Cast: Mammootty, Anjali, Sadhana
At heart, Peranbu (Big love) is a highly charged story about a father (Amudhavan, played by Mammootty) and his cerebral palsy-afflicted daughter, Paapa (Sadhana) — but it turns out to be writer-director Ram's quietest film. And the quietness is in the filmmaking. In the opening shot, watching Amudhavan on a boat with Paapa, we wonder what's in store. Through a voiceover, we get Amudhavan's matter-of-fact answer: "En vazhkayila nadandha sila vishayangal…" (A few incidents from my life.) These are huge upheavals, but the way he describes them – the line – is quiet. Mammootty's performance is powerfully quiet. Theni Easwar's cinematography is quiet — in a series of frames within frames, shots of Amudhavan and Paapa come to resemble an album of still lifes. Yuvan Shankar Raja's music is quiet, with the barest acoustic guitar strumming. Ram appears to have expended all his angst on his globalisation trilogy (Kattradhu Thamizh, Thanga Meengal, Taramani). Here, he's almost meditative. In terms of tone, it's the closest he's gotten to his guru, Balu Mahendra (more on this connect later).
The first half of Peranbu is set in the middle of nowhere, and in the midst of nature. It's a place filled with bird calls, rolling mists, soft shafts of sunlight. The walls of the very pretty house Amudhavan and Paapa begin to live in are made of wood. There's no electricity, no mobile connectivity, nothing non-natural. Even the father-daughter bonding occurs not through toys made of plastic but over birds and a horse and countless stars. In the second half, the film moves away from this Eden, to the city. Paradise is truly lost. A couple is caught kissing. A television set makes its appearance, with suggestive songs and dances from the kind of films Ram doesn't make. But this isn't an empty exercise in "the big city is bad" school of filmmaking. The urban space is an extension of nature, too. It's just that this version of nature — which also depicts man's nature — is built with brick and cement.
Ram says he builds his films on a "thesis" — this time, the thesis is nature. Peranbu is divided into chapters whose titles convey that nature can be both benign (Iyarkai arpudhamaanadhu) and malignant (Iyarkai kodooramanadhu). Among other things, the film posits that sexuality is among the most natural things, and it cannot be… well, locked behind bars, as the framing of Paapa near windows so often suggests. Think about this for a minute. At a time films about female sexuality are still so rare — we just have, say, Mansore's Kannada drama, Nathicharami, or Shonali Bose's Margarita with a Straw, whose protagonist had cerebral palsy — here's a film that deals with the sexuality of a differently abled teenage girl. (Sadhana's fairly convincing performance conveys the character's physicality better than the emotionality.)
But the film is about Amudhavan, too — his nature. He worked many years as a driver in Dubai, and he has a poetic bent. (When he learns that Paapa, initially, prefers to stay away from him, he says, "Sooriyanum paniyum maadhiri vasikka thodanginom." Like sun and snow. Even the similes are from nature.) He is basically a nice man. Perhaps too nice. His wife left him — he says she's not a bad woman. Someone cheats him — he says they must have their reasons. He meets Meera (Anjali Ameer, in the film's sharpest, most sensitive performance), a transgender sex worker — and he doesn't judge her profession. It may be no accident that the early scenes of Peranbu evoke an unspoiled Eden. Amudhavan's – and the film's – compassion is reminiscent of Christ's, and at least a couple of incidents are woven around churches, hymns and Christian households. A father who has abandoned his son, a mother who has abandoned her daughter — the film doesn't judge them, either.
But we can't help judging Amudhavan, at least a little. Like Ram's other heroes, he marches to a different beat. Or you could say he's stubborn. When saddled with the responsibility of taking care of Paapa, he doesn't think of special schools or therapy. (We're not shown, at first, what Amudhavan does for money, but presumably, he has some savings from that Dubai stint, and the film shows that affordable caregiving options do exist). Instead, he whisks her off to a barely populated place, where — forget a hospital — even a human is hard to come by. He's only thinking about himself. (Ram's leading men are always somewhat self-absorbed.) He wants to be away from people. And we ask: But what about Paapa? Doesn't she need people around, if only for help? Slowly, we realise that Peranbu is not just about the changes in Paapa, but also her father. He has to learn how to be with people again, how to engage again with the world (and its infinite varieties of nature, of which Paapa and Meera are but two manifestations).
Now, for the Balu Mahendra connect. The film I refer to is, of course, Moondram Pirai, with its undercurrent of repressed eroticism. It's not just that the character played by Anjali, here, is named Viji, which is what the Sridevi character was called in the older film. It's also that, at least to some of us, Peranbu fills the gaps in Moondram Pirai, showing us what a well-meaning man who locks himself away with a child-like woman would have had to deal with: periods and pads, sanitation and unquenched female sexuality. The name Amudhavan calls his daughter comes off almost ironic. "Paapa" is no longer a child. Plus, Amudhavan's sexual feelings are briefly explored, too. Maybe it's time for a Moondram Pirai remake. Maybe Balu Mahendra's classic of innocence could use a version where the protagonists are less ideal, more human.
There are a few — only a few — misjudged scenes in Peranbu. Say, the stretch where Meera enters Amudhavan's house, or the ending, which is revolutionary as an idea but appears forced. (I felt the film essentially ended a little earlier, with Amudhavan and Paapa at the beach.) But the staging keeps you watching. In a remarkable scene with Amudhavan and Paapa, the camera stays afar, tracking between the edges of the screen, while also zooming in — we feel the distance and the closeness that Amudhavan feels. A little later, when Amudhavan is beaten up by men who want his house, we see the violence in a blur, from the far-off viewpoint of Paapa. (She doesn't understand it.) And in a magnificent scene with Amudhavan's former wife, she's framed from the waist down — she's not a person, just a presence. Ram's films have always displayed love for his protagonists. In Peranbu, we sense much love for the medium, too.