The film is a haunting account of a man who returns from the jaws of death, but circumstances make him question the realities of his existence.

Actors Mammootty and Gauthami in Sukrutham
Flix Flix Flashback Saturday, May 23, 2020 - 14:42

Proverbial statements such as ‘death is inevitable’, ‘death is the ultimate truth’, ‘death is universal’ and so on leave us with very little to grapple with in a world where the entirety of life appears to be a preparation for death. Sukrutham tells the story of four lives intricately woven together not by love or life, but by the preparation of one person’s death.

Various words — practical, gloomy, dark, fatalistic —  can be used to describe the film, but ultimately is it not worthless if everything appears dead from the beginning? The man lying on the hospital bed looks bone-tired, face unshaven and eyes hollow. He is awaiting his imminent death, resigned to fate, finding little comfort in the fact that the world around him has readily accepted his fate.

The wife, tired and impatient, sits forlornly beside him — the love that once twinkled in her eyes is missing. Their conversations these days never go beyond the doctor’s diagnosis and medication. The family, after the initial disquiet, seem indifferent — choosing instead to be pragmatic about the cost of his treatment.

Sukrutham (1994), scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by Harikumar, is a haunting account of Ravishankar’s (Mammootty who is gentle but powerful) life, who returns from the jaws of death, but circumstances make him question the realities of his existence. The frames, keeping with the theme, have a pall of gloom — so does the background music with its melancholic tones. It is one of those films that begins with a premonition of despair, at a hospital room where Ravishankar is getting treatment for leukemia.

When his friend Rajendran (Manoj K Jayan) suggests a change of treatment, Ravishankar says coarsely— “Leave me to die in peace.” To the doctor, who is fumbling to answer Ravishankar’s query as to how long he will live, he tells him almost deliriously—“Don’t make it late. Just make it easy.” Even in despair, he is careful about keeping finances intact for his family and not spending it on himself.

As the story unfolds, the inward journey of the characters takes shape in front of you.

Ravishankar: “There are three crematoriums in town. Now it is a big business,” he informs his aunt, who nods sympathetically. It is the tone of a man who has finally reconciled to his fate — death is only a few months away. Like any other man in a similar situation, Ravishankar goes through a rollercoaster of emotions — denial, anger, despair, regret, and finally calmness.

When Ravishankar witnesses a fleeting moment of intimacy between his wife Malini (Gauthami) and Rajendran, he does not react to it like any other husband would. Shocked, he quickly retraces his steps, comes back to his room and plops on the bed, weeping uncontrollably. It is a heart-breaking scene. They say when you stare at your impending death, an odd sense of courage gets into you. That is probably what prompts him to tell Malini to accept Rajendran as her future partner.

But then he had no idea that fate was laughing at him. Malini and Ravishankar had a love marriage and it is also clear that they belonged to different socio-economic backgrounds, a reason why her parents keep a distance from them. Ravishankar, from what we are told, was an idealist and intellectual journalist in his youth and Malini seems to have fallen for that part of him.

Malini: The first vibe you get from Ravishankar’s wife is an overwhelming sense of regret. It is clear that she is beside her husband out of duty rather than love. And Ravishankar senses it — that knowledge makes him helpless and angry in turn. Even in that miserable hospital room, Malini glances at her husband’s friend and admirer with a deep sense of loss. And it’s soon validated in the subsequent scene.

Malini reads out a letter from her mother to Rajendran, who offers her austere condolences with a Shakespearean quote. She listens impassively as Rajendran talks about “doing everything they can for Ravishankar’s treatment.” Malini does not give the impression of a grieving wife or perhaps it is an interesting digression from the usual stereotype. She seems to be the more realistic depiction of a partner, who is practical enough to think about her own survival, a reason why she re-joins duty even when he is ill. She shares her fears with Rajendran, “How will I live alone?"

It overpowers even her compassion for her husband. There is no romanticising of a wife who wails, mourns, and martyrs herself to prove her loyalty and love. It is clear that in these trying times, she is exhausted and only human to place him above herself and she never bothers to mask it in front of him or the world. She has taken it in her stride.

Though intentioned to break your heart or perhaps make you judge her for being cruel, at least she was being true to herself when she admits that she slept with Rajendran when Ravishankar tries to initiate sex. Though inappropriate, at least she stands her ground and does not fall into the morality trap. It’s also true that the narrative is built more around despising her, for the audience is not familiar with this dispassionate woman, who weighs relationships with her head than with her heart.

Rajendran: The “friend” who always desired Malini. He is one of the last of Ravishankar’s friends who continue to visit him, offering money and other help. But from the very first instance, we get where his interest lies. The sympathy is strictly a route to be with Malini. He reminds you of a vulture, awaiting the death of his prey.

Durga: Ravishankar’s ‘murappennu’ (the woman betrothed to him before he married Malini), who still loves him.

The moment of truth

Life gives him a second chance. But not entirely. Ravi is on the road to recovery and ready to accept life with open arms. Gone is the man who was dreaming about death. And then fate smirks at him. The first blow comes when he visits Durga for some comfort — “Then it was different. I was trying to offer solace to a dying man. You can go back to your wife. I can’t be your mistress,” she tells him.

His “loving” aunt suddenly finds nursing him a burden. When he tries to initiate a conversation with Rajendran regarding the deal he made in a moment of despair, he politely shows him the door. The second blow happens in his office when he gets to read a copy of his own obituary.

While the final blow was Malini’s “betrayal", Durga’s reaction is a tad baffling. Was it the thought of getting hurt again that leads her to such a decision? But in the end, two moments make that lasting impression — the first being the one where Ravi rewrites the dateline of the previously drafted obituary. And finally, that last shot where he treads calmly on the railway track.

It ought to be one of the most haunting scenes in the history of Malayalam cinema. Norman Cousins said it rightly—"Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss is what dies inside us while we live.” But one question continues to haunt me more—Were Malini and Rajendran able to live this down?

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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