Vani Vishwanath played Susanna in this 2000 film, a woman who is in a relationship with five men.

Revisiting Susanna a Malayalam film that explored polyamory bondage and more
Flix Flix Flashback Tuesday, August 06, 2019 - 16:11

Directed by TV Chandran, Susanna, which released in 2000, is the fifth film in a filmography of a director who has strictly adhered to the offbeat genre.

Susanna is often talked about as a wicked spin on Mahabharata's Draupadi, though purists may take offence. 

Here, we look at the possible layers in the film, and analyse the story and the storytelling, its possibilities, shortcomings and more...

The film begins with the long shot of a man and woman making love in the middle of a forest, with a voiceover from Susanna (Vani Vishwanath), who is now middle-aged with grey strands of hair. She is narrating her life story to a young man who, we are told a little later, is the son of one of her lovers. The man she was making love is also the only lover who ever had her consent for such a relationship. The rest were alliances of force born out of a helpless need to survive. And ironically it all begins with him, her lover, who eventually gets married and dies, leaving a child in her care.

The predators and their survivor

Her father-in-law is her first predator, a thrifty middle-aged man who offers her security and later introduces her to his friends. She is ‘passed around’ among five married men who treat her like their concubine. Noor Mohammed (Narendra Prasad), an English professor, who teaches her Shakespeare and insists on bondage; Retired High Commissioner KP Govardhana Pillai (Bharath Gopi) who uses a wheelchair, makes her walk nude before him; Colonel Ramachandran Nair (Nedumudi Venu), who still talks about his childhood sweetheart Amminikutty; and Ramakrishna Iyer (Charu Haasan), a lawyer who produces serials on feminist themes.

Chandran plays down those portions, where she is treated as a sex toy for their bizarre fantasies.

Among the five men, it’s only Venu and his family that get some space in the narrative, the rest of the men and their backstories are only mildly hinted at. The narrative prefers to mull over the middle-aged Susanna, who lives alone with a domestic worker for company. The younger, vulnerable Susanna, who would have been at the receiving end of their abuse and exploitation is never discussed. All we are made to understand is her palpable grief, but never the emotional or physical violence these five men have unleashed upon her.

The Susanna we see is sage-like, one who seems to have embraced her past into her present. Her relationship with each of these men, considering how it eventually evolves into an emotionally dependent space, required more detailing. When, for instance, did Susanna cease to be a mere body and more of an emotional anchor to them? How did someone so young, vulnerable, someone who is a mother, wrestle with the moral complications in continuing these relationships?

More importantly, how did her daughter grow up in that stifling dysfunctionality?

The (d)evolution of a survivor

While it may appear empowering that she is presented without prejudices and judgements, Susanna responds to people and situations around her with apathy. Perhaps it also has to do with Vani Vishwanath, who plays the character awkwardly, and struggles to understand the nuances of the character, besides making it clear that playing an elderly character won’t work with makeup alone.

The seductress has given way to a compassionate, motherly figure for her elderly and fatigued ‘partners’. But men continue to find her irresistible, she is still coveted—by the son of one of her lovers, his friend, her son-in-law and even an old priest. The priest is silently drawn towards her and sketches a portrait of Durga slaying Mahishasura as a tribute (thought it comes across as a bizarre motif there), a young man writes a love poetry for her, the brother-in-law knocks on her bathroom door for a night of intimacy, and the lover’s son is enchanted by her. Many of those scenes required better execution and writing. Especially the one where her son-in-law propositions her, an act that is followed by her daughter blaming her for making a play for him and walking out.

Meanwhile, there is no clarity about why her lovers continued their relationship with Susanna or what drew them towards her after the initial physical attraction. All the same, her aged lovers visit her regularly and it’s interesting how Chandran has visualised that, bringing them together in the same space at different time zones with Susanna as the observer. In one scene, the grey-haired Susanna struts around in a sari in front of the same man who desired to see her walk naked. It’s sweet revenge. 

Skimming for recurrent themes

Susanna, despite being essayed by a dull actor, does have her moments. When the priest wonders how long she will keep sinning, she replies with a wry smile—"Only when the sins leave this world, father. Don’t these sins too need a companion?”

The highlight of the film has to be the conversation between Susanna and the colonel’s wife, Bhargavi (Urmila Unni). Though supposed to be a conversation between the "other woman" and the wife, it ends up as a moment of sisterhood between two women trapped in relationships of abuse and dependence. Susanna has, oddly enough, come out of it. But Bhargavi is a symbol of patriarchal debauchery, torn between a father and son who are obsessed with another woman. You would expect hateful words being hurled against Susanna, but it turns out to be a session between two kindred spirits.

“When a man decides to be a man, he remains within the family while a woman who decides to be a woman will be called an outcast,” Bhargavi and Susanna sing this verse to each other loudly.

The irony is not lost on Susanna when Bhargavi says that men have the liberty to choose multiple partners while women can’t. It’s also an instance when Bhargavi displays a reluctant admiration for the other woman who has finally taken destiny into her own hands, after a lifetime of exploitation. Something she can never achieve.

Does that make Bhargavi this unbelievable icon of sacrifice and tolerance? Yes, but at least she acknowledges everything that is wrong with the system she is forced to live in. The misogyny, the double standards, the sickening patriarchy, and a genuine empathy for another woman who is as imprisoned in the system as she is.

Susanna is yet another Chandran protagonist who battles alienation. You see it in Dany (2001), Kathavasheshan (2004), Ponthan Mada (1993) and Alicinte Anveshanam (1989). Dany, according to himself was a nobody, some man existing somewhere, while Gopinatha Menon (Kathavasheshan) finds it difficult to be in sync with the world’s atrocities and therefore deliberately isolates himself, and Mada also feels disconnected with the people around him.

Susanna has a family, a brother who visits her to keep her updated about their life, five men who are desperately dependent on her and a daughter, yet she knows she doesn’t belong anywhere. The film didn't work at the box-office besides having some issues with the CBFC. They reportedly cut a few scenes like that one where the priest gifts her a painting with goddess Kali in the nude (it’s partially shown in the film), a bondage scene which had Susanna recite Shakespearean verses to the professor as well as a dance sequence featuring Susanna and Bhargavi. It also took two years to make.

Final verdict

Like most TV Chandran films, Susanna may be conceptually radical and ahead of its time, but in execution it has several loose ends and is technically bland. Therefore, one can’t call it engaging cinema.

Add to that the pressing question, can Susanna be called a feminist? No. She is simply a survivor in a man’s world. Like Draupadi.

Neelima has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and The News Minute. 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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