Director: Abhaya Simha
Starring: Bindu Raxidi, Mohan Sheni, Srinidhi Achar, Gopinath Bhat, Ravi Bhat
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
In the 2018 war-poem, Padmavat, Alauddin Khilji, the menacing, lusting metaphor for evil is about to apply perfume. Instead, he splashes it across the body of a woman standing next to him, and rubs the woman against him. Is he horny? Is he using her body as a perfume bottle, a literal objectification? Are sex and scent somewhat mixed?
A year later, a different film in a different language would produce the same questions, but the gender of the perfumer, and perfumed would be swapped. It would also be part of the grand, tormented universe of Shakespeare.
Rethinking Shakespeare for this era would be interesting. Once we remove meaning from body parts, how would Lady Macbeth assert her power through drama? How could Cleopatra commit suicide?
Paddayi, Abhaya Simha’s National Award-winning Tulu film is a visually stunning retelling of Macbeth in a fishing town. Sugandi, meaning pleasant scent, sprays perfume on Madhavan, her husband, before they make love. Scent is important in this film. Much like in Suskind’s novel, it is used here to evoke sinister ambitions – of power, money, greed, and modernity. When Sugandhi is first shown to smell perfume, it is in the fish market. The woman tells her it is imported. Sugandhi is now in reverie, ambitions abrew.
She is Lady Macbeth, and he, Macbeth. She uses her erotic charm and convenient class war rhetoric (when confronted by the ethical conundrum of committing murder, she says, if rich people do it, it is okay, then why not us?) to convince him to murder his mentor. Initially hesitant, he acquiesces. The moral hangover of murder then haunts them both. All is not well in the fishing village. There is power, disruption, and transition.The beats are familiar, it is Macbeth afterall.
What does it then mean to recreate this incredibly familiar plot in a largely unfamiliar language?
Tulu is more of a spoken language than a written one. It is not even recorded as an official language in our Constitution. (Ironic given that the government has a category for best Tulu Feature Film) Fear of a disappearing language often raises its head in the form of online petitions. The written aspect, certainly is disappearing. In fact, even the title credits of this film is in Kannada, a more recognizable script, and not Tulu. The oral traditions (cinema, theater more on that later) keep the language tethered from one generation to another. This fear of oblivion of the language itself adds texture to a narrative of the fear of fading power. And since the plot of Macbeth has been made, re-made, and shredded through languages and continents, it is these layers that then matter.
So here, instead of the three witches, we have one deity. That the premonition comes from a divine being makes this film in some sense, theological. Why would a God dictate failure as he does fortune? It is the death of both, the idea of freewill, as well as God as an omnipotent being.
When Madhavan pronounces, “I didn’t do anything. It is all because of the prophecy,” you want to believe him. We are in a pre-destined world. God, too, here is a mere messenger of what is already foretold. Nothing can be altered, or so we are made to believe.
Then, there is the use of Yakshagana, the traditional form of folk theater in Karnataka. This intercuts the narrative that has elements of the modern versus traditional. Though the performance itself is lit by traditional torchlights, the green room where the performers get ready is lit by electric bulbs. Right after the first performance dripping with centuries old stories, we have a scene in the mall, a conversation about migration and jobs. Madhavan wears worn football jerseys while riding traditional wooden fishing boats instead of the metallic ones most people are using. His mentor refuses to fish during the breeding season, unlike the other fishermen. That it is him, and not the other rich fishermen, patronizing the traditional theater is telling. A fledgling language, like fledgling art forms need virtuous capital to keep it thriving through time. He just wants to be happy, and does not care much for profits. Happiness and profits in this universe, are thus, mutually exclusive. Yes, these are simplistic, and flattened ideas, but they work in adding heft to an oft-told story. Besides, much of the enduring quality of Shakespeare is that it hinges on what you bring to it, as opposed to what it is.
I studied Shakespeare for the first time in college under a very radical and reductive professor. I am not even sure if reductive is the right word. One of the essay questions on our final exam, if I remember correctly, was: Why was Ophelia (from Hamlet, Shraddha Kapoor played her in Haider) a bitch? That’s it. 800 words. He used to fixate a lot on Lady Macbeth as well, specifically her monologue where she asks to be “un-sexed”.
“Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe topful
Of direst cruelty!”
His interpretation was that Lady Macbeth wants to get rid of her feminity, known in the pre-feminist era as nurturing, and demure. The contention was, why does she need to be un-sexed to become the embodiment of evil? (Rethinking Shakespeare for this era would be interesting. Once we remove meaning from body parts, how would Lady Macbeth assert her power through drama? How could Cleopatra commit suicide?) She nevertheless uses her erotic magnetism and to push him to commit murder.
In this film too, she comes across, at least initially, as this inviolate, powerful and erotic force. The first conversation she has is about sex. She has a mark on her face that she covers with her hair, always pushed to one side, tied. (the tied hair being the ‘feminine’ aspect). In the end, when all is lost, the megalomania seeping out of her body like the blood she keeps hallucinating, her hair is loose and unkempt (unsexed, finally).
Ultimately though, what bogs the film is that these layers don’t add up to a cogent film. When Arundhati Roy was traveling with her book The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, she described it as a sedimentary rock, with layers depositing over the twenty odd years since her last novel. The book would be criticized using this very metaphor- there are many layers, well conceived layers, but they just don’t add up. Paddayi too births familiar feelings. I can see the layers, but where’s the rock?