No one looking at Bhadra would think of her as a femme fatale, her face is stripped of makeup, her eyes indolent. But this charade of naivety is all part of a larger plan.

Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottus Bhadra a significant woman of Malayalam celluloidScreengrab from Disney+ Hotstar
Flix Cinema Wednesday, June 29, 2022 - 20:16
The sun is slowly rising. A speck of orange is almost hidden behind the lazy coconut trees, and the sky has turned indigo. There is a small boat ferrying over the backwaters. Night slips into dawn, bringing a large houseboat filled with passengers. Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu builds its world in the backdrop of Kerala’s backwaters. It captures the exquisiteness of the state (cinematography by Ravi K Chandran) just as promised in the tourism brochures – the enigmatic backwaters, swinging coconut trees, acres of lush greenery, paddy fields, humongous house boats and magnificent nalukettu houses with large front and backyards.
 
Director TK Rajeev Kumar uses an unusual setting to unleash a tale of a simmering revenge. The film is also a slow burner, with the Kerala motifs and atmosphere intelligently weaved into the narrative. 
 
Bhadra is at the centre of the story. She has just joined the horde of local women hired for the harvest season. No one looking at Bhadra would think of her as a femme fatale. Her face is stripped of makeup, eyes are indolent. She is carelessly dressed in a lungi and blouse, with a thorthu (towel) tied as a half sari. But it is all part of a larger plan — this charade of naivety. Her motivation and background are clearly underlined.
 
Rajeev, who has also written the screenplay, builds Bhadra’s foes rather cunningly. Be it the old and lascivious landlord Natesan (Thilakan), who still finds it difficult to keep his hands off women, or his prodigal son, Uthaman (Biju Menon), who considers women his playthings, are formidable forces for the young and orphaned Bhadra. Natesan walks with the aid of a walking stick, but his large beady eyes miss nothing. When his ayurvedic practitioner suggests the company of a young woman to keep him young, Natesan has already earmarked Bhadra. Uthaman is a chip of the old block, apart from his open hostility towards his father.
 
Usually, the trope of the ‘femme fatale’ is debatable in cinema. They are often portrayed as sexually insatiable and mindlessly vengeful. That way, Bhadra is a chaste femme fatale, who builds the façade of a seductress to lure her predators, though at heart she is bubbling with resentment, hatred and fear. Bhadra is fun, sexy, compassionate, and out to kill. Her transition too has been developed very convincingly. The title is indicative of a woman scorned, about using femininity as a tool to seek vengeance. Bhadra first wins over the trust of Natesan’s meek wife, who has no control over her husband or her son. Once she enters the seemingly impenetrable tower, she uses different tricks to seduce the father and son. If she uses a straightforward but mild seduction game (power of suggestion, rather) against Natesan, she is more gentle and coy with Uthaman, playing with his mind and feigning romance. Interestingly, she uses her feminine wiles so delicately, keeping her boundaries, that it is easy to see how the two men floundered. 
 
Uthaman is the byproduct of a toxic murderous father, and a mother the latter married more for the sake of her reputation than out of love. He feels unwanted and unloved, which explains his mindless philandering and eventually falling for Bhadra’s fake love. The montage song ‘Harichandana Malarile’, revolving around Bhadra and Uthaman, is a beauty. The thawing of ice between them, which slowly evolves into something deeper, and Bhadra’s little ploys with Natesan by the side are all nicely brought together in the song. Bhadra’s romance with the local Muslim shop keeper (Abbas) was also a sweet touch, and you weirdly feel like they were destined to end up together.
 
The men and women in the narrative are plainly demarcated on the basis of their gender. While the men are morally degenerate, the women have long since accepted their exploitation. Women’s sexuality is controlled and abused by men, irrespective of their caste. They are slotted as promiscuous and tame based on their attire and social status. So in a way, Bhadra, despite hatching such a daring revenge plan, is careful to keep it within the boundaries of chastity (also not sure how a breaking of this boundary would have been received back then). Even her mother’s suicide has more to do with the overemphasis on a woman’s chastity (perhaps we can overlook this, considering the timeline of the film).
 
What makes the film worth its time are the performances, especially how the spectacular jugalbandi between Manju Warrier and Thilakan is staged. If not for their subtlety, the suggestive seduction scenes could have digressed into something vulgar. But Manju brings a vulnerability, even in the middle of playing the femme fatale (some of her expressions are a riot), making it a compelling act. While the mighty Thilakan is totally invested in his role as this irredeemably mean, horny old goat, Biju Menon’s bad boy act and how he allows Bhadra to seduce him is also on point.
 
Bhadra knew all along that she was playing with fire. There are also many situations in which her heart skipped a beat, when her courage almost left her. But in her case, fortune really favoured the brave. Considering Bhadra was created at a time when a surge of alpha male heroes were waltzing on screen, she is a significant celluloid woman. That she extracts her revenge singlehandedly using her courage, fear and womanly wiles artfully makes her a fascinating representation on screen. Tessa in 22 Female Kottayam and Bhadra are two sides of a coin, both using their femininity inversely as a tool to get their revenge. But Bhadra's staging, unlike Tessa's, isn't deliberately exploitative. Maybe that's why, years later, only Bhadra lingers in your memory.
 
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.
 
Views expressed are the author’s own.

 

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