Bottom Line: This film is a luminous study of real people, real dilemmas and real situations in preindependent Kerala.Toronto International Film Festival
CHENNAI, India -- Indian auteur Adoor Gopalakrishnan swims and survives in a sea of big-budget movies, aggressively promoted by Bollywood bucks and bigwigs. His latest feature, 10th in 35 years, proves his unwavering commitment to meaningful cinema that began with his first, "Swayamvaram" ("One's Own Choice") in 1972. A keen eye for detail, a remarkable feel for authenticity and an undying love for each of his characters have helped Adoor -- as he is popularly known -- to create celluloid excellence, which is at once refreshing, even rejuvenating, for it is so different from the usual song-and-dance Indian cinema.
In Adoor's films, real people exist, facing and fighting real predicaments in often complex situations, and these have endeared him to very ordinary cinema audiences, as they have to critical festival buffs. Therefore, "Four Women" ("Naalu Pennungal") in Malayalam, premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival, is sure to find a market not just overseas but also at home, particularly in southern India.
"Four Women" is divided into four chapters, each dealing with a different problem women face. Beyond the obvious thematic link, women, each chapters, based on renowned Kerala writer Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai's short stories, touches on the injustice heaped on this sex by society.
The first episode examines a prostitute's distress when she and the man she chooses to live with are accused of illicit relationship and jailed. The woman who wants to begin a new life is ridiculed by the sentencing judge, and an obstacle is placed on her path to reformation and love.
In the second section, aspersions are cast on a farming woman when her impotent (or is it gay?) husband sends her back to her parents' home. In a disturbing night scene, we see the woman suffer terrible hurt and humiliation when he rejects her with callous words, "It is too hot." This story is aptly subtitled "Virgin."
The third part captures the angst of a housewife whose children fail to live beyond a few days after birth. The narrative, touching upon sorrow and desire but subtly laced with humor, places the woman in a quandary as she fights the temptation to sleep with an old schoolmate if only to beget a child.
We see the same lure in a spinster in the final segment, where she invites a man home, but hesitates and finally refuses to let him in. With her brother and two younger sisters married, she is left with little choice: either be a piece of furniture in a sibling's home, scoffed at and used as a domestic, or sink into solitude.
These stories take place in 1940s Kerala, but are relevant even today, for Indian women, especially in the villages, still have to grapple with social prejudices and impediments. What gives the film an even greater impulsion are the strong performances that Adoor has been able to draw from his actors, turning them into eminently believable characters. In perhaps her best attempt ever, Nandita Das as Kamakashi infuses the anguish of a woman left by the wayside. Her face conveys pain and helplessness.
Padma Priya transits with consummate ease from a brash streetwalker to one seeking stability, even if it is within a live-in relationship. If Geetu Mohandas brings dignity to Kumari stoically bearing the mortification of rejection, Manju Pillai gives nuances to the frustration of being childless.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan Prods.
Director/Producer/Production designer: Adoor Gopalakrishnan
Writer: Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai
Based on stories by: Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai
Director of photography: M.J Radhakrishnan
Art director: Marthandam
Music: Isaac Thomas
Co-producer: Benzy Martin
Costume designer: S.B. Satheesh
Editor: Ajith Kumar
Kunju Pennu: Padma Priya
Papu Kutti: Sreejith
Kumari: Geetu Mohandas
Chinnu: Manju Pillai
Raman Pillai: Murali
Nara Pillai: Mukesh
Kamakshi: Nandita Das
Shubdra: Kavya Madhavan
Sarojam: Ramya Nambisan
Running time -- 105 minutes
No MPAA rating