Directed by Hariharan, the 1987 film not just addresses guilt and redemption, but also talks about depression and drug abuse without harping on it.

Poster of the 1987 Malayalam film Amrutham Gamaya showing actors Mohanlal, Geetha and Parvathy
Flix Flix Flashback Sunday, November 01, 2020 - 14:43

Amrutham Gamaya (Path to immortality) is about second chances, about battling guilt, because when you allow it to consume you it has the capacity to cripple you for life. When a seemingly harmless ragging session leads to the death of his junior, Dr Haridas is devastated but his professor bails him out. Years later as a practitioner at a village clinic, the past gets back to him in the form of his poor neighbours who are the family of the deceased student. Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by Hariharan, the 1987 film not just addresses guilt and retribution, but also, without harping on it, talks about depression and drug abuse.

A car drives past Nila, the river luminous, in the backdrop of a setting sun. The occupants inside the car glimpse fleetingly at a stream of devotees in white offering Karkidaka Vavu Bali (a form of Hindu ritual in which offerings are made for the deceased to attain Moksha). Dr Haridas (Mohanlal) and his widowed mother (Sukumari) are on their way to his uncle’s home. The house is an expansive building done in white and grey, with a large elaborate front yard enclosed by an iron gate. Haridas steps into a space permeated in classist and casteist hegemony. His uncle (Thilakan) leads the family, which has his four sons, a daughter and daughter-in-law. Haridas is their poor cousin, the one whose education was funded by the uncle and therefore continually reminded by his meek mother to be indebted to them.

The MT Vasudevan Nair tropes are evident – the flourishing patriarchal Nair tharavadu with debauched men who arm-twist the powerless and the lower caste, hapless traditional women who fill in their proven roles with a smile and cry silently against the inequality. Their voices are conditioned to be muted while men are not allowed to be weak, lest their machismo get dented.

Haridas surveys the household with scepticism, resenting the patronising undertones in their behaviour. That the uncle and his sons think they own him makes him uncomfortable, so does their feudalistic attitude towards the lesser privileged. When a Muslim trader lashes at the uncle for using devious methods to get his shop, he is more appalled by how the daughter, Bhanumathi (Geetha), springs up in defence of her father. The eldest (Captain Raju) is a real estate contractor, the second one (Devan) moves around in political circles and the youngest runs a medical shop.

When Haridas starts his practice at the local dilapidated clinic run by his uncle, he realises that he is up against a morally corrupt system, where the facilities are poor, and also that he does not have a say in its functioning. The other doctor at the clinic, after the introductions get over, cautions him against treating pregnant women, as it’s his fiefdom. For someone who took the Hippocratic oath to heart, this crude monetisation of his profession is unacceptable as he is someone who prefers to treat the poor for free. When he does not prescribe a list of medicines for the patients, his cousin does not take it kindly as it affects the revenue of his medical shop. That the cousin looks at him with contempt is clear in an earlier scene where he turns to his sister and mocks her beau, wondering about the “thrill or glamour in being with someone who has the license to kill”.

There is an air of disquiet in Haridas, it is there in his interactions with Bhanu, who is all over him. She looks at him with stars in her eyes, but he is almost dismissive. Maybe it’s all a precursor to the past that will come back to haunt him. It begins when he visits a patient at her home – a derelict Namboothiri illam that has seen better days. The patient is bedridden, her husband Ilethu (Babu Namboothiri) is a temple priest and they have a daughter Sreedevi (Parvathy). It is when the elderly father mentions their departed son Unnikrishnan (Vineeth), who was a promising medical student, that Haridas gets a jolt. That night he injects ester and it soon becomes a habit, as the guilt slowly starts to eat inside him. In a way, Haridas’s gradual meltdown is skilfully woven into the narrative. At one end, he is distancing himself from his uncle and cousins, throwing away the privileges bequeathed on him, and on the other hand he is preparing himself for his path to salvation. And it seems imminent – like a man who has discarded his riches, turned to penance to attain sainthood.

Haridas soon realises that despite surrendering willingly to serve the family and help the daughter pursue medicine, the noose of guilt continues to hang around him like a vicious serpent, convulsing him into a state of depression. It is again the wise old Professor (a brilliant Karamana Janardanan Nair) who pulls him out of this self-destructive journey, cautioning him to stop the drug use. Meanwhile as expected, Sreedevi (Parvathy is one actor who is never given her due, she is such an effective and underrated actor and stands on her own in the company of stalwarts) finds herself drawn towards this stranger who has turned their saviour overnight.

When the medical negligence of his colleague results in the death of a pregnant low-caste woman, Haridas is made the scapegoat, thanks to a smear campaign by his uncle and cousins. But for him, all this pales in comparison to the crime he has unknowingly committed, including losing Bhanu. However, one feels his reactions to losing Bhanu do not quite add up to his earlier indifferent conversations with her. Or maybe the thought of losing her made him realise that he loved her after all.

The Namboothiri celluloid stereotype is reinforced rather forcefully in how the community is depicted as poor but still caste-proud, with lascivious old men courting young women to be their wives.

The enormity of his crime hits you when Haridas eventually confesses to Ilethu and recounts the events of that fateful night. A young Unnikrishnan is dragged amidst a crowd of boys, led by Haridas, ordered to strip and carry him on his shoulders, amidst rip-roaring laughter. When he begs them to leave him alone, Haridas, all aggressive and heady, laughs it off. But Unnikrishnan, a heart patient, collapses while carrying Haridas, spitting blood. Suddenly the laughter dies, the boys run away, leaving a shaken Haridas alone with Unnikrishnan who dies instantly. Mohanlal brilliantly internalises the guilt and trauma of Haridas, especially in this transition scene where all his cockiness is drained to reveal a man quivering in shock and guilt.

Haridas looks on as the family finishes the last rites but crumbles when the mother accuses him of killing her son. As he slits his wrist, writhing in pain and remorse, Sreedevi grabs his hands, her face swimming in tears and everything else she was holding back from him. “What if I offer you my life in return for your brother’s?” Haridas implores.

For Haridas, the path to absolution was not easy. The guilt could have easily consumed his life but perhaps Ilethu and Sridevi realised his sincerity and selflessness, his effort in gaining their trust and forgiveness and offering them his own life as an ancillary. When a man wades through guilt, self-loathing, and death to eventually reach inner peace, absolution and meaning, that is close to attaining immortality, isn’t it?

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