This 1986 Padmarajan film, starring Mammootty, is set in a brothel for the most part, and offers an interesting sociopolitical commentary on the times we live in.

Still from Arapatta Kettiya Gramathil showing Mammootty and Unni Mary
Flix Flix Flashback Tuesday, September 21, 2021 - 15:21

Based on Padmarajan’s short story of the same name, the 1986 Malayalam film Arapatta Kettiya Gramathil, like many of the filmmaker's important works, failed to excite the box office during the time of its release. But today, it’s considered to be one of his seminal creations, a succinct socio-political commentary on the times we live in. It begins lightheartedly inside a brightly lit bar, as three friends, Zachariah, Gopi and Hilal share alcohol and camaraderie. It’s Vishu and they decide to spend the day in a brothel located in a far-flung village. The timeline doesn’t stretch beyond a day but then it's more than enough to turn their lives upside down.

Zachariah (Mammootty), Gopi (Nedumudi Venu) and Hilal (Ashokan) have already started their drinking session, as they wait for Joseph. The atmosphere is rife with the sound of guitar, drums, and clinking glasses. As the conversation flows over alcohol, cigars, and playful banter, it doesn’t take much time to size up the three men. Zachariah is the most temperamental of the lot. He takes offense to Joseph’s patronising, brattish behaviour and doesn’t bother to hide it. When Joseph flashes half a bottle of scotch whiskey on the table, Zachariah (Mammootty who is very raw) says he is happy with his glass of brandy. He seems to be a borderline alcoholic and a recluse. When the bar dancer waltzes into his arms, he playfully shifts her into Gopi’s lap. Gopi is a lawyer. Unlike Zachariah, he loves a bit of fun, alcohol, and women. Hilal is the youngest, “the virgin boy” as Joseph introduces him to the bar dancer and clearly dying to break the tag at the earliest.

It’s the bar dancer who triggers their plan for the day. When she is called to the table and offered a drink, she takes a sip, holds a smile, only to be warned off by the manager to leave. This is met with a loud laugh from Zachariah, but Joseph seems miffed. That’s when he offers them a trip to the Maluvamma’s village brothel. Only Zachariah seems to have heard of it— “I might have gone there long back but was lying drunk inside the car.” And he is also the most reluctant, as women, plainly hold no interest to him.

Gopi and Halal (Asokan is very effective) jump at the offer. But when Joseph leaves them in the middle of the road after a tiff with Zachariah, the latter decides to take them there.

As they take walk into the village, sprawling with paddy fields and green landscape, the villagers positioned inside tea shops peer at them curiously. Some smirk and nod knowingly. Shaji N Karun’s camera is very non-intrusive and captures the essence of the village and its people, contributing to the film’s distinctive character and identity.

But nothing prepares us for the sight of brothel. It’s a rambling old two storeyed bungalow, fenced by brick walls tinted in weed and looming trees. The front yard is designed with mini fountains and tiny shrubs inside a rectangular barren lawn. As the men stroll in with trepidation, they see a middle-aged man who is scribbling on a notebook.  They see large spacious rooms with black oxidized floors and open verandahs where children are playing, unmindful and unafraid of the strangers in the house. There is nothing sleazy or dubious about that old bungalow, in fact it looks like a stately tharavadu that had seen better days. When the three men eventually make themselves comfortable on the open verandah is when the inmates gradually begin to appear.

The women

The women in Arapatta Kettiya Gramathil are all casualties of patriarchy and exploitation. From the dancer who daintily tries to pick her discarded layers of clothes at the bar to the madame of the brothel to its inmates, these are women who are struggling to survive in a patriarchal world. Even the core conflict of the narrative revolves around a young virginal girl at the brothel who is being pursued by predators from different religions. But when the girl refuses to comply to the powerful landlords belonging to any of the religions, it snowballs into a communal strife. 

The most powerful and exploitative figure in the narrative has to be Malu Amma (a brilliantly nuanced Sukumari), the madame of the brothel. If you come across her on the road, this motherly figure wrapped in mundum neriyathum, can charm you with her warmth and smile.  Nothing about Malu Amma prepares you for her ruthless, manipulative, and abusive streak. Once she lures the orphaned Gaurikutty to accompany her to the brothel, the warmth soon disappears.  She thrashes and abuses the girl to comply with her plans. Malu Amma, we understand, seems to be the last remnant of that Nair tharavadu, poverty led her to sex work.  Perhaps years of exploitation had hardened her, making her immune to the plight of other women at the brothel.  The only one she is attached to is her son, Bhaskara Menon. When she is with him and his children, Malu Amma recedes into the domesticated motherly figure. But in front of the powerful men in the village, Malu Amma is helpless, constantly playing into their hands and trying hard to keep them in good humour.

Gauri Kutty gets the generic sketch of a young orphaned poor girl who gets caught in flesh trade. The other two inmates are more interesting. A mute girl (Soorya) who catches the fancy of Gopi. She is endearingly naive, her initial coyness which turns to childlike enthusiasm and possessiveness when she bonds with Gopi.  And there is Devaki, who gets cheated by her husband and is there for the sake of her child (but that part is very casually mentioned). Devaki (Unni Mary) is quietly alluring and seems to have quickly figured out Zachariah. “You are only attached to alcohol,” she tells him.

Morality and double standards

Hilal, like most men, doesn’t understand consent. He comes with this prehistoric notion that men are entitled to use a sex worker's body sexually, with or without her consent. So when he sees Gaurikutty peeping from the door, he assumes that since she is already in the trade, she should be willing to have sex with him. Initially, he tries to molest her but quickly steps back when he realises that she is new to this trade. Just the fact that he didn’t have her consent wasn’t enough to stop him in his tracks. And typically the predator becomes the protector and Gaurikutty rather too swiftly seems to trust him. 

Gopi, who is wooing another inmate, is quick to scorn Hilal’s story about Gaurikutty. “These women are all alike and have such sob stories to tell,” he says dismissively. There is an irony in how these three men who came to buy sex workers, were forced to put the cape of their protectors in the end.

Except for Gaurikutty, the women, despite their situation seems to have come to terms with it.  And Padmarajan is very subtle here—the sex workers aren’t viewed through a moral or voyeuristic lens. Despite the moral outrage of the village men, the sex workers are not treated with contempt by the men who visit them. After a lovemaking session with the mute girl (she doesn’t have a name), Venu is teased by his friends and asked if he has tied her hair in pigtails. A signal that he has really fallen for the girl. The brothel inmates aren’t the stereotypical celluloid version of garishly made-up loud women. Another interesting aspect is the way the men are in front of these women—be it the bar dancer or the sex workers, they seem to let their guard down in front of them, unafraid of being judged. A similar situation was played out two decades later in Vedivazhipadu, where three married men hire a sex worker on a festival day and bare their soul in front of her. 

The film is a clear-eyed take on the plight of sex workers and how at all times women are mere hostages to bigger social and communal dividing lines. 

Watch: Arappatta Kettiyal Gramathil on YouTube

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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