Less than 100 years after the inquisition of Kuriyeddath Thathri, a Brahmin woman, Parinayam came to the silver screen. The inquisition took place in the early 1900s and the film was released in 1994. Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by Hariharan, it depicts the journey of a Brahmin woman, Unnimaya, from being a widow to a vindicator of her self and self-respect.
“For a widow, laughter is more frightening than weeping/ Priestly class, do you know the pain and agony of it?/ It is the fire of this agony that is forever blazing inside namboodiri houses” — Lalithambika Antharjanam
At the expansive and decadent Palakunnathu tharavadu, the arena is all set for a Smarthavicharam (inquiry into conduct). The accused Unnimaya (Mohini), the young widow of Palakunnathu Namboothiri, has been imprisoned in a dark, dingy room. A stream of old, garrulous paan-chewing Namboothiri men have gathered for the impending trial. For them, this is a celebratory occasion—gloating about their multiple wives and mistresses, enquiring about the food, indulging in nourishing oil baths, and occasionally smirking at the “sadhanam” (inanimate object) locked in the outhouse.
The Smarthavicharam, where a Namboothiri slips into the role of a smarthan (judge) surrounded by other Brahmins, is disturbingly played out like the ordeals rape survivors are subjected to in the court of law. They begin with the domestic worker (Dasivicharam) who is stationed outside the outhouse. She is made to recite the plight of the victim all over again. The Smarthan (Thilakan) is ruthless, ridiculing and humiliating her with questions about her pregnancy, even as the onlookers break into peals of laughter. When she refuses to submit to their inquisition, they order the domestic worker not to give her a drop of water.
Soon after that announcement, the onlookers drift into matters of the menu and the cook. For the partaking brahmins, this is like a carnival, with entertainment and free food. As the woman starves in the room, the men devour elaborate meals, and weigh the delightful likelihood of extending the trial to a month.
In the early 1900s, Smarthavicharam was said to be the inquisition of a Namboothiri woman who had sexual affairs outside her marriage. The men who participated in this adultery were also taken to task and if found guilty both were ostracised from the community. It is a lengthy six-stage process where the woman is questioned, often intimidated (rats and snakes are thrown into her room) or beaten to extract the truth.
Watch: Parinayam with Mohini, Vineeth and Manoj K Jayan
Written by MT Vasudevan Nair, directed by Hariharan, Parinayam is a powerful social commentary that throws light on the denigrating patriarchal system that existed in the Namboothiri community during the early 1900s and the pitiable state of women in the community. There are references to Thathrikutty, the Namboothiri woman who challenged brahmin patriarchy by willfully sleeping with 65 men and was later ostracised.
MT spins an engaging narrative, weaving a brief romance, enticingly blending Kathakali and placing it within the constraints of the community. The film goes back and forth into Unnimaya’s past and present as is evident in that opening song, where she is ushered into the illam as the fourth wife of the 60-year-old Palakunnathu Namboothiri (Jaggannatha Varma).
Unnimaya, in her early 20s, educated and hailing from a progressive family, is forced to marry the old Namboothiri due to financial stress. On their wedding night when the bejeweled Unnimaya is gently pushed into the room, we feel an overwhelming sense of pity for the young bride, who perhaps would not have imagined such a fate in her wildest dreams. As he impatiently attempts to feel her up, the bride seems to be lying there motionless, in a state of shock. But it does not last long as he gets up almost immediately, gasping.
The young bride is already on a warpath against her husband’s second wife and third wife. It does not help that the third wife (Bindu Panicker) is deranged. A stricken Unnimaya can only watch helplessly as her elderly husband bangs the third wife’s head against the wall till it bleeds. When she becomes widowed, Unnimaya takes time to grasp that — apart from wearing plain dreary clothes — even the tiny pleasures of life have been snatched away from her.
In that large stifling space, the only voice of dissent turns out to be her stepson, Kunjunni (Manoj K Jayan) who despises everything his community stands for. Right from the beginning he has revolted against his father’s marriages and has only sympathy for the young Unnimaya. When an elderly Namboothiri starts beating Unnimaya black and blue during the Smarthavicharam, it is Kunjunni who stops him and is even prepared to take on the child’s paternity to save her. He also takes it upon himself to initiate her remarriage with a friend, which never happens.
Unnimaya’s love affair with Madhavan (Vineeth) begins with stolen glances and shy smiles. Madhavan uses Kathakali as a lure to win her over. The seduction is carefully staged by Madhavan, in one of his spectacular Kathakali veshams. Though Unnimaya remains silent despite their persistent and cruel questioning, it is only when Madhavan begs her to keep his name hidden that Unnimaya truly regains strength. That treachery lends a steely resolve as she bravely confronts the disapproving old men— “No, I haven’t done anything. Women give birth as they are tuned that way. As for the men, there were several and I do not remember their names,” she declares, much to the chagrin of her audience.
There is something ostensibly vulgar and perverse about these elderly men who seem to be getting vicarious pleasure in witnessing this outburst—with many eyeing her salaciously. Perhaps one can draw parallels with their reactions to that of the moral policing we see on social media. When she is eventually thrown out, alone and vulnerable to the outside world—a pack of vultures in the form of men from other religions and castes are awaiting her. Even as her trusted domestic worker offers to take her, Unnimaya has already walked away.
Madhavan, by now, is wracked with guilt. When he realises how much this guilt has sabotaged his career he musters enough courage to own up to the part he has played in Unnimaya’s life, to seek forgiveness and ask her to marry him. Ironically, it was the fear of being cold-shouldered in the profession that made him shun her. But by now Unnimaya’s resolve was clear to all, even before she responded to Madhavan thus: “Yes, I was also in love but not with you but with the heroic veshams you danced on stage. And if need be, I will tell my child that his father is Nalan, Arjunan or Bheeman.” That Kunjunni will eventually give shelter to Unnimaya seemed predestined.
Parinayam might be set in the 1900s but it’s also a frightening echo to the centuries-old atrocities women across castes and religions have been putting up with.
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.