Revisiting 'Utharam', the Mammootty mystery film that hides a deep secret

This week in #WatchWithTNM, we revisit a film about a woman's mysterious death.
Still from Utharam
Still from Utharam
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Everything had seemed normal the day Leenama – Selena Mathew – died. The caretaker of the house Achuthan Nair had just seen her moments ago, clad in a black sari, smiling her usual way. So normal that he didn’t at first think much of a gunshot from somewhere above. It could be Mathew, Selena’s husband, hunting in the woody neighbourhood. But Mathew had left for work already, he remembered. And with anxious steps, he goes upstairs only to find Leenama dead in her study, the long shotgun lying nearby.

The 1989 movie Utharam, inspired by Daphne du Maurier's short story No Motive, begins with the death it will spend two hours finding an answer for. Not as usual mystery movies go, the ‘who’ of it but the ‘why’. Why did Leena (Suparna) take her life? And yet the answer was in the very first lines that Achuthan Nair spoke complainingly on his way to the kitchen that morning. Just before he heard that gunshot.

You appreciate the whole circle it travels only when you watch it again and notice these little moments that connect the dots. VK Pavithran’s direction is thorough that way, painting a structured picture of the story that led to the crime.

He places in the thick of it a journalist, who is not just curious by the nature of his profession but attached deeply to the dead woman. Mammootty plays Balu, the man who would reach the ‘utharam’ or answer by the end of the film. Only a year before this, he had played Sethurama Iyer, one of the greatest detectives in Malayalam cinema, in the film that introduced the character.

But there is in Balu, none of those traits as the quick Iyer. Balu uses his journalistic smartness and has a different story for every new person he meets to get information. He acts as a concerned father with Leena’s old schoolmaster, a man looking to buy land with a greedy attendant at a nursing home she had been to. He is streetsmart, ruthless and has a way with words (MT Vasudevan Nair’s lines turn poetic one moment and raw at another).

He and Mathew (Sukumaran) were journalists in Delhi. Mathew has been a savior of sorts for Balu who has no other relatives. When Leena comes into his life, she too becomes ‘family’.

You learn more about Leena through the characters as they slip into the past when they talk about her or remember moments with her. She was a poet who wrote 200 poems in eight years before dying at the age of 27. She was, as the wife of Mathew, the ideal partner – loving, caring. The servants cherished her. She would never say a harsh word even when she should, Achuthan tells Balu. Fittingly, Suparna playing Leena, even in her saris wound over the shoulders, thick glasses and grandmotherly hair knots, has the face of an innocent child.

That a woman so happy in life should kill herself just does not make sense to the others. Not knowing the reason haunts the bereaved husband more than the death itself. He takes to alcohol, misses his meals and has perpetual dark circles around his eyes. Desperately he asks Balu to please find an answer.

Balu, at first shaken by the news that Leena died by suicide, begins his quest right away, not sparing the man who gave him the job. He is shrewd and does not hesitate to ask the awkward questions. Did Mathew have an affair, was there a fight, he asks without flinching. But Mathew is more than willing to answer and help in any way to reach the truth. He sends Balu away in his car to look into her past.

Mammootty appreciably becomes a tool in the process of narration. Even as he fills all the frames, the viewer’s interest remains in Leena and what happened to her. Not the man chasing the many loose ends, nor the others he meets on the way. The moments that are his own are when he furiously smokes away as newer revelations are made with the accompaniment of Johnson’s music. The only glimpse of a personal interest comes when he meets Shyamala Menon (Parvathy), Leena’s childhood friend.

It becomes a joint quest then as they both search Leena’s past. The Leena before marriage had been nothing like the quiet introvert Balu knew. In their boarding school in Ooty, she led most of the pranks the girls were up to. Even back then there was poetry, more as two-liners spoken out loud than written ones.

Suparna turns convincingly into the young girl, pigtails and uniform skirts making her look quite the tenth grader she played. The actor plays the transformation quite maturely as she turns from a prankster schoolgirl into an adult with a forgotten secret buried deep within.

She becomes more than a mystery woman as Balu unravels layer by layer of her past. Her story has been built carefully by the investigative mind of the journalist. After finding the answer he had been in search of, Balu chooses in the end to hide it from Mathew. He believes it is the best way to bring the grieving man back to life again. But as a viewer, watching Mathew by her grave and insisting on “speaking” to her, you might beg to differ. You’d want Mathew to know. That might be his only way to happiness.

Curious about what the answer is to the mystery? You can watch the film online on YouTube.

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