Romance is a genre that has not been explored to its full potential in Malayalam cinema. We have had very few films that delved deep into love, romance and lust. Mostly Malayalam cinema has paid obeisance to the culmination of romance before legalising it. The aftermath of love in marriages, or more specifically how it evolves as a couple ages, has been fleetingly explored in Oru Cheru Punchiri and Minnaminginte Nurungu Vettam. They were more sterile and tender depictions that left a warm glow and hope in our hearts. But in Pranayam (2011), director Blessy goes deeper into marriage, love and desire, and attempts to understand how couples manifest heartbreak, second chances, and old age in the long run.
Blessy places his narrative in the backdrop of a city where the central characters are boxed inside apartments. Achyutha Menon (Anupam Kher, who wasn’t really fit for the character) lives in his son’s house, though the son is working abroad. His daughter-in-law, who seems to be a perennial nag, and her teenage daughter live with him. His daughter-in-law comes across as someone who can barely tolerate the elderly around her house and keeps complaining to her husband and co-worker about the hassles of juggling home, work and her father-in-law. But Achyuthan remains unperturbed, refusing to let that hassle him.
Achyuthan is in his 60s, a genial old man who is smart enough to sense a hint of romance between his granddaughter and her boyfriend. And yet doesn’t make a big deal out of it. There is a warm friendship between him and his son (Anoop Menon), more so as Achyuthan was a single parent.
It is when Achyuthan’s past walks into his life in an elevator that Pranayam starts to unfold. Grace (Jaya Prada, who instantly makes you fall in love with her), his estranged wife, true to her name, is a picture of elegance; age hasn’t withered her beauty. When they nearly collide with each other, it seems to stir up a rollercoaster of emotions between them. Achyuthan isn’t quite able to handle this abrupt meeting and collapses in the elevator.
As destiny brings them face to face, we are also privy to the intensity of their relationship in Grace’s spontaneous cry for help on watching him in distress. At the hospital, she doesn’t bother to hide her concern, as she peers into the ICU and also makes a trip to his apartment the very next morning to know his condition.
That’s also when the third crucial angle in the narrative enters. Mathews (Mohanlal, who is at his sublime best), Grace’s husband and a former English professor, is in a wheelchair. The affable, self-assured Mathews’ devotion to Grace is boundless. Their love has only grown stronger over the years, so much so that Mathews is instantly able to read even a slight crease on her forehead. Every time the narrative lingers on Mathews and Grace, there is a sweetness in the frame. We already suspect it’s a relationship that has weathered tumultuous storms. As Grace gently draws herself into Mathew’s partially paralysed body, you can even sense the carnal love between them. She bathes, feeds and clothes him with such tenderness that it leaves us in no doubt about her utmost devotion to him.
It is into this intimate world that Achyuthan trespasses. Grace perhaps lets him as they still have a history of misgivings and hurt between them, a few more skeletons left in the closet. Though Mathews is perceptive enough to understand that Achyuthan is still deeply in love with Grace, he doesn’t show any resentment. On the contrary, despite Achyuthan’s noticeable jealousy towards Mathews, a quiet and easy friendship develops between the two men. And between them stands Grace, wise and infinitely mature, as she struggles to negotiate between her all-consuming love for Mathews and her affection for Achyuthan, without hurting either of them. More than Achyuthan, she feels guilty for abandoning her son.
We get brief snapshots of their young romance that show Grace eloping with Achyuthan braving family opposition. It seems like the romance gradually faded as responsibilities started piling on the couple. Though Achyuthan still behaves like a wide-eyed lovesick boy in front of Grace, their son clearly is in no hurry to forgive his mother. He talks of a childhood spent in the company of his lonely father, shifting schools and missing his mother.
As for Grace and Mathews, this unusual bond with Achyuthan that is beyond the comprehension of a myopic society is already creating havoc at home, with their daughter and son-in-law insinuating that it is morally dodgy. None save for the three people involved seem to understand how deeply complex, profound and compassionate a bond they have between themselves. Just when you think the younger generation would be more evolved to accept and think beyond societal moral codes, they disappoint us with their divisiveness. It’s heart-breaking to watch the scene when Mathews begs his daughter to accept her mother’s past. “You can still accept your stepbrother with open arms.” His capacity for kindness, despite how cruelly life has treated him, can really shake you.
Mathews, Grace and Achyuthan are broken souls, who share a history of hurt, betrayal and deep love, and they are courageous enough to forgive, forget and accept each other. Mathews, for all his bodily constraints, is a beautifully free-spirited soul who quotes Shakespeare and can still make Grace blush with a look. He doesn’t want anyone’s pity. There is a lovely scene when Mathews is wheeled into his old college while Grace and Achyuthan obediently sit as he does a teaching demo.
Pranayam reminds us that there are testaments to love beyond the obvious rose-tinted reality. The existence of love is beyond a compulsive, mindless urge to do crazy things for the person you love. But having said that, love can never be overrated. Though ‘happily ever after’ remains a myth, every relationship requires time and nurturing, respect, faith, understanding, patience and learning to let go. But Pranayam might come across as too idealistic for this generation as it talks about sacrifices, compassion, selflessness and the uneasy guilt that perhaps binds such marriages, prompting them to stay for the fear of being judged. And historically, it’s always women who have been at the receiving end of such unions. So you can either see Grace’s conditioned servitude or her unflinching love for Mathews. But oddly we gravitate more towards the latter. Maybe it’s our belief that even if the role was reversed, Mathews will be there for her.
Pranayam also busts the myth that marriages, as they age, lose their sheen and often turn fraternal. Mathews and Grace never took their marriage for granted, most importantly they never lost their love and respect for each other. That’s why Mathews is still able to understand and respect what Achyuthan feels for Grace. That way Pranayam is one of the finest love stories in Malayalam cinema. It’s complex, intense and often messy, but its heart is in the right place. Blessy might not be a great technician, but he is one of those rare filmmakers who has such a soulful understanding of man-woman relationships. That’s why his stories always tug at our heartstrings.
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.