Vasanth’s anthology of three shorts, spanning from the ‘80s to the 2000s, takes a close look at women’s lives and labour.

Screenshot from Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila PengalumScreenshot from Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum
Flix Review Tuesday, November 30, 2021 - 17:43
Don't miss

Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum begins with an image of the unchanging sea. Vasanth’s anthology of three shorts — based on stories written by Ashoka Mithran, Adhavan and Jeyamohan — suggests that the lives of women too, across decades and social classes, remain the same. And just as the waves crash against the shore ceaselessly, their labour never stops.

The first film is set in the ‘80s, and revolves around a lower middle class couple, Chandran (Karunakaran) and Saraswati (Kalieswari Srinivasan). After attending a function, the two of them return home with their baby. Chandran walks ahead while Saraswati lags behind, struggling to keep up. She holds the baby in one arm and carries bags in the other. It’s a familiar sight on the streets, mothers managing their children all by themselves while the fathers look like they have nothing to do with their offspring. The gaze of the camera, however, forces the viewer to look at the scene once again with a more critical eye. Can we continue to pretend that this is domestic bliss? The ideal that women are taught to aspire for all their lives?

Karunakaran, usually seen in comic roles, is the picture of indifference in Sivaranjiniyum. He has nothing to say to his wife other than dish out abuse and blame. Saraswati clearly lives in terror of her husband’s outbursts and yet yearns for his approval. She bears it all as her due but when she forgets herself for a moment and questions his authority, Chandran cannot take it. In the first short as well as the last, the camera follows the women as they go about their day — working, working, working. They are constantly in the business of caring for everyone in the family but themselves. In the second short, featuring Parvathy as Devaki, the woman makes some time for herself to write down her thoughts in a diary but that becomes the centre of controversy in her marital home. Though it’s only now that the film has come out on OTT, it began production in 2015 and has done rounds in festival circuits since 2018. It is, therefore, a precursor to Jeo Baby’s 2021 film The Great Indian Kitchen, which also focuses on women’s unending labour and the drudgery of it.

While Kalieswari’s Saraswati meets a fate that is considered tragic for women in a patriarchal society, it turns out to be a blessing for her. The victory is small — no more than sitting on a chair and drinking a cup of coffee at ease — but it’s a victory that defines her new lease of life.

The second short is set in the ‘90s. It’s a middle class, joint family where the younger daughter-in-law (Parvathy) has a central government job and hence wields some power within the family. The husband Mani (Sunder Ramu), too, seems to be a progressive sort of man. He doesn’t mind sitting behind his wife on the two-wheeler, appears to be affectionate towards her (in contrast to the sullen Chandran), and initially sides with her in a family fight. But when she refuses to bow to his authority over her as the husband, he is at first rattled and then angered. Of the three shorts, it is in this film that the husband has a character arc, and we see him transform over the course of the plot. Even if Devaki seems to have more freedom than the other two women, she is still expected to exercise it with ‘permission’; she still cannot claim space or time for herself.

Sendhi plays the elder daughter-in-law who simply cannot stomach Devaki’s independent streak, and is always looking to point out how she’s lacking on the domestic front. Sendhi does it admirably well, throwing taunts in the air and later pretending to be minding her own business. Parvathy’s Tamil dubbing has a touch of Malayalam to it, but the actor’s quietly assertive face makes Devaki very believable. I did, however, wish that Devaki’s forthright personality wasn’t summed up as easily as her ability to do work that men typically do — like climbing up a big ladder or riding the two-wheeler with the spouse in the pillion. The last shot, which has her drinking tea in a shop surrounded by men, also places her as a rare woman in a man’s world. Read along with the fact that it is only Devaki who takes an active decision to walk out of her suffocating life, the film seems to have a masculine understanding of what agency means, and how an emancipated woman must behave.

The third film, set in the 2000s, revolves around Sivaranjini (Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli), an athlete who gets married while still in college. This, too, is a middle class family. And here too, the woman spends all day cooking, cleaning and caring for the family while her own dreams are long forgotten. The camera frame shows Sivaranjini in the kitchen, working, while the rest of the family is either giving her instructions, making further demands on her time or relaxing in the other spaces at home. Nothing has changed from Saraswati’s or Devaki’s time. Remarking on the pile of novels on the table, the mother-in-law casually asks Sivaranjini how Hari (Sivaranjani’s husband) ‘allows’ her to read all this. Not surprising when Sivaranjini has no rights over her own body, let alone mind — she gets married just around the time she has made it to the nationals in athletics but her husband refuses to defer their pregnancy plans. Lakshmi Priyaa is wonderful as Sivaranjini, presenting the distracted and fractured mind of a woman who once knew what it was to single-mindedly focus on the finish line.

The timeline of the three films is an intriguing choice. One may assume that a woman in the 2000s may have more power than a woman in the ‘80s and ‘90s. But Sivaranjini does not have the spunk of Devaki who came before her. Even Saraswati stands up to her husband but Sivaranjini never contradicts her spouse or argues with anyone in the family. She chooses to keep her one-day rebellion quiet. Vasanth doesn’t want us to assume that progress is but a matter of time; it isn’t. These are three different women, with a personality of their own. They each fight their battles according to the resources they have.

All three films have children in them, and it is interesting to see how the rules apply only to adult women and kids, never to the men. The infantilisation of women co-exists with their role as nurturers who are in charge of the welfare of the entire family. Shot mostly within the confines of home, the women are often positioned in rectangular frames suggestive of a prison. While the man in the first film is overtly violent (as is often the case when representing domestic violence in economically weaker circles), the other two are just as misogynistic, even if they may believe themselves to be ‘different’.

There are no songs in the film, and the background score at times rises too much to amplify a sentiment that would have worked better in a silent frame. But other than these minor quibbles, Sivaranjiniyum is an honest effort to look at the lives of women with empathy. Nothing has changed, but the positive reviews the film has won, and the overwhelming reception to The Great Indian Kitchen give one hope that something may change, at least for the next generation.

The film is now streaming on SonyLIV.

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