changed a bit. It still made me squirm and smile in equal measure.
Director Mansore puts the uber-talented Sruthi Hariharan in the shoes of a young widow named Gowri whose efforts at moving on are marred by the memories she shares with her husband (Poornachandra as Mahesh). She continues to arrange the sofa-pillows, newspapers, ashtray, and home décor items the way he'd have preferred had he been alive. This shows how she's coping with the loss; but the domestic help, who sees no purpose in these little acts of hers, advises her to stop doing it. The camaraderie between the two is good enough to have open discussions on any topic, and yet they only beat about the bush as they come from different worlds.
All these scenes come at you like a tornado in the first twenty minutes. Gowri's pain is clearly evident and she doesn't fight back her sorrow when she's with her friends; however, when she comes across a man she's not comfortable with, she sings a different tune. Her vulnerability isn't a performance she puts on; it's rather a vacuum she can't get rid of.
These initial portions couch the protagonist's search for a solution in familiar cinematic terms. The dialogues gloat about how much she loves him, and they are also partly along the lines of her feeling guilty for wanting to sleep with another man. Even when she invites a date to her bedroom, she lays down ground rules before they begin to seduce each other. It's funny and sad, at the same time, as she struggles awkwardly under the weight of reality. She can't seem to understand her own dilemma, and so we readily sympathise with her.
Nathicharami only hints at masturbation, unlike presenting it directly à la Shashanka Ghosh's Veere Di Wedding. It walks on the bridge constructed by Alankrita Shrivastava's Lipstick Under My Burkha though. The women who express their desires, in these films, are judged and rejected. While Gowri's parents censure her for speaking her mind, Suresh (Sanchari Vijay), a married man whom she befriends, also starts avoiding her for doing the same.
The supporting characters, like Suresh's wife (Sharanya as Suma) and his friend (Gopal Deshpande as Ravi), brighten up the screen with their terrific comic timing. Most of the humorous situations don't include one-liners. They are just an amalgamation of cheekily written moments where the actors take them up a notch with their performances. For instance, Ravi tries to slyly wipe away the marks of his caste from his temples before tasting the seafood that Suresh orders. Nobody says anything about it and his caste too isn't mentioned, but when he does there's a bit of a visual gag for us to gawk at.
Similarly, Suma flares up when she's unnecessarily burdened with the task of catering to her husband from morning to night. Her anger towards Suresh comes out of pure dejection and not out of spite, which in turn makes room for him to make some snarky comments. Suresh, who's always friendly with Gowri, doesn't think it's necessary because he takes her for granted. This kind of a husband-wife relationship is common in several arranged marriages.
Since the film's gaze falls on Gowri's actions mostly, Suresh's moral obligations aren't discussed in length. Gowri has her friends, domestic help and therapist to help her make decisions, whereas Suresh has only Ravi as a sounding board. Is Mansore telling us that men don't need more people and resources to assist them while taking big steps in their personal lives? Maybe.
Patriarchy hasn't been questioned much in Kannada cinema. Hence, this movie appears as a fresh breath of air. It doesn't quite hit the ball out of the park; nevertheless, it hovers around uncomfortable topics, and, that's definitely a start. And there isn't a better actor than Sruthi to bring grace and seriousness to a character that throws light on the sexual needs of single women in urban middle-class societies. Whenever her face swims in the drudgery of everydayness, you understand her angst and that's the silent battle that many women in India are fighting against.