Lohithadas’s debut directorial takes on two of his favourite themes—emotional and mental instability, and love that is deep, intricate, and often unrequited.

Mammootty in Bhoothakkannadi
Flix Flix Flashback Sunday, February 21, 2021 - 10:53

Lohithadas’s debut directorial is a key moment in Malayalam cinema in many ways. The movie, a beautifully nuanced love letter to the complexities of the human mind, is a typical example of avant-garde Malayalam cinema of the ‘90s. It also gave Mammootty another chance to show audiences why he is more than just a superstar, with the actor raking up several awards for his performance. But beyond all this, Bhoothakkannadi (1997) is simply a poignant, intimate examination of humanity.

Vidhyadharan (Mammootty) operates a tiny watch repair shop, his careful eye looking at the world through a cylindrical magnifying glass with which he examines damaged watches. That magnifying glass or bhoothakkannadi is a metaphor for his confounded state of mind—his impaired relationship with reality. He has visual and auditory hallucinations, a reason why he interprets the world and its complications through the magnifying glass.

Lohithadas’s first foray into direction takes on two of his favourite themes—emotional and mental instability, and love that is deep, intricate, and often unrequited.

At the core of Bhoothakkanadi stands one of the finest love stories in Malayalam cinema. Between the dusky pulluvathi Sarojini (Sreelakshmi) and the gentle Vidhyadharan—it is an unequal equation, a sort of reversed gender dynamics. He is not a heroic hero. On the contrary, Vidhyadharan is not conventionally manly. He is petrified of stepping out in the dark, carries a torch even during the day, hesitates to pick a fight, and seems to be constantly battling with the self. There are indications that Vidhyadharan always had this fear of darkness and the unknown from childhood and was incapable of standing up for himself.

Between the two of them, it is Sarojini who is unabashed about her love. Their romance stood the test of time—they grew up together, married other people, and had children. But when the film opens, we see Vidhyadharan as a widower and Sarojini abandoned by her husband. Their children, strangely, have already wired a bond. It is still the elders who are hesitant to take the relationship forward. He does evade the topic of a remarriage under the pretext that his first wife died of snake bite. But it is also true that he never musters the courage to propose marriage to Sarojini and is watchful of what the society thinks.

Vidhyadharan is cowardly, he shows his fatherly love in almost maternal ways—a thattan (goldsmith) is piercing his daughter’s ears and an agonised Vidhyadharan walks aimlessly in another room, unable to watch her cry and scoops her tenderly when it gets over. Or that heart-stopping scene where an anxious Vidyadharan huddles with his daughter in the attic after witnessing Sarojini’s daughter’s death.

Vidhyadharan is truer-to-life—a father who can only hold on to his daughter’s life even as the world is cruelly tearing apart another.  In fact, the film’s villains and their acts of cruelty are a figment of his imagination. One can even say that these villains are a part of his Dissociative Identity disorder. There are instances which suggest that Vidhyadharan is diffident about sex and that his false sense of morality makes him want to repress his sexual urge towards Sarojini. The snake, which metaphorically represents sexual desire, has been used frequently in the narrative. He talks about stoning a snake when it was mating and seems to think the curse has been following him since then. Even Sarojini is picturised as a serpentine beauty. And Vidhyadharan fears both snakes and guns (the hunter carries), which is a phallic symbol, often used by men who feel weak and angry to bolster their false sense of manhood. And Vidhyadharan carries the magnifying glass which is a warning that he is looking at things in a distorted way.

Lohithadas skilfully and emotionally blends this vulnerability and his mental instability when he creates the allegory of the bhoothakkannadi for Vidhyadharan. That is why, despite his cowardice and other drawbacks, Vidhyadharan still stands as a picture of a loving father and a kind lover. We are not judging him—on the contrary, we are made to empathise with him. When he spots a man waiting outside Sarojini’s hut, and then sees Sarojini bathing outside, Vidhyadharan is torn between jealousy and his own cowardice to tell that man off. But that gives him enough courage to venture out to her hut that very night and be intimate with her.

Lohithadas has always been good at lending subtle nuances to his characters and relationships. Sarojini thinks she lost out on the joys of life by marrying incredibly young, that too to a man who never loved her. She is more a friend than a mother to her daughter. The light banter they share or the blush that creeps into her cheeks at the mere sight of Vidhyadharan, these are moments that instantly make you warm up to Sarojini.

Lohithadas sketches her with understated sensuality—the fluidity in her body when she breaks into the pulluvan pattu, the deep, kajal-smudged eyes, the flawless dusky skin tone, the thick curly tresses, and a kind of abandon in her walk. Being a single mother, the predatory eyes of the men in the village are constantly on her but she is equipped to deal with it. When the local hunter comments on her derriere, she snarls at him (a bit like Lohithadas’s strong foul-mouthed female characters who hail from the village). She is painted as a femme fatale by Vidhyadharan’s elder sister, also broadly hinting at disdain for hailing from a low caste. “She knows witchcraft and she has coiled my brother like a serpent,” the aunt declares even alleging that it was her evil eye that took away Vidhyadharan’s wife’s life.

Vidhyadharan’s eyes always mirror uncertainty and fear. He wears ironed shirts in pastels, and mundus denoting simplicity and probably his monotone world. Maybe it was his own inadequacies that stages his doom. Perhaps he could have saved Sarojini’s daughter if not for his fear of the dark. And that’s exactly the point from where he loses his mind.

In one of his finest acts, Mammootty strips himself of the ‘star’ and studiously enters the world of Vidhyadharan, exploring every layer of his personality with detail and finesse. The penultimate scene is a masterclass in acting—where he seamlessly shuttles between anger, agony, and helplessness, his body and mind weary and at odds with the world.  Sreelakshmi seems to be living the role of Sarojini.

Bhoothakkanadi is one of the finest celluloid commentaries on the densities of the human mind. It provides no solutions, there are no vigilantes. Yet it touches a raw nerve, forcing us to marvel at the power battle between sanity and insanity in the human mind.

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.

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