Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by KS Sethumadhavan, ‘Oppol’ traces the strange, unfathomable bond between a 6-year-old boy and his Oppol (elder sister).

A scene from 'Oppol'YouTube/Matinee Now Classics
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From making landmark films like Odayil Ninnu, Yakshi, Chattakkari, Anubhavangal Palichakal, to winning several prestigious awards and making his presence felt in various Indian languages, director, screenwriter and producer KS Sethumadhavan was prolific, and his contributions were fundamental to the growth of Malayalam cinema. Last year he was awarded the JC Daniel Award for his lifetime contribution to Malayalam cinema. But perhaps, he is not as well-documented as he deserves to be and we revisit Oppol (1981), considered to be one of the finest films of his career and underlines his love affair with Malayalam literature.

Little Appu has a recurring nightmare of a few people chasing him down from the top of a hill. Some are wearing long black gowns and hiding their faces behind masks. And then somewhere from the other end of the hill sweeps in a white sari-clad woman, his metaphorical angel—Oppol and he snaps out of the dream. Written by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by KS Sethumadhavan, Oppol traces the strange, unfathomable bond between this 6-year-old boy and his Oppol (elder sister).

Like most MT Vasudevan Nair stories, the film is set against the backdrop of a waning Nair family, where people speak in a pronounced Valluvanadan slang. There are only three occupants in the house—an elderly mother (Kaviyoor Ponnamma), her young unmarried daughter, Malu and a 6-year-old boy, Appu. It’s not a pleasant ambience, the mother is perennially sulky and pesky, constantly cursing Malu and is openly hostile towards the lad.

The frames maintain a charming, incandescent bond with nature. There is a village hedged with luscious greenery, obsolete homes, trees with swings, narrow untarred roads, dingy classrooms and then you are shifted to another patch of greenery, fenced by hills, forests and tiny huts with thatched roofs, brooks and masses of vegetation.

In that village, where everyone knows everyone, Malu (Menaka’s silence is so evocative) and her tiny family are pariahs (ironically her mother continues to be casteist). The village men are already eyeing Malu lasciviously, despite her mother sternly chasing them away. But Malu seems to be living in a private world, deep in sorrow. Very rarely she slips into a daydream perhaps filled with infinite romantic fantasies.

Interestingly, though we get broad suggestions of her relationship with Appu, none of those around her really spell it out. No one dares to address the elephant in the room. What we see and hear instead are long deep laments, tepid lines about family honour, fractured relationships and society’s prying eyes. At a wedding, Appu is callously disregarded, while Narayani amma hasn’t stepped out to take a dip in the temple pond since the day Appu was born and her honour-bound brother refuses to visit her. As for Malu, she is probably blaming herself every single day of her life. A school dropout, she is in her early 20s and lives a large part of her life helping around the house, taking care of Appu and offering prayers.

There are hints of an Oedipus complex in Appu, not only is he openly hostile towards anyone who tries to get close to her, he even dreams of her in a bride’s costume. She is the only focal point of his existence. So much so that when he realises that Malu is missing from home, he runs away to find her. Master Aravind who plays Appu wins you over with his naivety. It’s fascinating how the child actor is encouraged to be himself in front of the camera. He is often awkward, his voice is clearly dubbed, there aren’t many close-up shots, yet the child actor imbibes Appu’s loneliness so pensively. 

In the early 80s, homes were run on patriarchy. A woman’s virtue was considered sacred, her life was controlled within the four walls of her home and education was always a man’s prerogative. During such a time, Oppol talks about the stigma around unwed mothers and how precarious a woman’s destiny is if her chastity is tarnished. The man who betrayed her never appears in the picture, instead, she lives condemned and in shame and her agency is quickly snatched away. So the marriage with a much older man, despite her protests, is her punishment, her only way to get redemption. And a huge relief for her mother, who can finally escape the snooping questions from society. The only way she can reclaim her honour is to banish her disgraced daughter from her home. What better way than to marry her off! That’s one reason she advises Malu against telling him the truth.

Her marriage to Govindan Kutty (a superb Balan K Nair), an ex-military officer, takes her to the hills of Wayanad. A loner, Kutty isn’t quite what one expects—he clearly wants a companion, rather than someone to take care of his house. And Malu isn’t quite prepared for their new home—a seedy thatched hut with austere facilities. But like most newly married women, she doesn’t complain, despite Kutty apologising to her.  Unlike Kutty, who is openly scornful towards the tribal people, Malu treats them with compassion. But then we don’t really see another facet of Malu than kindness.

Kutty with his thick moustache and stern face doesn’t believe in sweet talk. He talks earnestly about transforming the agricultural land into profits and the hut into a bungalow in the years to come. Though he is initially kind towards Appu, it soon turns into irritation when the boy constantly demands her attention, even during their private time.

Despite their age difference and unfamiliarity, Kutty and Malu get drawn towards each other. Malu’s initial shyness soon dissipates when she realises that behind that stern mask is a vulnerable and needy man. He tells her indirectly that her chastity is of no value to him and all he longs for is her love. There is a refreshing honesty about Kutty, though it might not always be pleasant.

In the midst of it all, one feels a wave of sympathy towards Appu who is unaware of his identity or his relationship with Oppol. From being treated with contempt by his grandmother to being pitied by villagers and his fear for Kutty, whom he thinks will harm the only stable and loving presence in his life, Appu lives in a bubble, terrified of it getting punctured. Despite Malu’s love, Appu never had a stable family. That’s why the last shot is so poignant. As Kutty carries a sick Appu over his shoulders, the boy faintly smiles at a subdued Malu, who seems to have finally battled all her inner demons. Now they can start living....

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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