In ‘Pakshe’, Mohanlal plays a man who is forced into a marriage, and opts to stay and suffer silently in an abusive relationship. But is he really a victim?

Mohanlal and Shobana in PaksheYouTube screengrab
Flix Flix Flashback Tuesday, May 24, 2022 - 18:15

Director Mohan was part of Malayalam cinema’s golden 80s. His films always dealt with the complexities and dysfunctionalities in families. He mostly stuck to family dramas (Shalini Ente Koottukari, Vidaparayum Munpe, Rachana, Mangalam Nerunnu, Alolam), though he would occasionally try comedy (Oru Kadha Oru Nunakadha) or a crime thriller (Mukham). Families were the cornerstone in his narratives and most stories spoke about the aftermath of moral depravity. In his stories, boundaries were grimly drawn out for women by men. His Pakshe (1994) is an attempt to look at marriage from a man’s point of view. Considering it is widely accepted that women have always been at the receiving end of this unequal social institution called marriage, in Pakshe the husband is victimised. Here is a man who is forced into a marriage, and opts to stay and suffer silently in an abusive relationship. But is he really a victim? We try to dig deeper.

The film opens to a party. A visibly bored man stands next to a woman whose face is wreathed in a forced smile. She gives him a sideways glare. It doesn’t come from a space of lovable exasperation, just well-concealed fury. It’s their 10th wedding anniversary. And the man is equally uninterested as he joins in cutting the cake with her. A casual observer can see the disquieting misery on his face. Mentally, he seems to have shut himself out, even as he mechanically interacts with the guests. As a man raises a toast to the couple, and generously praises the woman, the husband looks on impassively.

Pakshe, written by Cheriyan Kalpakavady and directed by Mohan, tries to look at the other side of marriage. Here it is a man who is at the receiving end of an arranged alliance of convenience and is too committed and bound by duty to walk out. The film falls back on a strait-laced narrative. There is a constant tussle between sacrificing, kind-hearted people, and the corrupt, selfish and greedy humans in the story.

There is Balachandran (a sublime Mohanlal), an IAS officer and a human puppet whose strings are pulled by his influential and greedy father-in-law for his own gains. His wife Raji (Shanthi Krishna) takes after her father and constantly pulls him down. Though we aren’t shown their parental side, Balachandran talks about a mother who neglects the children and how he himself is powerless (or too miserable to express love) to be a good father to them.

Since Balachandran literally sells himself to Vikraman contractor (Thilakan) to save his family from debts, his marriage to Raji seems to have started off on the wrong foot. Though Raji is always shown as a gossipy, arrogant and power-hungry rich woman, we aren’t sure at what point their marriage started corroding. She keeps taunting him about his former lover and how he has always lived in her memory even in their marriage. Maybe she isn’t that impervious of him. If Balachandran easily gains our sympathy with his sense of victimhood, we feel an overwhelming respect for Nandini (a dignified Shobana) who chose to be single and successful, making her an interesting celluloid woman.  Surely she must have had her share of family pressures to get married, but Nandini stood her ground.

Though he and Nandini decide to sacrifice their love, Balachandran never really recovers from this self-betrayal. So, we are led to believe their marriage was a living hell also because of the circumstances that led to it. And Raji never sees this as a sacrifice from Balachandran’s side but as a betrayal towards his lover in the quest for more riches. For someone who has always lived with a parent who weighed the world on a scale of power and money, it simply reaffirmed her father’s theory.

Since the film is set in the 90s, some of the patriarchal patterns are obvious. The hero who forgoes his love to marry off his two sisters (who have no identity other than being someone’s “sisters”), who are later portrayed as greedy and selfish. The sombre, soft-spoken and giving Nandini as opposed to the unmaternal, overdressed, sharp-tongued, loud and greedy Raji. The lack of greys robs nuance from the characters.

Also, Balachandran’s self-pitying persecution starts to become tiring after a point. That he has never chosen to stand up for himself at any point in his life stares gruffly at him. The initial obligation that forced him to swallow his pride and play along is maybe understandable. But considering he has never had a “happy memory” with Raji or justified his role as a parent, Balachandran’s endurance doesn’t invite our empathy. It has reached a point where everything he does is without joy — work, marriage or socialising. His friendship with Sivadasa Menon (Soman) is his only outlet to vent his frustrations. One fine day, when he is publicly insulted by his father-in-law in front of his superior, he finally walks out.

Also, the film’s attempt to add humour in the guise of Innocent’s Eenasu who meets Balachandran at a beachside resort was icky. The much-married Eenasu is in his mid-50s and has two children in their 20s. At the resort, he lets his guard down and solicits women, gets drunk and passes lewd jokes. Not only is his philandering trivialised as ‘male privilege’ but it also comes at the expense of body-shaming his wife. One of those typical portions written casually by an entitled patriarchal male.

They could have easily cut down Eenasu’s portions (there is a pointless conflict between a young couple who get harassed by some men, followed by a fight scene) to accommodate more conversations around Balachandran and Nandini’s reunion at the resort.

Their first meeting after ages, as expected, is awkward and poignant. Despite reaching heights in her career, it is very evident that Nandini hasn’t moved on when it comes to Balachandran. The love and longing is there in her eyes, and as for Balachandran, he has never been able to get over Nandini, maybe out of his guilt and self-proclaimed martyrdom. Their relationship upholds every famed theory one has been fed on love. About sacrifice being the truest form of love or about love being giving and not getting, etc, etc.

But in the end, no one wins. And Balachandran’s cowardice keeps reappearing, even in the penultimate scene when he could have taken that much-needed leap of faith. But no — commitment, obligation, family honour, children’s happiness, surrender ... shows Balachandran’s life will always go around in circles. Maybe Nandini lucked out.

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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