This is the first of the weekly series where Silverscreen will recommend films, documentaries, shorts, songs or scenes from seminal films that make a compelling watch.
Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare (1986), the directorial debut of veteran screenwriter Raghunath Paleri, was released in 1986, a few years before I was born. I didn’t stumble across it in my entire childhood or teenage, for this wasn’t one of those vintage comedies such as Kilukkam and Nadodikkattu that a regular middle-class family liked to rent out from the video cassette shop over the weekends. It doesn’t have a male protagonist to anchor the narrative, a comedian, or a plot-line that keeps one on the edge. Playing the lead roles are a lesser known (and fantastic) actress, Asha Jayaram, four-year-old Geethu Mohandas, and Mohanlal, who was then in the cusp of superstar status, in a stunning cameo.
In hindsight, I am glad that I watched it as an adult. Paleri’s film is a melancholic piece that discusses a complicated adulthood. I have debated about this film in my friend circles and with myself – on the unsettling darkness it attributes to the protagonist, a single mother. She is a gifted artist with a well-to-do job at an advertising agency, but there is a dire lack of vigour in her. She is mourning the death of her husband who passed away shortly after the birth of the child, denying herself of any happiness, as though the death mutilated her permanently.
Most of the scenes in the film involve the two female characters, but the film, fundamentally, is centered on the two men – the dead husband whose shadow looms over the mother and the child, and a nameless stranger who appears only in the final scene in the film. The film emphasizes on the importance of a male presence in a family, agreeing with the era it was made in. Nevertheless, the artistic quality of the film cannot be overlooked. It converts a seemingly simple tale of platonic romance into an exploration of female desire and lonely childhood.
Paleri’s screenplay is beautifully cinematic. The most poetic element in the film isn’t his dialogues, but the eloquent cinematography by Shaji N Karun. The film has a highly restrained and haunting soundtrack, composed by a then novice Mohan Sithara. It is also a part of nostalgia. The film happens in an era when telephone was part of the living room decor, and finding out the identity of a caller was nearly impossible.
Into the lonely life of an artist, Aleena, and her four-year-old daughter, Deepa, comes in contact with a stranger through a random telephone call. He befriends the child who starts addressing him as ‘telephone uncle’ and parts with him every little details of her uneventful life. He listens to her with much enthusiasm and affection. The mother is worried and suspicious of this man who plainly refuses to divulge any detail about him. The audience is unlikely to be worried, not just because we recognize the famous voice of Mohanlal, but we are given access to the warm telephone conversations between the child and the man.
The settings of the film and the milieu of the characters aren’t typical. The characters live in a spacious urbane house with a sprawling lawn and a lake in its compound. Aleena is a recluse with a few social relationships. So the house hardly gets any guests. One of the people we see them talking to is the child’s grandfather, an affectionate old man who advises Aleena to move on, remarry and have a pleasant life. She refuses, and continues to live in the memories of her late husband. Curiously, the little daughter imbibes this sadness that her mother wears like a social sign, although she has no memory of being with her father. The child grows up with the knowledge that something is amiss in her seemingly perfect happy life.
The film, an adaptation of a short story that Paleri wrote for a vernacular magazine, has a rich and eloquent subtext that casts an indelible impression on the audience. It doesn’t discount the complexities of real life. The screenplay isn’t syrupy or mawkish. It has the right kind of dramatic or melodramatic punctuation. The film never loses sight of the emotional turmoil that Aleena is going through, and the haze of mystery that ‘Telephone Uncle’ is shrouded in never really goes away.
Shaji N Karun later diversified his career to filmmaking, and won a Caméra d’Or – Mention d’honneur at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival for his debut directorial, Piravi. His utmost sensitive work in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare emphasizes on the fact that Karun was always a formidable director of photography, rather than just a technician who plays with light and images. The film opens to a visual of a vintage telephone, ringing aloud in the living room unattended. The camera goes from one room to another, taking the audience on a tour of the sprawling house, and comes to a still in an image of an empty room. It is as if the house is being shaken up from a slumber by someone unknown, perhaps from a time in the future. The emptiness that pervades the house, mirrors the implausible grief that Aleena suffers from. As Aleena starts getting drawn to the stranger on phone, you see the gloom in the air paving way for some bustle and light.
The unfolding of Deepa’s friendship with Telephone Uncle is heartening. She isn’t bothered by the fact that he is a man without a face or an identity. Paleri composes the dialogues between them like little haiku poems. The child asks him about his house, and he replies, “I live alone, in a house beside a pond which has a lot of fish. Every day, I watch the birds that come in to prey on them…” The child laughs out heartily, in awe of the many images that he packed in them. Geethu Mohandas gives her career-best performance in the film, incredibly portraying the childish wonder, longing and confusion of little Deepa.
One of the most curious things about the film is how it portrays Aleena’s yearning for a partner. In the 80s, many Malayalam films, especially those of late filmmaker IV Sasi, female desire has been generously portrayed. However, they were coated in an aggressive male gaze. In Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare, it is subtle. In the scene where her best friend (Shari) and her suitor (Suresh Gopi) are walking through the beach, you get a shot of Aleena alone on the shore, gazing at the sea. The frame is moody, compared to the shot of the couple playing in the waves. Even a scene of Christmas night isn’t an archetype merry one, although you see little Deepa enthusiastically dressed up for the occasion and waiting at the door to welcome the carol party. The scene is dim-lit and underlined by the growing tension between Aleena and Telephone Uncle. The only time she confronts this feeling is when an elderly doctor (Nedumudi Venu) asks her about Deepa’s father. She is embarrassed about the fact that she is dressed up – in a bright coloured saree, a bindi on the forehead and her hair carefully done. Asha Jayaram, in that scene, powerfully expresses the guilt that the society assigns to a single mother who falls in love.
But is it really love, we might wonder. You never come to know of the man’s perspective – does he think of Aleena as much as he thinks of the child? I would like to believe that the enigmatic final scene of the film happens in Aleena’s dreamscape. The man arrives at their door like a puzzle, like a shadow, as though he isn’t real. He leaves with a promise to return, but yet the sense of optimism isn’t strong enough. This criss-crossing between reality and dream/fantasy repeats in Paleri’s second and only other directorial venture, Vismayam, in which a man’s conversations with his dead wife is a prominent part of the plot.
Post Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare, Paleri’s writing has never really got in touch with his hopelessly romantic self. With collaborators like Sathyan Anthikkad and Rajasenan, he wrote several blockbuster comedies. But the alluring and baffling romance in Onnu Muthal Poojyam Vare is what appears to be his most honest work; it exposes the writer as a lonely child in an empty house, waiting by a telephone.