Malayalam filmmaker Kamal recently made a movie about the dazzling woman poet Kamala Surayya and has since been convinced that the only people who didn’t like it are feminists. Worried that his feelings have been hurt we promptly went to see the movie.
Upon being critiqued for the disappointingly watered-down portrayal of the complicated, tempestuous, and mysterious Kamala Surayya (also known as Kamala Das and Madhavikutty), famed for her pioneering confessional poetry and prose full of blazing sexuality, director Kamal told the media that, “Only feminists with a prejudiced version of Madhavikutty found issues with the film.”
He’s partly right: Feminists did indeed take issue with the Manju Warrier starrer, even before it was released. A week before its release on 9 February, FullPicture.in published a really illuminating piece titled Preparing for Aami: Kamal’s representation of women on screen. When you look at how Kamal has treated women in his films in his long illustrious past, you immediately understand why the headline was filled with such trepidation. The piece mentions Ayal Kadha Ezhuthukayanu (1998) in which the female lead loses her mind after a sexual assault and Peruvannapurathe Visheshangal (1989), Krishnagudiyil Oru Pranayakalathu (1997) and Vishnulokam (1991), in which the female leads seem to have no spines and follow the directions of men around them, and a whole string of movies post 1999 where the “spunky, bold, empowered” female lead ends up happily settling down with a man into a life of romantic matrimony.
Feminists were also surely on the alert after Kamal made a ludicrous statement about casting a month before the film’s release. In what The News Minute correctly referred to as a case of “sour grapes from director Kamal”, he said Vidya Balan, originally set to play Surayya, backing out of the movie was “god’s blessing”, and that “had Vidya played the role, sexuality would have crept in”.
Oh, the horror! Could you imagine sexuality creeping into a biopic of Kamala Surayya?!
After all she was only the poet who wrote lines like, “Gift him what makes you woman/the scent of long hair/the musk of sweat between the breasts/The warm shock of menstrual blood, and all your/Endless female hungers”, or even “O what does the burning mouth/Of sun, burning in today’s/Sky, remind me….oh, yes, his/Mouth, and….his limbs like pale and/Carnivorous plants reaching/out for me, and the sad lie/of my unending lust.”
No? Still can’t imagine sexuality creeping into a role like that? Well, watching Aami certainly won’t help.
True to his stated intentions, Kamal seems to deliberately strip Surayya of most of her sexuality as he follows her life in beautiful, leafy Thrissur and Trivandrum, quaint, colonial Calcutta and busy Bombay. Unfortunately, while all the cities, homes and artwork around Surayya are evocatively portrayed, in trying to create a character as bold as the real-life Surayya without exploring any of the controversial complexities that propped her up, he ends up creating an inexplicable half-character who sort of meanders through life making surprisingly (in the movie) bold utterances to the people who come to meet her.
Instead of getting a peek at Surayya’s complex and painful thought processes and choices, we’re left with half-baked plot points and leaps in mental processes that viewers are supposed to make sense of themselves. Like the magical appearance of a hitherto-unseen pen-friend and admirer named Marco (played terribly by a random white person Kamal’s team surely rustled up at the last moment) who comes to visit her in Bombay with no discernible purpose to the plot, or all the various Krishna interludes that could have done with less of the godliness and at least more complex emotionality. Even Surayya’s conversion to Islam, meant to be the climax of the movie, somehow seems to fizzle out meekly as the accidental choice of a flippant, fanciful and easily influenced woman, without exploring any of the nuances, complexities and contradictions of a writer like Kamala Surayya.
The only hint of sexuality we do see, and I’m not sure if we’re supposed to say this, is from the teenaged Surayya (played by Neelanjana), in a scene where she uses the knowledge she gleaned earlier that day from a sex worker who her husband had tasked with “teaching” her what she needed to know about pleasing him.
Her husband, the heavily-jowled Madhava Das (played by Murali Gopy), by the way, was the only wholly convincing character in the movie. I actually wasn’t expecting to find his performance particularly convincing after early reviews that said that his transition from brutal new husband to caring life partner was left unexplained in the movie. But I thought it was perfectly explained. Das seemed to fall for Surayya and care about her meaningfully only when her depression and malaise seemed to distance her from him, which seems like a behavioural pattern you see from a lot of men in real life as well.
And while Surayya’s poetry does contain allusions to Krishna and often builds on the theme of the eternal love of Radha and Krishna, Kamal seems to take that ball and run way too far with it. Every hint of extra-marital lust or longing Surayya feels is shown as being lust or longing for the god Krishna (played by Tovino Thomas), as though Surayya needed the shield of a Krishna figure to engage in the relationships that she did. The companionship of Krishna and Kamala seems to be the only idea that was explored with some amount of effort and energy to its furthest conclusion, as opposed to the sort of half-baked longings and foot rubs we see in the rest of the movie. What part of this could be enjoyable to feminists?
But it isn’t just feminists who would take objection to the movie. No sirree. Young children might take objection to it, because 2 hours 35 minutes is way too long to tell a story that the director has no commitment to telling, and little kids get restless easily. Old people might take objection to it for Manju Warrier’s progressively more caked on and badly applied makeup (to depict her steady ageing). Those who oppose the caste system could take objection to the portrayal of all those who weren’t upper caste Nayars as grinning, paan-chewing, loyal and subservient. Lovers of literature would almost certainly take objection to this movie—from the entire oeuvre of her work, which spans over decades in two languages, Kamal has chosen only a few lines to make a visible appearance in the movie. The movie begins with some lines from An Introduction (“I am Indian, very brown, born in Malabar/I speak three languages, write in/Two, dream in one”) and makes the disappointing and telling choice to end with, of all the hundreds of verses of poetry and prose she’d written over the years, some dispirited lines from With Archangels (“I should have been a lesser poet, and a better woman/Now that I think of it I cannot remember where I went wrong, and what is right”). Islamophobes would definitely take objection to the platitudes Surayya delivers to Islam’s respect for women and the exalted place of women in it, and even before watching the movie, one Islamophobe had already filed a case asking for a stay on its release on the charge that it promoted love jihad. But nobody should care about the feelings of Islamophobes, so let us move swiftly on.
It’s hard to imagine why Kamal wanted to make a biopic of Surayya when he seems so fearful of all the things that made her as great and celebrated as she is. If he thinks it’s god’s blessing that Balan didn’t want to do his movie because it would have made the character sexual, what were the facets of Suraya’s personality, beyond the sexual, that he wanted to bring out? It’s impossible to tell from this confusingly thin biopic that seems at once fearful and embarrassed by the truth of its central character. It isn’t just feminists who’d be upset with this movie, and overall, we’re honestly just a bit embarrassed for Kamal.
Co-published with Firstpost.