‘Nandanam’, directed and written by Ranjith and loosely adapted from MT Vasudevan Nair’s ‘Neelathamara’, gives a fantastical spin to a love story between a domestic worker and the scion of the family.

Prithviraj and Navya Nair in NandanamYouTube/apimalayalamsongs
Flix Flix Flashback Wednesday, December 01, 2021 - 18:28

Though he has made films across a variety of genres, as a writer/director Ranjith’s most noted works have given Malayalam cinema the ‘alpha male’ hero – for example, Devasuram and Aaram Thampuran. His oeuvre includes unlikely satirical comedies such as Pranchiyettan & the Saint, award-winning dramas such as Thirakkatha, and thrillers such as Paleri Manikyam. But Nandanam (2002) stands out for its (decidedly understated yet) divine treatment of a tried-and-tested romantic trope.

Balamani’s days always begin at the crack of dawn. Though she occupies only a corner of that large ancient tharavadu, fenced by greenery, with an elaborate front yard and backyard and a rectangular in-house pond, it’s this pint-sized girl who literally runs the show. It’s been barely a month since she was hired to take care of the ageing matriarch of the house, but she is even chaperoning the three elderly helpers who were previously employed to nurse Unniyamma (Kaviyoor Ponnamma).

In between looking after Unniyamma, she has to boil cauldrons of water, prepare meals, tend to cows, water plants, clean and mop the house. What pushes her forward amidst this chaos is the sight of Lord Krishna, tucked away in the corner of her room. Every morning, she lights a tiny lamp for Lord Krishna and that glow miraculously seems to bring some light into her otherwise mundane routine. Nandanam, directed and written by Ranjith and loosely adapted from MT Vasudevan Nair’s Neelathamara, gives a fantastical spin to the love story between the domestic worker and the scion of the family.

Ranjith places the story in the backdrop of a flourishing Nair tharavadu, where characters speak with a pronounced Valluvanadan slang, make regular trips to the Guruvayoor temple, and look forward to Yesudas’ musical sabhas.

Balamani (Navya Nair, who almost makes us forget that it is an actor playing the part), despite her daily drudgery, is a positive soul who takes things in her stride. Though she does complain about her workload, it’s mostly with a forbearance. When the same man she dreams of marrying stands in front of her one fine night soaked in rain, Balamani stares at him open-mouthed. That’s perhaps the first hint of a celestial interference. Manu is the young scion of the tharavadu, Unniyamma’s widowed daughter’s son, who has taken a brief detour before his big US visit.

Manu (Prithviraj, who makes an endearing debut) is sketched with a kindly brush. Initially he is amused by this little chit of a girl who smoothly runs the household and seems to have created quite an impression on his grandmother. So he employs a mild form of flirting to unsettle her but is surprised to realise that she isn’t quite swayed by his attention.

Unlike Neelathamara, where the man lusts after the domestic worker, here Manu’s intentions are noble. In fact, it is so noble that his interest stems from the ideal, sacrificing, patient and dutiful picture of Balamani. He has every intent of legalising their relationship. Though Balamani keeps reminding herself and Manu about her humble background and the improbability of such an alliance, Manu doesn’t really give up on the feeling of playing a saviour. Balamani is the wiser of the two and never harbours any ambitions despite Manu’s interest in her.

The only point of contention for Manu is his mother’s approval, whom he thinks the world of. Even when she agrees, he realises that it’s society that stands between him and Balamani. His mother is portrayed as a strong-willed woman who took care of her son singlehandedly after the demise of her husband. But one wishes she wasn’t presented so drearily. It reinstates the stereotype of a widow who doesn’t have the capacity to enjoy life and needs to live in the memory of her dead husband. Though she controls her son’s life, planning his career and life choices, she is shown as someone with empathy where it is required. There is a nice bit involving a childhood friend (Siddique) who was in love with her and how he remains unmarried in her memory.

It is to this largely stereotypical cinematic romance that Ranjith lends a touch of divinity. He plants a human Guruvayurappan for Balamani’s eyes alone. Considering that Balamani’s devotion to Lord Krishna has been emphatically established, it’s easy to buy into the divine intervention. And Ranjith sets it up with such ingenuity that we find nothing amiss till the final reveal.

It’s when she almost tries to jump into the well that a resounding voice snaps her out of her reverie. The human Guruvayurappan has an all-knowing impish smile, like how Lord Krishna is depicted in mythology. Every time Balamani is feeling down, he miraculously appears out of nowhere. And he lets her think that he is the neighbour’s son. Eventually even their alliance reaches fruition, it evolves so organically that you still don’t suspect a divine hand in it.

Nandanam also has fascinatingly loud sub characters. There is Kumbidi aka Palarivattom Sasi (Jagathy Sreekumar), the phony sanyasi whom the matriarch calls during auspicious occasions. He turns out to be a local thief who has various police charges against him, who eats meat and is a womaniser. It’s also a sly commentary against fraudster sanyasis who lead double lives and the society’s blind faith in them.

The three ageing caretakers are hilariously entertaining. From gluttony to gossiping to procrastinating, and unexpectedly turning Balamani’s allies, there is never a dull moment when they are around. There is Balamani’s uncle and Unniyamma’s trusted Karyasthan (Innocent) who also helps in bringing the lovers together.

In hindsight, this is also the least pretentious film in Ranjith’s career. He beautifully sets up the narrative for his Guruvayurappan devotee. The tharavadu is placed in the vicinity of the Guruvayoor temple, it also stands amidst an expansive forestry littered with ancient wells, broken brick walls heaving with foliage and songs (Raveendran melodies) that evoke mischief, romance, and mysticism. He pits Balamani against an intrinsically casteist, classist and patriarchal society and allows her dreams to take flight without making heavy weather out of it. The uncles and aunts who bicker against the alliance are such a typical lot, seen in every traditional, patriarchal family.

MT’s Neelathamara was a dark, tragic story of exploitation by the upper caste that dug deeper into the caste oppression that prevailed in society. The man discards the domestic worker after manipulating her emotionally and physically. Even the ending hints at the pattern getting repeated. Ranjith on the contrary sprinkles some pixie dust in the air, swirls a magic wand, heralds a human God, and facilitates a warm, fuzzy closure to the same romance. Perhaps he was giving us broad hints too, that such an alliance without divine intervention is highly unlikely.

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.

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.