They walk towards the beach, Kaimal and Susheela — husband and wife. She is a few steps behind him. Even in the car, she had taken a seat in the back with the daughter, while the son sat in front, with the father. They are sitting on the sand. Kaimal awkwardly tries to start a conversation — “Do you remember the first time we met?” By then Susheela is already lost in another world of longing, as she gazes at a couple holding hands.
Directed by KG George, Mattoral (1988), an adaptation of CV Balakrishnan’s book of the same name, is a singularly realistic celluloid depiction of the aftermaths of an extramarital affair in a marriage.
The film opens to Kaimal’s home. KG George uses the same stark narrative style of Adaminte Variyellu — the routine dreariness of the household where the wife is an invisible, utilitarian figure, the children eat, play, and go to school and the husband works. Conversations are minimal, relationship goals basic and days just about slog along. Kaimal (portrayed with definitive brilliance by Karamana Janardhanan) is the typical chauvinist husband; a product of social conditioning, he is convinced that his wife’s sole responsibility in life is to serve him and be a good mother. From handing him bath towels, to serving him food, she quietly goes on, while he gets annoyed when she does not answer the phone at the first ring.
Kaimal is not an agreeable spouse. His misogynistic streaks extend outside marriage and we see subtle hints when he suggests inviting a politician instead of a woman actor to inaugurate a friend’s shop, or when he advises his friend, Balan (Mammootty who is exquisitely natural) against sending his wife, Veni (Urvashi) for work. But at the end of the day, he is also a nice man — honest at work and principled.
Susheela’s (Seema, who is superlative) characterisation is intriguing. It is not as detailed as Kaimal’s, yet her frustration and sadness cannot be more eloquent. In a marriage where her husband decides the quantum of her emotional and physical needs, Susheela is already a finger-puppet. Much like Vasanthi’s, or even Alice’s, predicament in Adaminte Variyellu, with varying degrees of torment. So, one fine day, when Susheela walks out, we are shaken not surprised. Those scenes, done without melodrama, touch a raw nerve somewhere.
Kaimal’s “delusional” kingdom of happiness comes apart when his wife walks out of their marriage, to be with a mechanic. He comes home from work, waits for her to bring the towel, calls her, sends the children to fetch her from the neighbors’, and then the truth seeps in. Even in that moment of despair, Kaimal does not let go of his false pride and ego. “Don’t inform Veni that Susheela’s missing,” he tells Balan as he seeks his help to find her.
KG George lets out delicate signs of her would-be-lover — the mechanic. Only one scene, in fact, where she gently glances at him as he waits for her husband. And he smiles back. At her new home, Susheela realises that she has jumped from the frying pan into the fire. But even here, Susheela remains impassive, probably because she has long been taken for granted by her loved ones.
The film itself unfolds without making her feel miserable about her decision. Even in the moment of realisation and shock, Susheela does not think of returning to her husband and children. KG George does not allow any outsiders to gloat over their misery. There are only passing, long shots of bystanders whispering among themselves— “Everyone wants to hear about others' misery, humiliations, and insults,” says Kaimal, in a rare philosophical mood.
The strongest voice of reason and compassion remains Balan, who begs Susheela to rethink her decision. Towards the end, thinking that there still might be hope for them to reunite, he is elated. There cannot be a better characterisation of a true friend in cinema than Balan. Even though his own life occupies the other end of the spectrum. Balan and Veni — a young and happily married couple. Balan is as progressive as the authors he reads and his equation with Veni is very modern and liberal.
George breaks a lot of stereotypes with Veni’s character — the modern, free-thinking woman who balances work and home. When her work partner (Murali), like most men, misconstrues her friendly nature for being promiscuous, Veni is outraged and shows him the door. It is a superbly done scene and more so because the man immediately realises his folly, apologises, and walks out. There are no cliched follow-ups of cinematic vengeance where she is thrown out of the job. Interestingly, she does not even find it necessary to inform Balan. It is her battle, and she has dealt with it.
Kaimal is the biggest revelation in Mattoral. It is incredible to witness his character arc — from the rigid, strict disciplinarian to an emotionally and physically spent, lonely man. Towards the end, when Balan reveals that Susheela’s paramour has found a new woman, Kaimal’s reaction is heart-breaking— “She is the most naïve woman I have seen in my life. Avaloru paavanu.”
KG George’s mastery over the craft is especially evident in the scenes that show Kaimal’s slow emotional disintegration. In one such scene, Kaimal talks to Balan about his loneliness, unaware of the irony that they were both lonely in that marriage. In another, he is skimming through their marriage photos, leaving the viewer teary-eyed. Equally moving is the letter his daughter sends him.
Mattoral is the kind of cinema that is self-reflective; situations are tangible, characters are multi-layered, and it cleaves open gender stereotypes. Most importantly it is, in its narration, a non-judgmental voice. But in the end, when their reunion is staged, Susheela and Balan are met with the body of Kaimal lying lifeless at the beach. He had stabbed himself to death. KG George leaves the viewer to come to their own conclusions. Was it that the pain of betrayal had become unbearable, or was it his pride and ego that made it impossible for him to reunite with his wife? Or did the auteur fall into the moral dilemma, after all, that surrounds such a seemingly serendipitous reunion?
Watch: Mattoral on YouTube
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.