Cast: Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, Kalieaswari Srinivasan, Pravathy Thiruvothu, Karunakaran, Lizzie Antony, Vaali Mohan Das, Sunder Ramu, Padmapriya, Parvathi Menon, Pooja Kumar
Vasanth's Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum (Sivaranjini And Two Other Women) is an anthology that takes us through three stories of liberation set across three decades. Named after its protagonists Saraswati, Devaki and Sivaranjini, each of the 40-minute shorts cover the spectrum of middle-class life in suburban Madras/Chennai starting in the 80's to a period around demonetisation. It is also the most complete Tamil anthology to have come out in recent years.
Although adapted from the works of authors Ashokamitran, Jeyamohan and Aadhavan, it is Vasanth's making that makes this an exceptional film. Saraswati, for instance, is as good as a study of silence. When read literally, it is about Saraswati's (Kalieaswari Srinivasan) emotional suffering when her husband (Karunakaran) decides to inflict on her a week of silent treatment. This punishment is a result of her finally standing up to him after years of domestic abuse, but it exposes us to her loneliness and the hours of silence that fill up her everyday life. Told almost entirely through images, the short reflects Saraswati's mute existence in a family where she's dealing with her baby constantly crying and a cry-baby of a husband.
The husband is the kind of man who expects his wife to pick up after him when he strips naked on his return home. He's also the kind to forget that his wife needs to eat too, polishing off the leftovers without realising she hasn't eaten. So when Saraswati defends herself, almost out of desperation, it is a bruise to his male ego he cannot look past.
Shot using a combination of wide-angle shots for the outdoors and top angles for the insides, there's a sense that we're observing these subjects through the cold safety of a stranger's CCTV footage. But the effect of this distant framing is devastating because we feel Saraswati's isolation, even in suffocatingly small spaces. This begins right with the first shot. In extreme wide angle, we see her husband run onto a moving bus without even realising that his wife and baby haven't hopped on. In another striking shot, we see the sleeping husband taking up half of the frame which is also one half of their entire house. Placed right at the centre of this image is a miniaturised Saraswati and daughter with the husband's back against them both literally and figuratively.
Lovely touches like these are spread right through the film. A quick shot of an electric sewing machine taking the place of a mechanical one is all that's needed to wipe away a significant passage of time. Saraswati fumbling for house-keys gets an echo later on, but its meaning and what it does to her mood sums up her entire character arc.
It's ideas like these that hold it together despite the common theme being as wide and loaded as three women finding freedom in three distinctly patriarchal households. Which means that when one story segues into the next with shots of waves hitting the shore, it's to also signify that nothing has changed for women in the years in between and nothing, perhaps, will.
But when we see the central government-employed Devaki (Pravathy Thiruvothu) riding home on a scooter with her husband riding pillion, we're misled to think more optimistically. If isolation was Saraswati's poison, it's a lack of privacy that's hurting Devaki. This reflects in the way Vasanth frames this short as well. Instead of the distance of top angles for Saraswati, we enter Devaki's joint family through the eyes of her young nephew. And if Saraswati was made to vanish in her surroundings, Devaki is framed to stand out (we get two shots of the nephew observing Devaki doing "unwomanly" activities).
And standout she does because she's the only working woman in her husband's large family. In a shot early on, Vasanth's camera sums up the whole film for us: on one end is Devaki's mother-in-law coyly asking her husband to bring back groceries, even when Devaki herself is empowered enough to gift her nephew with a new geometry box. But even this progress is only an illusion. If Saraswati's shackles were obvious, Devaki's is disguised under the pretext of patriarchy's favourite tool—family honour. It turns seemingly wholesome households into battlefields with a range of suppressed issues finally erupting.
In such a household where even a moment of intimacy is hard to come by, the bone of contention becomes the most private matter of it all—the contents of Devaki's personal diary. As an outsider, this at first might appear innocuous compared to what Devaki's comrades are facing but it's what she has written in it (it's the film's most moving scene) that shows us how suppression works. Trusted allies turn approvers for this needless cause and it's when you see a scooter being ridden by three generations of men do you notice the wheels of patriarchy moving ahead.
But it's Sivaranjini's (Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli expressing her vulnerability in heartbreaking silence) story that left the deepest impact on me. It's what Kangana Ranaut's Panga set out to achieve but stopped short of. The most contemporary story in the anthology also happens to be one that's most familiar to us. Marriage has turned her into a person she no longer recognises, but this is not because it's in her nature to be weak. It's because marriage, and the daughter that quickly followed, depleted everything that made her who she was. It didn't just erase the idea of a career but it also created an identity crisis in her (a recurring shot is of Sivaranjini reminding her daughter to take her school ID card). As an extension to Devaki's little secrets, we also see Sivaranjini going from wearing shorts to salwars, sarees to nighties as domesticity takes over everything (her hair grows out too).
The framing is even more fascinating in Sivaranjini's story. Several frames are spliced in half using the kitchen wall with Sivaranjini on one side and the rest of the family on the other. She's the only adult we see using the kitchen (the daughter comes in later) and her husband appears to be a more sophisticated version of Saraswati's husband from long ago. Her mother-in-law too seems to have only recently escaped the kitchen, only to force all the duties onto Sivaranjini.
We get long stretches of the camera following Sivaranjini's every move in painful, specific detail. Like in The Great Indian Kitchen, the redundancy is a part of the design because that's what routine can do to one's spirit. Props like mosquito nets, railings and bars of windows are used in the foreground to show us how Sivaranjini is imprisoned in her house and by extension, her fate. But without the agency of a Devaki or Saraswati before her, Sivaranjini's short-lived liberation is the kind of bittersweet image that will live rent free in your head.
Barring a few missteps that rob the film of its subtlety (like the on-your-face video of Prathiba Patil next to Sivaranjini and her ex-colleagues and the rare instance when Illaiyaraaja's score protrudes out of the scene) we get a film that's as in love with form as it is with its message. Along with his work in Navarasa, it's as though we're witnessing the re-invention of a real filmmaker. Maybe he's finally found his Rhythm?