Directors: Jay K (Savithri), Venu (Rachiyamma), Aashiq Abu (Rani)
Writers: Santhosh Echikkanam (Savithri), Venu (Rachiyamma), Unni R (Rani)
Cast: Parvathy Thiruvothu, Asif Ali, Joju George, Samyuktha Menon, Roshan Mathew, Darshana Rajendran, Indrajith Sukumaran
As the titles roll in Aanum Pennum, a ballad begins with a call asking Time itself to tell the story of how a man and a woman go their separate ways. And each chapter of the anthology — set in three different time periods — shows the dynamics of a relationship between a man and a woman. Savithri, the first chapter is set in recently independent India and the final chapter, Rani, happens today. The man, the woman, their milieu and the shape their relationship takes varies dramatically across the chapters. So, at the face of it, it’s an anthology about three different ‘relationships’ from three different time periods.
But the man and woman in each chapter of Aanum Pennum are also essentially the same people. Appropriate for a film that calls on Time itself to narrate the story, large parts of Aanum Pennum feel timeless. What holds each chapter and the film together is the focussed exploration of the most fundamental, timeless parts of what constitutes and shapes a man-woman relationship. Aanum Pennum is an anthology with one rich idea refracted into three closely-linked chapters.
By focusing on the essential — almost microscopic — dynamics of three heterosexual relationships, Aanum Pennum leaves you with a macroscopic aftertaste of the politics implicit in them. The archetypal man and woman are simply ‘reborn’ at different times and the fundamentals of their interaction are largely unchanged. For the men, love is something that needs to be passed through a social censor for approval, while sex is an easy, surreptitious escape from it’s rules. In all three chapters, the man, laden with obvious or implicit social mores, is unable to rise up to the intensity — or even the simplicity — of the woman’s desire.
The sense of timelessness that unifies three diverse stories is achieved in the first chapter, Savithri, by building up a rhythm with the visuals, sounds, background score and dialogues come together. Savithri (Samyutha Menon) is a communist on the run who takes refuge as a maid in a landowner’s house. There’s a superb and seemingly nondescript sequence: the son of the master of the household runs out as a song begins; the mridangam and the sound of a gardener husking a coconut with a sickle create a subtle rhythm on which visual movements and everyday dialogues of the women around are superimposed. There’s a similar sense of natural rhythm as Savithri is introduced to us. But this is absent when we shift to the lecherous Raghava Pilla (Joju George). You get a sense that it’s the men who cause things to fall out of sync with nature’s rhythms.
The film uses the relationship between Raghava Pilla and an elephant to set up a point of comparison with the other chapters: he compares Savithri to an elephant that needs to be tamed. When his paralyzed father looks on Savithri for the first time, you see a rifle on a wall behind her (it makes a brilliant comeback later). He’s a hunter who sees women he desires as prey. In the second chapter, Rachiyamma, Kuttikrishnan (Asif Ali) is scared of elephants and it’s Rachiyamma (Parvathy Thiruvottu) who protects him from one. In the final chapter, Rani, the man (who is actually just a college kid here) is even scared to be in the midst of nature; he’s reluctant to hug his girlfriend (Darshana Rajendran) in the middle of the woods far away from home because he’s afraid of his folks finding out (while at the same time asserting that his love for her is limitless).
As the man gradually changes through the chapters — from conquering nature to being afraid of it — he appears to also be growing farther apart from the woman. The women appear relatively changeless, less inclined to bend to social strictures but forced to do so. This is especially apparent in the way Parvathy Thiruvothu plays Rachiyamma. She transports herself to a psychologically abstract space through her cackling laughter. Neither the taunting of men or society’s rules appear to bother her. She’s someone who has transcended rebellion with indifference. There are parts where she seems almost motherly with Kuttikrishnan, but most of the time, she appears to exist on another dimension guided only by the voices of gods she is devout to.
The sense of inadequacy that the man brings to the relationships is obvious in Rachiyamma: Kuttikrishnan feels too small to merely have sex with Rachiyamma as he knows that his mother wouldn’t approve of a marriage. This forces Rachiyamma to wait unrequitedly for him as he settles into a married life. The woman who is a natural badass when she confronts a man spreading gossip about her is reduced to being a passive spectator in her own life because Kuttikrishnan could desire but not commit. For him, their final scene together is literally a trial over a fire burning on a hearth in Rachiyamma’s house.
But in Rani, the woman gives up finally, unwilling to even merely engage with the man briefly (Savithri) or to wait for him (Rachiyamma). She and her boyfriend are naked after sex in the woods when they find that their clothes have been stolen. As the boy breaks down totally, she walks away from the scene disgusted unmindful of the fact that she’s unclothed, needing to just get away from the man who can’t make up his mind about what he needs from her: sex or love.
Vasudevan (Vineeth Vishwam) in Savithri is a man who can’t even imagine leaving behind patriarchal ideas that implicitly benefit him. It prevents him from reciprocating Savithri’s love, just as he’s a superficial admirer of communism without the intent of following through. Kuttikrishan in Rachiyamma has his mother to answer to; she represents, in a nutshell, all the social pressure on him. The man in Rani is perfectly alone with his girlfriend and yet, he hears echoes of his family and society. Aanum Pennum suggests that though times might change, the way men have approached love continues to remain unfair to women, especially when it also means a loss of social standing for the man.