Shreekant and I spent a few days in Tiruvalla last month, during our 2 weeks December vacation in Kerala. Tiruvalla, a small bustling town in central Kerala, is also my hometown and is where my mother enjoys her retirement after a long legal career. Towards the end of one unusually uneventful day, we decided to try our luck in one of the three cinema theatres that the town boasts of. Since online booking is a practice yet to see the light of the day in Thiruvalla, we made our way to Chilanka, a conventional single screen cinema hall with modest ambience and the old hand-marked tickets.
The film playing at the time was Anarkali, a Prithviraj starrer that held the promise of romance and good music in the scenic surroundings of Lakshadweep.

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The film revolves around the lives of Shanthanu (Prithviraj) who is in his 40s who pines over Nadira (Priyal Gor) whom he loved 15 years ago in his 20s. He is also an ex-Navy officer who is now working as a record-holding diving instructor. Since Nadira whom he loved in his 20s was underage (15 years), both of them agree to wait to show their love is true, to Nadira’s Nawabi father Jaffer Khan (Kabir Bedi). He is also Shanthanu’s Commanding Officer and Flag officer, who insisted on Shantanu’s dismissal from Navy due to inappropriate conduct with his underage daughter. During their period of waiting, Shanthanu lost touch with Nadira for more than 2 years, and in his search for her he travels to Kavaratti, Lakshadweep where Nadira’s brother Dheeraj is rumoured to be posted as a Navy officer. On the island, Shantanu encounters the unique lifestyles and culture of a community separated and secluded from the rest of the world by miles of ocean. After numerous dramatic twists and turns of fate, Shantanu manages to locate Nadira’s brother who convinces Nadira and her stubborn father to come to Cochin, where Shantanu can finally meet her. But Jaffer Khan again tests Shantanu by setting a deadline to reach them from the island, which Shantanu wins by attempting to sacrifice his own life. Of course, love triumphs and Shantanu and Nadira unite on Shantanu’s deathbed, from where he recovers and joins Nadira in marital harmony.
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In the movie, although Jaffer Khan is portrayed as the obstinate and insensitive father who swears to never let the lovers unite, I feel that his attitude is completely justified from the position of an experienced military man and a concerned father. How can a doting parent ever allow his only daughter to marry a recalcitrant and immature man? Although the movie shows the process of Nadira’s transformation from a bubbly, naïve young girl into a pensive, willful woman; I still feel that her character is shown as revolting against her father’s dominance. Her entire life then becomes a haughty endeavor to prove the truth and maturity of her feelings for Shantanu. Whether there was any depth for her infatuation with the dashing young officer at the time of their encounter is a matter of debate. This revolt then becomes the objective of her life; and through that, she sacrifices her career and fun-filled college days, opting to pursue the solitary study of Sufi music and Muslim theology instead.

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Although the movie was tiringly melodramatic and felt like an abridged version of the many Ekta Kapoor Indian soap operas, it presented to me an interesting contrast- the characters of the female lead Nadira and the Lakshadweep doctor Sherin George (Miya George). The notions of consent, age and love can be analysed amongst these two characters who pose opposing personality traits and cultural backgrounds in the film. Nadira and Shantanu fall in love with each other when she is 15 and he is 25. The portrayal of Nadira as a curvaceous teenager whose physical appearance and antics belie her cherubic innocence is a troubling issue for me. The whole question of what and who decides a woman’s age is indeed a matter for poignant consideration. Does physical appearance and fashion sense dictate a woman’s age? In the movie, we see Shantanu being shocked during the court-martial proceedings where Nadira’s true age is revealed. The protagonist is then shown regretting the steamy encounter he had with Nadira, where they were caught kissing red-handed by Nadira’s father.

On the other hand, Sherin is a professionally qualified and experienced doctor who is solely responsible for treating the sick and needy inhabitants of the island. Her independence and free-spirited nature are amply demonstrated in the film, while she sings and dances on the ship and also through her subtle references to drinking. She furiously revolts against the patriarchal attitudes amongst the islanders, and makes no bones about her own love tragedy.

It is interesting to see how director Sachy portrays these two opposing characters on a canvas that is so rich with the images of family values, ethnic culture and emotional turbulence. Like the legendary Anarkali who sacrificed her life for true love, here Nadira too sacrifices her youth and passion to reclaim Shantanu’s love and her father’s acceptance. The movie regressively proclaims that a woman’s only purpose in life is to seek “true love” and unswervingly wait for her soulmate. Sherin’s character who values economic autonomy and vocational excellence is used as a foil to Nadira’s in order to highlight the lead heroine’s life and conservative values.
While it distresses me to see that a woman who chooses to lead an independent, non-conformist life is still looked down upon by Indian society, as is evidenced by the islanders shunning Sherin when she vociferously argues for Duah’s return back to the mainland, it is equally pleasing to note that this bohemian doctor is responsible for uniting the lovers Shantanu and Nadira in the end. It is solely on the strength of Dr. Sherin’s judgement that Shantanu is flown to the mainland by the end of Jaffer Khan’s deadline. Godot finally arrives in the form of marriage to Shantanu and Nadira, and the end to their waiting is cinched by Dr.Sherin. The ‘Madwoman in the Attic‘ puts an end to the misery of ”The Angel in the House‘, and gifts her a life of hope, love and purpose.

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