Director: Ranjith Sankar
Cast: Jayasurya, Aju Varghese, Jewel Mary, Innocent, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Jins Baskar
If there is a petition to ban background music in cinema, Anand Madhusoodhanan's score for Njan Marykutty, directed by Ranjith Sankar, would be Exhibit A. It is offensive not just because it's so blatantly manipulative, but also because Marykutty (Jayasurya), who was formerly a man named Mathukutty, lives her life with such dignity — and it's sickening to see her plight being amplified so, as though what she were going through wasn't enough and we needed to be reminded to feel. Banish memories of the score (it takes some doing), and you find that Jayasurya's performance is its own kind of music. It's impressively minimalistic, not so much a symphony as a series of perfectly tuned solo instruments — a lightly swaying gait, a modestly raised pinkie, a small smile, a smaller sigh.
When a man on a bus gropes Marykutty from behind, she gently, but firmly, squashes his foot with her shoe. If the background score had directed this scene, Marykutty would have screamed and the other passengers would have jumped in to beat up the man. Then again, maybe they wouldn't have — for Marykutty may think she's a woman but the others don't see her that way. At church, women move away when she stands amidst them. Two men — this is the town of Idukki — are determined to drive her out. This perhaps explains the minimalism of Marykutty's behaviour. If she allows herself to feel fully, life might become even more difficult. Even the tears don't flow freely. They emerge, and we sense Marykutty's resolve to not let them drop.
The first scene shows Mathukutty leaving home to transition into Marykutty. There's no doubt anymore
Setting this story in Idukki is a masterstroke. With the public attitude towards transgenders, Marykutty would have found things difficult even in bigger cities, but in this small, patriarchal town, it's worse. The locals don't care that she used to work in a software firm (which explains the money for the gender reassignment surgery and the subsequent hormone treatments) or is more well-educated than most people around her. What burns them up is that she rejected her masculine privilege. A female gazette officer who wishes she had been a man spews venom at Marykutty. (You can hear her thinking. "You were born a man, and you chose to become a… woman?") Even Marykutty's younger sister (Malavika Menon) spurns her. The sister explains, with great sorrow, that she was happy and, more importantly, proud to have an older brother. "Why did you do this?" You think a twentysomething like her would understand, but this is Idukki; the only definition of Pride is probably what one feels on an accomplishment.
There's a bit about the young Mathukutty dressing up in bangles and a sari, and being beaten up when discovered by his father — but this isn't the story of Mathukutty being picked on at school, yearning to be different, stumbling on LGBTQI literature and discovering he is not alone. The first scene shows Mathukutty leaving home to transition into Marykutty. There's no doubt anymore. In Marykutty's words, "My sex is male but my gender is female." The story, instead, is about Marykutty's ambition of becoming a cop: Kerala's first transgender cop. And why? As the film explains, most transgenders are either beggars or sex workers (Marykutty herself is falsely charged as a sex worker) — essentially, objects of pity or ridicule. Marykutty wants to change things by becoming an object of respect. She wants to prove a point not just to men (like the male cop who paws her), but also women (like the female cop who makes her strip at the police station, feeling not the slightest bit of remorse because she doesn't consider Marykutty a fellow-woman).
Marykutty hosts a radio show called Happiness Hour. It's a Hirani-esque conceit
Njan Marykutty takes care to surround Marykutty with supporters as well. There's Marykutty's mother (Shobha Mohan), who is resigned to furtive calls. There's Marykutty's friend Jovi (Jewel Mary), whose husband lives and works elsewhere, which means that even she becomes an easy target for slut-shaming. There's the lawyer who has the hots for Marykutty. (I think this plot point was meant to infuse some lightness into the grim proceedings, but it ends up feeling mildly creepy.) And there's Alwin (Aju Varghese), who runs the local church's FM station. When Marykutty is asked to host a show, she worries that, due to her hormone treatments, she has an in-between voice. (Her speaking voice sounds male, her singing voice female.) Alwin instantly reassures her, "We need a feminine voice with a masculine touch."
Then there's the priest, wonderfully played by Innocent — he's the kind of man who doubles as an underground bunker when life's tornados hit. When Marykutty fails at her first attempt at the police exams, he says, "If we get everything we wish for, then where is the thrill in life?" Indeed. He wanted to be a film director. Look at him now. It's on his urging that Marykutty hosts that radio show, called Happiness Hour. It's a Hirani-esque conceit. The very people who reject Marykutty outside warm up to her homespun advice on air. But when she asks if her listeners agree with the way Marykutty was treated by the police, they say yes. It's going to take more than a radio show. Lage raho Marykutty.
On air, she's known as RJ Angel. The name is no accident — she's too much of a saint. The first time we sight Marykutty's face is at church. She readily signs away her share of her property to her sister. You wish Marykutty had more… character, more than just this single shade. Even what the supportive Collector (Suraj Venjaramoodu) terms "arrogance" is not really a negative trait. He says it's enough if Marykutty makes the reservation-quota cut-off in her police exams. She says she doesn't need special treatment, and that she'll strive for the cut-off in the regular quota. You can see why Marykutty doesn't want special consideration. She isn't socially or economically disadvantaged, and the thing that makes her "different" she doesn't consider a disadvantage at all. At least, that's what she's out to prove.
Njan Marykutty could have used more conflict. Everyone is either on Marykutty's side, or against her
The bigger problem in this plainly made film is the melodrama. The screenplay contrives situations that "milk" Marykutty's situation, the way a superhero movie would leave a child in a burning building just to up the stakes of the moment. When Marykutty visits her parents, it's just when they're fixing a match for her sister. When Marykutty is harassed on the street, every onlooker whips out a phone to record the moment — not one person feels a twinge. And later, you know Marykutty, driving a car, is going to land in trouble when you see Jovi beside her clutching a bottle of beer. The first time the nemesis-cop (Joju George does a great job of making you hate him with every fibre of your being) threatens Marykutty — he extends his arms towards her and asks, "Is it sponge?" — it's horrifyingly effective, but when it happens over and over, he's reduced to the opposite of Marykutty's one-note saint: he's a one-note villain.
Njan Marykutty could have used more conflict. Everyone is either on Marykutty's side, or against her. There's no one in a grey zone. Which is why the best scene of the film is when Marykutty's repentant father comes to the venue of her physical test (part of the police selection process) and explains himself. He's part of this society, and he was a coward, afraid to go against its "rules." His tears resonate more than Marykutty's because he's neither saint nor sinner, merely a flawed human. Does Marykutty's birth as a male put her at an advantage over the other women candidates, given her different body build, especially in events like shot put? The question didn't really bother me because of the extraordinariness of Marykutty's situation. In an early scene, she puts a bindi on a Buddha and stares. The camera records not her reactions, but the stillness of the statuette and the perceived incongruity of the bindi. It's one of the rare moments the outside noise of the film quietens down and you can hear yourself think about what "normal" is.