Disclaimer: This is not a review but a film analysis. There are several spoilers ahead. Don't read if you haven't watched the film and don't like spoilers.
Sleevachan, resting idly on the kitchen floor, stands up and walks away when one of his sisters slyly presents the topic of his marriage. A proposal. He does not like it, he asks if they don’t have anything else to say. Sleevachan is not putting on an act. He is 35 years old and for some reason, he has never been interested in anyone, romantically. He just likes his routines – going to tap rubber early in the morning, taking long rides in his jeeps, running a shop in town and spending time with his bunch of friends over several glasses of brandy.
Asif Ali plays this character of Sleevachan convincingly in the recently released movie Ketyolaanu Ente Malakha. The casual conversations in the family like the one above, and among his friends, are beautifully filmed by Nissam Basheer, debut director. It is all refreshingly sweet with new actors making some wonderful debuts, until the wedding that Sleevachan so dreaded takes place. And then we step into debatable territory.
The film addresses the serious issue of marital rape. It has been touched upon in an earlier movie called Grihapravesham, where Jagdish and Rekha play a couple who get accidentally married. Jagdish plays the simpleton who is really happy with the unexpected new bride while Rekha plays a woman who was in love with the man she was supposed to marry, and can’t accept her new husband. He tries everything to win her love including a failed attempt at marital rape and is promptly shamed by everyone around him.
In Sleevachan’s case, he is not trying to win his wife Rincy’s (Veena Nandhakumar) love. He agrees to marry only because he doesn’t want to leave his aged mother alone at home when he is away. His disinterest in the alliance is made very obvious. He doesn’t even so much as look at the woman he is going to marry when he visits her house for ‘pennu kaanal’. Instead, he shows unusual concern for her bedridden mother, barging into her room, opening her windows, suggesting herbal medicines. The woman and her family are impressed by his concern. The marriage takes place soon enough.
You get a glimpse of Sleevachan’s troubled mind when he confesses to the church priest that he has no idea what one is supposed to do in bed after marriage. The priest, who is also the bride’s relative, brushes it off as something every new couple goes through. But you, as a viewer, have observed his indifference towards women when it comes to romance, even though his family and friends have not thought it unusual. You wonder throughout the movie why he never goes for counselling, even when the need arises and the suggestion is put to him.
This is probably why -- in the kind of society Sleevachan lives in, a man who does not even look at a woman’s face is commended as a “good” man. But you expect a back story as explanation. It is not that he is suppressing the natural instincts of any grown human, he is just portrayed as not having any. That can’t just come from religion, although that’s one argument. Sleevachan goes to his Sunday masses. Sleevachan is active in organising religious retreats.
His lack of understanding regarding romantic relationships goes beyond religion. He is angry when he catches his younger assistant spending time with his girlfriend. Either Sleevachan strongly holds on to the childhood lessons he learnt from someone senior - it is wrong to engage in any sort of romance before marriage - or he’s gay or asexual. Is he really disinterested in sex with a woman or is it the fear of his ignorance that makes him so flustered when he’s required to engage in it?
But Asif Ali is shown more as a naïve man, unfamiliar with the ways of the world, despite his social circles and mingling with all sorts of people. After marriage, he makes grand excuses to avoid spending any time with his wife. Forget the physical intimacy he might be afraid to show, he shies away from even having a regular conversation with her. Could he just be unusually shy? That can’t be it either, since he is, like we saw during his pennu kaanal, overly free even at a stranger’s house.
So then how does such a pious man end up raping his wife? The film appears to show him as someone who doesn’t realise that what he did was rape, that it is wrong. However, everyone else around him acknowledges that what happened was rape, including his mother and sisters. It is only from their shock and anger that he realises that what he did is unacceptable. In passing, we also hear other minor women characters acknowledge that this happens in many homes, including their own – only, they did not faint like Rincy did.
It is not that Rincy does not like him. But it is an arranged marriage and the husband has not yet said one proper line to her. He’s practically a stranger when one day, Sleevachan’s idiot friend tells him that women like to be dominated in bed and a drunk Sleevachan forces himself on Rincy. He gets up with a grand smile on his face, like he did something right when he realises Rincy is not waking up.
The family’s immediate reaction is anger for assaulting his wife. Marital rape is recognised for what it is – that a man does not have the right over a woman’s body only because he’s her husband. The doctor who examines Rincy even wants to have him arrested. Sleevachan has no idea why. When he next has a meal with Rincy, he asks her to just forget about all that has happened. Rincy, with her injured lips, asks him how he could do this to her.
Sleevachan’s naivety is difficult to buy - it seems ridiculous that a 35-year-old man who has all his senses, who gets out of his home and interacts with others, does not know what assault is. But where the movie falters even more is in creating a narrative to build a new relationship, offering a way out for Sleevachan’s misconstrued ideas about married life. The film tries to make him likable despite what he has done (he also wins the village’s praise for cultivating a different kind of pepper plant).
What is least understood about marital rape is that it can be even more traumatic for the survivor when she has to continue living with her assaulter. But the script, which is so genuine till the interval point, suddenly makes compromises to create an awakening for Sleevachan, who, tipped by a friend, sees romance anew all around him. Rincy too, till then hurt and upset and wanting to go back home, begins to appreciate this ‘new’ side of Sleevachan who is sympathetic to young lovers (the assistant he earlier rebuked). Days after the assault, on the verge of separating, they decide not to, pledging their newfound love for each other.
The film is forced into a happy ending where a rape survivor falls in love with the assaulter because he saw some fish romancing underwater and suddenly understood what love is. The problem with Ketyolaanu Ente Malakha is that it slips in this ‘because’ all too conveniently, when this is far from what happens in real life.