Featuring an ensemble cast of Mohanlal, Mammootty, Seema and Shobhana, the 1985 Malayalam film is a commentary on parenting, caste hypocrisies and more.

Revisiting Anubandham a quintessential MT Vasudevan Nair filmYouTube /Movie Reels
Flix Cinema Tuesday, July 19, 2022 - 16:02

The setting is quintessentially MT — in the backdrop of a nondescript village/town in central Kerala, where men, women and children speak in a prominent Valluvanadan dialect. They live inside massive nalukettus, or unassuming square-shaped homes with spacious front yards and verandahs. Kitchens have black oxidised floors, stained smoke walls, pantries made of stone slabs and large wood-fired stoves. Houses are snugly lined next to each other with just a bamboo fence separating them. Children play all day, and are rarely shut inside their homes. Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by IV Sasi, the two leading characters in Anubandham (1985) are neighbours — Sunanda (Seema), who is a widow and has a son, and Vijayalakshmi (Shobhana), who lives with her husband Bhaskaran (Mohanlal) and son.

Earlier in the film, you get candid frames of two children playing in gleeful abandon, making use of every little corner in nature. They swing on trees, steal mangoes from the neighbour's tree, walk around barefoot, play with mud and bully other children. Clearly, Hari is the leader of the two and the younger one follows him around like a lamb. These children are also directly or indirectly correlated to the change in the dynamics between the adults in the story.

Sunanda, who is struggling to make ends meet, is ostracised by the women in the village. Her tenant’s wife warns Vijayalakshmi to be wary of Sunanda, as she can lure her husband. They are outraged by the fact that she dresses up, despite being a widow. Maybe it is because Sunanda has undergone far more personal tragedies in her life that she is oblivious to the nasty gossiping around her. Or, she is more focused on keeping her household together. She is almost alone in the world, with no one to turn to. But all this doesn’t reflect on her son, who is determined to have fun. Now and then, however, he does talk wistfully about having a larger family.

The narrative treads without fuss, infusing drama in right doses, and allowing us to gradually fall into their stories. Men play the anchor’s role, with Muraleedharan (Mammootty) — Sunanda’s former college professor who was secretly in love with her — helping her find her identity. Vijayalakshmi is a casteist, snobbish, disagreeable young woman who is perennially sulky about the world around her, while her husband is at the receiving end of her venting as she hasn’t yet come to terms with her new home or environment.

One of the best parts of the film has to be the calm and silent romance between Sunanda and Muraleedharan. For Muraleedharan, the love never waned, and he always carried a silent torch for her. But for Sunanda, maybe that love was there in some corner of her heart, and it all came out surging in an atmosphere of kindness and unconditional support. And it is very non-toxic because even after her initial rejection, Muraleedharan chooses to stay away, seemingly more because he is scared to get hurt again than out of resentment. Mammootty — wearing whites, outwardly serene, with hair speckled with grey and eyes framed with thick black rimmed glasses — is all grace and dignity. His love and admiration for Sunanda is almost palpable. But it is Seema as Sunanda who really anchors the film, with her quiet strength and vulnerability. She is torn between her son, her impoverished existence and her love for Muraleedharan, and your heart goes out for her.  

The film is also a commentary on parenting. Children are casualties of their parents' conditioned upbringing. Vijayalakshmi ruthlessly tries to separate two happy children, simply because one doesn’t belong to the societal standards of a “good child from a good family”. If little Hari is desperately trying to be loved by the people around him, the adults are too preoccupied with caste, class and social mores to warm up to him. It is almost shocking, the apathy of adults towards children. Sunanda is too immersed in her own misery to take note of her son’s trauma. In one scene, when a frightened Hari runs into her after getting reprimanded by Vijayalakshmi, Sunanda chooses to be stern with him instead of using comforting words. Both the children, meanwhile, are unable to comprehend the constraints created by adults around them.

Sunanda, being a widow and penniless, has to deal with unwanted male attention as well as vile, disapproving women. With Muraleedharan’s entry, her life is open to scrutiny. But at the same time, the world is crueller to Hari, scarring him with words about his mother’s morality.

If one couple is finding love, Bhaskaran and Vijayalakshmi, meanwhile, are suffocating in their marriage. Bhaskaran is finding it tough to make peace with Vijayalakshmi’s constant rants. She throws her privilege in his face, and he is barely able to put up with it. They hurl hurtful words at each other at every given opportunity. Mohanlal as Bhaskaran internalises this hurt and rage so masterfully that you almost want to tell him, “yes, we hear you”.

Though unfortunate, it is also heartwarming to witness how a tragedy overturns and humbles Vijayalakshmi’s life and perspectives. It takes her son’s death to crush her arrogance and force her to wake up from her myopic world. The post traumatic phases are dealt with empathy, allowing adults to rectify their past mistakes and children to be themselves.

Though MT's script addresses and takes down several upper caste hypocrisies, he also slyly tries to paint them as victims in a scene featuring Premji, as the owner of a dying illam who laments to Muraleedharan — “Is there a way to change my caste? It was easier to be a harijan. I will keep my eyes averted to the ground while walking.”

You see that familiar MT world in Anubandham. Families fall back on traditions, yet are dysfunctional. Men and women are caught up in their own complexities, ironies, destinies and emotional turbulences. Nothing is what it seems to be. Characters and dialogues have a literary heaviness, yet they sit lightly inside the frames. MT’s female characters on celluloid are those who have learnt to negotiate, challenge and thrive while staying within the patriarchal structures. 

Sunanda in Anubandham and Ammukutty in Aalkkoottathil Thaniye are cut from the same cloth. If Sunanda is a widow, Ammukutty is single by choice and circumstances. Yet both have learnt to take it in their stride and try to grab whatever life has given them. 

But MT seems to have this uneasy prejudice towards humans living in modernity, especially women. Vijayalakshmi’s inability to settle down in the village often comes across as the tantrums of an urban woman. And Bhaskaran raking up Vijayalakshmi’s past affair, somehow makes it look like a sacrifice on his part. This also dissolves his merit to some extent. Chastity is still a big deal, and since the narrative dates back to the 80s, it anyway reflects the societal prejudices back then.

For an 80s kid like this writer, more than anything else, Anubandham evokes a powerful nostalgia, with a flurry of images and stories rooted in culture and ethos. Historically, the period also marked the beginning of flourishing writer-director collaborations in Malayalam cinema. It is always a warm revisit!

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