The screening of Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s film Naalu Pennungal(Four Women) was an event to remember, especially because the master himself was their to introduce his film, and answers question (sadly, most people, left once the screening got over), but I managed to ask a question, to which the master obliged, and even Nandita Das- one of the chosen few outside of Kerala to work(act) in his film.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan has remained a shy person ever since his college days. Perhaps, unlike most filmmakers he prefers his movies to do the talking, but I noticed few important things which has remained a strong presence in all his films; his films are deeply rooted in the tradition and history of Kerala also his movies are honest representation of the era, the people, and the characters he portrays on screen.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the veteran Malayalam director grew up reading the short stories of T. S. Pillai, one of the towering figures of Malayalam literature, his short stories were a stark portrayal of the society he lived in. Since everything he saw, he felt, he witnessed became a part of his stories. As T.S. Pillai presented the realities of life, as it stood, from the day to day vagrants, to the complexity of social feudalism. Everything in the fictitious world felt just like living and breathing the atmosphere he talked about, and his stories achieved the status quo of social –realism.
The narrative of the film, Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) is derived from four different short stories set in 1940s to 1960s Kerala, India. The thin line binding all these four stories is the central woman figure whose impression from the first to the final tale is that of growth, mark and progress of women in South India; told in such sublime and humane manner that most people would miss the subtle nuances of this remarkable film. Yet the film is not feminist in nature, since Adoor Gopalakrishan is more concerned in portraying the era and the fine details it holds regarding the rituals, patterns of society than just to present a story regarding the power and will of womanhood. Irrespective of the fact, that he took his liberties in exercising what should be seen and what remains unseen( the missing text) and what remained- the earthly nature of the film, which in all due, is as much powerful to what is portrayed (the role and growth of the woman).
The narrative progresses on a very harmonic scale where each story from its beginning of The Prostitute (Padmapriya) , which is about a woman who decides to get married and eventually imprisoned for not having the right documents for marriage, a proper home to live and background to show. In the story of ' The Spinster (Nandita Das)' a woman irrespective of having all materialism evoked in the first story remains on her own- free, independent, and without the need of the man; a social implication thought to be the most important grail for the survival and protection of women.
The two stories in between of The Virgin (Geethu Mohandas) and The Housewife (Manju Pillai) function as catalyst to help the woman progress and evolve from the first to the last tale. The Virgin is about a woman who gets married to a man, and who until the end of the short remains busy in his own rituals of life: watching films, business, and his mannerism of eating, but does not touch the woman. And the preceding story of The Housewife, is about a woman who is childless only to be visited by her childhood friend who insists on helping her bore a child; yet she remains elusive to his demands. All four stories though distinct in its nature are connected through patterns and rituals directly reflecting the everyday realities and social condition of Kerala.
What then binds all these four short stories into nuts of progress and absence when seen from the impressionistic view of a woman? It’s the slow digression of the man from the muted presence to the final exclusive absence that functions as the common motif which binds these four short stories together. The first story where the man though taking up The Prostitute as his wife is nothing but a utter reflection of her fate: no home, no shelter in short a very much muted absence of her own existence, when the story moves to The Virgin, the man here though possess a dominant presence through the story yet remains mutually elusive to provide solace and love to the woman.
In the story of The Housewife the man becomes a neglected catalyst of impotent, where the woman irrespective of keeping on with her virtue kept swaying between the “other” and her “virtue” though she keeps with the virtue by the end of the film; but her mere absence in the final shot as the camera pans across, along with the last lines of the story shows the shine of regret when she staggers the line “ I’m stressed”, after she declines her classmate offer to bore her a child.
And by the time the film manifest into the final stage of The Spinster the theme and pattern are very clear; as here, the woman has grown, through tides, experience, and virtue and eventually reconciles with the belief- that a man is not necessary for her survival, keeping out the final knock or call of the man whom she wanted to swing and the borders of chastity. Eventually her final decline closes the chapter of this remarkable film, since it’s not the woman who has progressed but the humane (soul) in her which has grown stronger. Since for a woman to live alone, even today, is a herculean task, something which society does not see eye-to eye. Perhaps, nothing much has changed that’s the reason even though the story is set in an era long gone, it still resonates very much the way society stands- poor people and underprivileged are still crushed each day, and women still remain the two dominant figure of the male psyche “mother” and the “whore”.
There is an almost organic growth to the overall film which is linked with the foundation on which the film is based: representing the pure essence of Kerala and its people. Although, the visual style of the film gives it a very lush look and it’s remarkably appealing, but the organic growth and the relation of the intricate pacing of its characters are directly linked with the music and rituals of the society. The music of film directly infuses the sound of nature in the film. Adoor Goplakrishana has always worked with a detailed sound script, making sure that each element of sound echoes the pureness of the actual filmed space, so irrespective of the dramatic music cues, the beauty lies in the listening to the diegetic sound of the omnipresence of the crooning of the crow, the signing of the koel, the chirping of other birds and several other nature creation and habitat form a core part of the nature of Kerala( like the common motif of the boatman rowing through the backwaters, where the sound of the oar hitting the river bed, and the silence, gesture of the characters along with the presence of nature, makes its all to beautiful). Something we take for granted each day but such moments are presented in the film with such poeticism that each scene emotes the freshness of the leaves, the smell of the freshwater lakes, and the cycle of food habits shown with full color and pattern in the film.
It’s such small details which make the film special; the passing of time from one short to the other can only be understood when one pays a close heed to the dialogues or patterns of rituals within a scene. For eg: the shift from The Housewife to the The Spinster can only be judged by the opening dialogue of Post- Independence India or how the knot is tied by woman, or how two distinct marriage in two stories The Virgin and The Spinster highlights the jump in time (the first where the marriage is shown sitting, the latter on a stool) .
It’s such small details which forms an coherence of his mise-en-scene; in how organically it progresses between space and time. Even the acting which appears natural because of his ability to mould his actors as part of the environment without even giving them a proper cue or script, and just detailed gestures, a certain “pattern’ of delivering the linguistics (a reason he never prefers to take an actor other than from Kerala) since the cognizance of the culture the film is being made is important.
This gives him the freedom to put his actor part of the surrounding space, so that once s(he) adapts to the surrounding the mis-en-scene helps in creating unison between the space and the subject, that’s when the “star” disappears into “the actor” a common folk, someone whom we bump into everyday. However, Nandita Das who played The Spinster was an exception; she did not belong to the South Indian milieu, but she blend perfectly in the role.
Similarly, the way he treats his characters as part of the crowd rather than giving them a central space; which most movies mutually reserve for them marks a special contrast in his mise-en-scene. Another important scene at the beginning of the film shows a clear picture how he treats his subject with a certain amount of objectivity; where he is capturing the realities unfolding; rather than puncturing the realities before him. When the Prostitute decides to pick stones for a good living, for more than two minutes of screen time we are treated with a montage where there is almost no presence of her (yet her absence) makes her presence much more powerful.
So when she is finally revealed after a couple of shots, we are aware that she has been working hard, and what is shown is pure work and endeavor taking place, without pinning us into facade of watching a filmed space. Any other film would have began with an establishing shot of the subject or move towards them, but this is one core difference how Adoor Gopalakrishnan treats his subject- to mould them part of the surrounding space, even if, it’s bifurcated by the choice of angle or gaze. But it’s this gaze and angle which makes his mise-en-scene special, where even when dealing with a fiction he is treating his subject as part of everyday reality, transposing an era to the current time and space without losing out on any details something he owes to his vast experience in documentaries and the improvisation and delation of Kathakali.
Four Woman is a special film in all disciplines of the cinematic art form, whether you watch the film as an onlooker who is mere witness to the incident; a passer-by who hears about the incident; or an active participant( who takes a stand by looking into the incident( the mise-en-scene), each and every form would in turn be special, because of the universal appeal this films holds. Not only in its global nature regarding the treatment of women, but also how we humans behave, whether we stay in Kerala, New York or Paris. But the only difference is the slides of liberation and the mind set of the civilization, which though separates our linguistics and cognition, yet keeps us made of the same substance- earth, water, fire and air.
Cross-published on Cinema Without Borders