IFFK screens Vaishali: Watching Bharathan’s classic as a woman in 2022

Bharathan’s ‘Vaishali’, produced by Atlas Ramachandran, enjoys a cult status. Viewing it at a packed cinema hall in this day and age is a complex experience.
IFFK screens Vaishali: Watching Bharathan’s classic as a woman in 2022
IFFK screens Vaishali: Watching Bharathan’s classic as a woman in 2022
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Malayalam film Vaishali was one that many of us were not allowed to watch on television when we were young. Slotted as an erotic feature sensationalised for its elaborate sexual references, it was only late in my twenties that I was able to watch the film uninterrupted, and in totality. The climax was nothing I imagined it to be until then. The final shot of the titular Vaishali wailing by herself, abandoned as if her life has no value, still evokes a sense of heaviness in me.

Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed and edited by Bharathan, the 1989 period drama made a comeback on the big screen at the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) to a packed theatre on Sunday, December 11. The film was screened in the Homage category of the festival in memory of the late entrepreneur and actor MM Ramachandran, more popularly known as Atlas Ramachandran, who produced Vaishali under the banner of Chandrakanth Films.

For movie aficionados, Vaishali is a very familiar title, one that enjoys the status of a cult classic. Based on a sub-story narrated by Vedavyasa to Yudhishtira in the epic Mahabharata, the plot follows a young Devadasi girl Vaishali (played by Suparna). A resident of Chambapuri, she is assigned the task of seducing Rishyashrungan, a sage yet to lay eyes upon a woman, and bringing him to Chambapuri, which is plagued by extreme drought. Rishyashrungan’s presence is predicted to bring rain to the kingdom, thus releasing it from a Brahmin's curse that brought on a long drought to the land.

Vaishali is the daughter of Malini (played by Geetha), a Devadasi who was once a concubine to the king. Malini brings up Vaishali chaperoned, and with no intention to have her take up the Devadasi profession. But King Lomapadan requests Malini to have Vaishali take up the task of bringing Rishyashrungan to Chambapuri. Still affectionate towards the king, Malini agrees. She also reveals to the king that Vaishali is in fact their love child and demands that he must acknowledge her paternity once the task is done, which he seems to agree to. Thus, the adolescent Vaishali embarks on the journey and ends up being caught in a web of emotions, politics, and caste-based sanctions.

Filmmaker Bharathan is among the most iconised directors of Malayalam cinema. He tried to blend art with commercial viability, leaving behind a filmography rich in aesthetics and has a huge fan following. Vaishali is among his most famous works, known for its frames that resemble paintings. One cannot grow up in Kerala and interact with Malayalam cinema without being reminded of the artistic vision of Bharathan, time and again.

The fact that in 1989, a prolific filmmaker decided to make a film about how women become collateral damage in political negotiations, especially in a Brahminical state, was an important intervention in the cultural milieu of the time. The Devadasis in the film are perhaps the only ones who call out the hypocrisy of the dominant-caste royalty. Though it is revealed that Vaishali is the daughter of king Lomapadan and Malini, the king does not acknowledge her paternity as promised and betroths his adopted daughter to Rishyashrungan in the end, because Vaishali is the daughter of a low-born, ‘sinful’ Devadasi. MM Ramachandran took a huge risk by investing in this film, something that successful actors and producers in today’s time do not attempt despite having all the resources in the world at their disposal.

“Bharathan sir approached many producers with the script of Vaishali, but nobody was willing to invest money on a feature film based on a passing reference from the Mahabharatha. It was not convincing for many. Ramachandran sir agreed to back the project, thus making it a reality on celluloid,” recalled actor Babu Antony, who played the character of King Lomapadan in Vaishali, at the pre-screening discussion. 

All that said, watching Vaishali as a woman in 2022 is quite a complicated experience. While the late filmmaker’s prowess and cinematic interventions are among the most significant milestones in Malayalam cinema, watching Vaishali as a woman of today, with a more self-aware, intersectional, feminist conscience, is slightly discomforting.

Watching Vaishali as a woman in 2022

The frames of course look like paintings one would not want to look away from, but watching the camera pan in on Suparna’s body with a voyeuristic, hypersexualised gaze feels conflicting. As a lover of cinema and an independent woman of the post #MeToo world, this uneasiness does not stem from a reservation about witnessing nudity or sexual exploration on screen. Rather, it comes from an indescribable buzz in the conscience that persuades me to introspect the gaze of the scenes, and not the content itself. Gaze in art and the sexualisation of female bodies by male filmmakers on screen cannot be overlooked as easily as they could be in earlier times, for many women including me.

It is unnerving, almost blasphemous perhaps, to critique Bharathan's gaze on women in Kerala’s cultural landscape. He is hailed, borderline worshipped for his on-screen aesthetics. But being vocal about the dissonance I feel as a woman in 2022 while watching the naive leap of faith of Vaishali and Malini on screen feels very pressing. It is in the hope of finally being acknowledged by the king that Malini embarks on this task, accompanying her young daughter to seduce and bring back a celibate sage from his residence in the deep forest. At its core, Malini’s pursuit is one of social legitimacy and dignity. 

Except in the climax, however, the gaze on Vaishali’s body does not reflect any of these layers. Towards the end, Vaishali is mercilessly dismissed, left alone to be drenched in the rain that she risked her life to invoke. The last shot of the film is, in a way, a caricature of the lives of most women whose lives are pawned and beauty utilised for strategic gains. 

Given that in totality the film identifies how women are manipulated, used, and discarded, what pulls me a step behind from wholeheartedly applauding the filmmaker for this endeavour is the sensationalisation of the female lead on screen. The film sexualises her body and disguises it as high art, contradicting its very politics. It would be a dishonest exercise to write about my viewing experience of Vaishali on screen at the IFFK if I were not to mention my discomfort in the lensing of the film, especially in the context of interrogating art through one’s own lived experience of gender. This is where the significance of gaze comes into the picture, and quite a few times, the woman in me wished this film was executed differently, visually exploring Vaishali as the naive, hopeful adolescent who encounters her own passion, rather than a sexed-up manifestation of the collective male fantasy.

This feeling is particularly accentuated by the fact that Vaishali was screened at the IFFK, which has films by 32 women filmmakers from all over the world. Several other films at the festival that I could watch explore women, their bodies, and their lives. But when portrayed through the female gaze, the experience is entirely different. The women in Slovakian actor and director Teresa Nvotova’s 2022 film Nightsiren are also subjected to a similar witch hunt but in a different context. Alice Diop’s 2022 French legal drama Saint Omer too looks at the female body, agency, law, and society. In Maryam Touzani’s beautifully fragile Arabic 2022 film The Blue Caftan, Touzani documents love, eroticism, and human desire with a gaze so intimate that it tears one up. When women narrate stories of women, something conspicuously more all-encompassing and tender opens up in the execution, even in the portrayals of lust, desire, and violence. This shift in experience is political as it also documents the changes that have taken place for women over time with respect to accessing cinema as a workplace and as a viewer.

Perhaps, these kinds of re-readings, interrogations, and the in-betweenness they leave one with, are why democratic spaces like film festivals are important, especially for women.

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