Cast: Mammootty, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Vasudev Sajeesh
Among the many moments from Puzhu that will stay with me for a long, long time is a reverse tracking shot featuring Bharathi (Parvathy Thiruvothu) and her husband Kuttappan (an extraordinary Appunni Sasi). It's a longish single-take that tells you a whole lot about her Illam, its geography and what she had once left behind. She is heartbroken that she cannot spend more time with her bedridden mother but as she makes her way through her ancestral home, her husband grabs her hand to give this moment of sadness a shade of triumph. The shot reveals how there are only women in the kitchen and the dining areas of this house. And as Bharathi enters the living room (which is full of men), her expression changes to one of defiance as we also see portraits of her ancestors looking down on her and her partner.
It's a moment of pure storytelling without the need of a word. In a film that's essentially about heritage and inheritance, there's poetic justice in making its best scene a celebration of "letting go". Themes about "what we inherit" and "what we pass on" to the next generation run throughout the film. On one side is a track featuring Bharathi who chose to let go of her Namboothiri family to be with Kuttappan, who hails from an oppressed community. They've been together for a decade but modern Malayali society hasn't evolved enough to accept a fair, Brahmin woman's love for a dark-skinned man from a lower caste. They cannot find a house to live in and it only gets worse because he's a painter and a theater actor without a stable job.
In a sneaky aside, the film makes a larger point about how Malayalam cinema uses actors like Kuttappan. When a boy asks him for a selfie, having seen him in a recent superhit, there's sarcasm in the way Kuttappan says, "Yes I'm the one who played the pervert in that film." So when Kuttappan and Bharathi are forced to temporarily move into an apartment that's meant only for vegetarians, you do not get a good feeling about it.
It is here that this track merges with Kuttan (Mammootty) and his son Kichu's (Vasudev Sajeesh), who live in a flat right above the couple. What makes this move even more complicated is how Bharathi is Kuttan's estranged younger sister. Kuttan and Kichu too seem to be in a similar state of transition in their relationship. Kuttan is a retired IPS officer who looks at his son more like a subordinate rather than with genuine love or care (both words that come up in a game of scrabble between Kichu and his aunt Bharathi). Kichu is growing up fast and he's around the age where he starts to inherit not just the privileges of his caste location but also the biases. He's not allowed to eat the snacks his friends give him, let alone play with the "thendi pilleru" (wastrels) from outside the building. There are punishments for every mistake, including harsh ones like skipping meals or writing impositions. In another sneaky insert, we're told of how Kichu had to once keep rewriting the spelling of a word he'd gotten wrong in a test. The word? Heritage.
The 'puzhu' (worm) in the title is meant for Kuttan's track because this is where it develops into a contemporary take on the myth of Thakshaka, the king of the nagas, and his vow to kill King Parikshit on the seventh day. A play called 'Thakshakan' is also being performed by Kuttappan during this phase and we see the myth getting divided into four chapters that are juxtaposed with major events in Kuttan's life. Apart from the obvious, clues have been laid out generously to help you make connections between Kuttan and the puzhu. Right at the start is a shot of how a boy has to pull aside a dog that's resting in Kuttan's parking as he drives in. He doesn't look like the kind to slow down to save the dog but in the background is a torn bag of fruits the boy's trying to clear. If you've read the myth before, you'll remember how the worm finally emerges from an apple to get to the King. And if you read the myth again today, you'll also understand how Puzhu is also about a man realising that he cannot escape the ghosts of his past (and his ancestors) no matter how hard he tries to lock himself up in an ivory tower.
Director Ratheena chooses to transplant the myth onto an urban upper-caste milieu, where everyone's highly educated but there's still a vacuum when it comes to basic human values. Kuttappan makes another incisive joke here about merit when he recalls an old friend who could not believe how neat his handwriting was. Similarly, when a delivery boy gets into the lift with a retired Justice (Nedumudi Venu) and the retired IPS officer, their attitude towards him is a sign of just how "visible" caste can be in the cities. Which is why it hits you so hard when you hear the word Kuttan uses to describe his feelings towards his sister and her partner. More than heartbroken, he calls the feeling "arrapu" or disgust (the camera soon lingers on a painting of the navarasa showing "beebatsa").
Such flourishes in the writing are great when the film's subtle and static style can accommodate them. The pacing is deliberately slow and the editing allows for intense ideas to remain long enough for them to work in a context that's larger than the film. But the result isn't always precise. This making style feels jerky when it needs to make space for moments of heightened drama. A suicide scene is staged oddly (Jakes Bejoy's music softens the blow here) and certain details feel a little too "on your face". So when we're shown a small statue of Nangeli, the point it's trying to make appears too strongly to work as a piece of drama.
This is also the case with the tonal shift that appears in the climax. Now one understands the need, considering the myth it's following, for a "secret enemy" to "pop" out of nowhere. Yet, even so, the way the scene plays out appears to be from a lesser movie. All of this drains what could have been a great movie and there's a feeling of it trying to address too many social issues in its short runtime.
Which is why you have to give it to Mammootty for the way he's able to make a human out of a monster. Through him, we see the rotting of a soul succumbing to his own prejudices. At once, you see both a victim and the perpetrator of the same crimes. Eventually, it's the same prejudice that brings his fall. In scenes where Kuttan is emotionally manipulating his son, you see how much this actor can do with so little that you're tempted to hit pause and observe the complex shades of grey he's bringing. In a sense, you feel terrible that such roles have become a once in a decade phenomenon for the actor. And when you see the diabetic Kuttan tearing up after having tasted a spoon of the sweet payasam his sister made for him, you also see traces of a good man who let bitterness poison him to death.