When Mammootty played the tyrant: Revisiting Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Vidheyan

It’s a role of a lifetime for Mammootty, who sheds every ounce of his stardom and popular mannerisms and disappears into Patelar.
Mammootty in a scene from Vidheyan
Mammootty in a scene from Vidheyan
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Baskara Patelar doesn’t smile. He leers. He doesn’t laugh. It’s more an infernal growl. He is a Satan in the starkest sense of the word.  In the opening scene we are introduced, without much fanfare, to Patelar—sitting upright on a wooden chair, legs crossed, surrounded by a few yes-men, looking with total derision at a hapless man, in a torn dhoti. It’s his potential slave—Thommi, a Christian immigrant from Kerala. Patelar spits paan and a volley of profanities on his face and nearly guns him down, all in the opening scene. In the background, his cronies are bellowing with laughter. Vidheyan is their story. 

Directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Vidheyan is the adaptation of Paul Zacharias’ novella Bhaskara Pattelarum Ente Jeevithavum. One of his finest and most rewarding films, Vidheyan, inspired by the life and times of a Mangaluru-based landlord is set in South Canara. Patelar’s Malayalam is heavily accented, he hits his t’s and i’s with a Kannada drawl while Thommi’s voice is barely audible, and it doesn’t help that he covers his mouth in front of Patelar.  

The men around Patelar are a mere chorus who mechanically nod and laugh at each of his acts of tyranny.  The few women in the tale are either his conquests or his future prey. The lone face of normalcy and kindness is his wife, Saroja.

Vidheyan, like Adoor's previous films, values single shots (fantastically shot by Mankada Ravi Varma)—there are mostly close-ups, effectively showing the master-slave dynamics. Actors are placed with an eye on the prudent use of space. The backdrop is very stark—brown earth, run-down tea shops, Thommi’s brick hut and Patelar’s large antique bungalow, a sort of mute witness to his tyrannical existence. There is also a free-flowing river enclosed in a forest, which appears to be a dispassionate onlooker in the narrative. It’s also a regular route for Patelar’s predatory habits.

Subtlety, if one were to analyse a few scenes, has a different measurement in an Adoor film.  Thommi is greeted by his wife’s weeping on reaching home.  In the next scene they show Patelar crossing the river. She has been raped by Patelar.  And all Thommi does is sit in front of his hut and vent his anger as his wife looks on.  Soon after, the same Thommi looks on powerlessly as Patelar selects a sari for Omana and states that she is beautiful. He offers him a job and Thommi lets out a grateful smile. That’s when we know Thommi has already yielded to Patelar’s tyranny.

Thommi and Omana soon become mere pawns in the hands of Patelar. As Patelar regularly makes nocturnal visits to his home, Thommi is a mute spectator to his wife’s trauma. He is a true Christian who follows most of the Christian beliefs. And he probably thinks he deserves this hell for having rejected God (he equates it to leaving Kerala). So, when a priest asks him to confess, Thommi would rather be with the sinner.

The scene where Patelar pounces on a woman (it’s a long shot, we just hear her wail) and asks Thommi whether he wants a ‘share’ and then proceeds to rape her is unnerving. Thommi looks the other way. Nothing graphic as seen in a mainstream films, but the effect is twice unsettling.

Somewhere a random man informs us that Patelar was spoiled by the immigrants who lured him with wine and women. This statement is reinforced at various occasions when his accomplices encourage him to pursue women even when Patelar maintains that they might be trouble. Not surprisingly, Palerimankyam also employs the same set of yes-men—they are more devious and exploit their master’s weakness. Even to the extent of abusing the same women. 

Patelar’s fiefdom is tellingly captured in a frame where a group of villagers have assembled in front of his house, Thommi is massaging his neck as he sits in a chair, his head leans forward and in the foreground, looms the skull of an ox, mounted over a door frame. Can there be a more surrealistic image of Yama himself? 

Saroja is a submissive woman. Patelar’s relationship with her is awkward—she looks at him for answers and he yells at her. She is in a private hell, not unlike Thommi. And they find solace in each other—without saying much. Omana, Thommi and Saroja—three victims of Patelar’s oppression.

There are times Thommi’s helplessness makes us feel for him. In one scene, he holds Omana and tells her—"You smell of the Patelar’s scent. I like it. But you are only mine. One day, I will be able to buy you the scent." Or the one where he asks Saroja for some water, just so that Patelar can “accidentally kill her.” Thommi ends up as a symbol of pathetic human bondage. Power, Patelar tells us, cannot exist without submission. Power is repressive so long as sycophancy becomes obsessive. It’s this obsession with servility that prompts Thommi who hates Patelar to save his lord. But strangely, despite everything, his love for Omana never wanes—the bond they share is unique.

Silence is often part of the unsettling background score in Vidheyan—the scene where Patelar awaits to kill his wife has the clock ticking in the background. It sets our heartbeats racing. Equally frightening is the background score when Thommi looks at Patelar’s dead body.

Adoor sketches Patelar with cruel, cold logic—there isn’t a single redeeming trait in this man. At no point does empathy creep into his relationship with Thommi. Even when he accidentally fires a gun at Thommi, Patelar seems indifferent, refusing to show him to a doctor. The only instance when we see him emotional is when he rides like a maniac and confesses to killing Saroja. If in the book, Patelar kills Saroja to usurp her money, in the film, he kills her tired of listening to her nagging, though that decision comes across as illogical.

When Thommi expresses his concern over Omana being left in the lurch in his absence, Patelar is amused— “Even when you are there I am looking after her, right.” Talk about cruel irony. 

It’s this servility that makes Thommi tell Omana that if they kill him and Patelar she should take her own life.

It’s a role of a lifetime for Mammootty, who sheds every ounce of his stardom and popular mannerisms and disappears into Patelar. Be it his dictatorship, apathy for his wife, or his debauchery, Mammootty embodies Patelar with a satanic intensity. When his eyes turn dark with senseless lust for women and derision for those who serve him, it’s difficult not to loathe him. The sequence after he kills Saroja, where he narrates his frame of mind to Thommi, is voice modulation at its finest, that too within the constraints of the South Canara slang. Patelar’s face is ashen as he tries to process the aftermath of this murder, and he is bridled with regret, fear, and sadness. Gopakumar, as Thommi, gives a laboured performance, but Tanvi Azmi as Saroja is subtle, bringing forth the naiveite and honesty of the character.

The climax shot of Thommi’s sprint towards faraway sunlight is a liberating sight. Thommi and Omana (Sabitha Anand) might never get over Patelar’s reign but their love (however bizarre and debatable it might seem to have been in the traditional precincts of love) is strong enough to tide over any possible adversity.

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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