Panjami raises her face from behind the camera just as her friend, who is in front of it, says, “If you apply this paste for a month, you will be fair.” She whispers to her friend to add the “subscribe to this channel” line. At home, in the kitchen, she has the paste on her face and cooks dinner with her mother. Her sister teases her and her father asks for black tea. “It is because you always drink black tea that I turned dark,” Panjami says, but does not seem upset about it.
That’s what first catches your attention in Kaakka, a 30-minute Malayalam short film that’s been getting a lot of appreciation for its take on beauty concepts. Though Panjami, played by Lakshmika Sajeevan, talks about her dark skin and the protruding teeth, she goes about her life merrily, squabbling with her sister into the night and chatting with her friends. Pretty much like another young woman her age. The subject of her “looks” arises when there is a prospective groom coming to see her. When one young man glances at her and flinches, there is but a moment of pain that passes through her face. It is subtle but enough for you to realise that this is something she has been through a lot. It doesn’t shock her anymore, but it still hurts.
The merriment you saw in the beginning is only Panjami being used to a certain way of life. There is her close circle of friends and family who love her, and there are others who only see her through a certain lens. Director Aju Ajeesh calls it the general concept of beauty. “Who is to say what’s beautiful? We don’t mean to show the young man who judges her looks in a bad light. That’s the society’s construct of what beauty is. People are used to looking at everything through that lens,” he says.
He quotes another scene in the film. A short man once visits Panjami as part of an alliance. He is very pleasant to her but as he leaves, her father tells the broker, “It is true my daughter is a little dark but why would you bring such proposals?”
Aju points out how everyone falls back to the same old concepts of beauty when it becomes personal. To the father, his daughter is beautiful no matter what. Panjami’s male friend, who always stands by her and speaks about beauty being in the inside of a person, is thrown off by a suggestion of marrying her. It doesn’t exactly seem that way in the film — a friend needn’t have feelings for you whether you are “outwardly” beautiful or not — but that was the intention, says the director. Every character, in one or another, comes to the aid of the script. But it is undoubtedly Panjami that takes your heart away.
A still from Kaakka / YouTube screenshot
“I was at first doubtful when the creative head Althaf showed me the script. It needed a huge makeover and I wasn’t sure I could pull it off. But he asked me to first hear the script and when I did that, I was totally into it. This was a film that had to be made,” says Lakshmika Sajeevan who played Panjami.
It was a lot of hard work. It was not just about powdering her skin to a darker shade — makeup artists Joshy Jose and Vijeesh Krishnan do a thorough job here. She had to visit a dentist and get a set of dentures to be worn over her teeth, which hurt a lot every time she put them on. “I would wear it from 6 in the morning to midnight for six to seven days of the shooting. At times my mouth would bleed badly, my jaws would be injured. But when I saw the film I knew everything was worth it,” Lakshmika says.
She picks a moment when she stands in front of the mirror as her most heartfelt one. Panjami’s father, who had always stood by her, loses it at one point. Panjami silently walks into her room and looks at her mirror and breaks down. “Director Aju told me to just imagine it is your dad who said that to you. How would you feel? At that point all that I had held up inside me just burst out. This is a character like that,” she says.
The story is written with very close attention to detail (“the mannerisms of such a character, who has inhibitions like not being able to smile freely,” says Lakshmika) by Aju with Shinoj Eenikkal and Gopika K Das.
Many people who saw the film — and there are already 4.5 million views within three weeks on YouTube — told Panjami about another scene that made them cry with her. It comes towards the end of the film when instead of her friend (with the paste), it is she that stands in front of the camera and talks. Lakshmika can make the hardest heart soften in those few minutes.
“Those were real tears, I really felt for Panjami. To tell you the truth, I have acted in eight to ten films earlier (Uyare, Oru Yamandan Pranayakatha, Oru Kuttanadan Blog among them) but this is the one that’s got me the most attention. It must have connected to the audience that much,” Lakshmika says.