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Meghamalhar: An Old Film, A New Take

Meghamalhar (Malayalam)

Had the opportunity to watch an old Malayalam film “Meghamalhar” recently. Starring Samyuktha Varma and Biju Menon in lead roles, the movie is a charming attempt at understanding the dynamics between two adults who once shared a deeply intimate childhood friendship.

Rajeev is a lawyer. He is married with two kids. Nandita is a writer/novelist/sub-editor living in the same city. Her husband works in the Middle East. She lives with her daughter and father-in-law. Rajeev and Nandita have a chance interaction at a local bakery when their respective orders get mixed up. Then they meet again at a hospital. By now, Rajeev has learned that she is a published writer. He chats with her about her work. Then they meet again at his office when she drops by with a friend who has an appointment with a fellow lawyer. Each interaction they share is pleasant and friendly. He begins to read and enjoy more of her stories.

One day, Nandita calls Rajeev to ask a favor. She needs an interview with a respected Kathakali artist and performer. This gentleman is also a friend of Rajeev’s, so she asks if he can provide an introduction. Rajeev agrees. The artist lives in a distant town, so they have to undertake a day’s journey for the interview. Nandita, Rajeev and a photographer make their way to the artist’s home. En route, Rajeev starts describing a story penned by Nandita that touched his heart deeply. He reveals that he has had a similar experience in his own life. As he begins to describe an incident from his childhood involving a dear friend Srikutty that mirrors the story, Nandita’s face changes. It becomes evident that the story is semi-autobiographical, and that Nandita is none other than Srikutty. It also becomes clear to her that Rajeev is her childhood friend. However, Nandita chooses to keep this realization to herself.

Life goes on. Rajeev finds himself getting more and more drawn to Nandita. He feels a deep sense of connection with her. One day, they meet at a beach where he reveals his feelings to her. She is shell-shocked. Speechless, she leaves. Rajeev is dismayed. He attempts to contact her multiple times to explain (or apologize) but she refuses to meet him. Another chance interaction occurs as they both travel to Trivandrum, a neighboring city. This time, Nandita is with a friend. Unable to face him, she asks her friend to pass Rajeev a copy of her newly published book.

On the first page, she writes,

“To my childhood friend Rajeev,

As Rajeev opens the book, he comes to realize who Nandita is. He requests her to meet him one last time. When they meet, he apologizes for what he terms his “cheapness” and indiscretion. He promises to never contact her again. But he declares that he will never forsake the memory of his childhood playmate Srikutty. Nandita is visibly moved. She then proposes a short trip to Kanyakumari, the city of their childhood. As Nandita and Rajeev explore the beach where they played as children, they are forced to confront the fact that they are deeply attracted to each other. But, as Nandita explains, there can be no future to that feeling; they must part as strangers, she says.

Many years elapse. Nandita and her husband Mukundan are on a trip to Kanyakumari. As they check out of their hotel, a car pulls up. Rajeev steps out with his wife Rekha. It turns out that Rekha and Mukundan were classmates at college. They begin chatting and exchanging pleasantries. Nandita and Rajeev are introduced to each other. As their eyes meet, it becomes clear that the passage of time has not dimmed their feelings. They mutter “Hello” to each other and part to go their respective ways.

Phew. Typing all that was not easy.

I watched the film in two parts. I really enjoyed the first half. The story was developing so beautifully, I thought. It seemed like a mature attempt to show adults grappling with complex emotions. However, the second half felt like an utter letdown.

As I was describing the story to P, he wondered why I was in “psychoanalysis” mode. No, I wasn’t meaning to over-analyze or dissect the movie (it is a work of fiction, after all) but I felt like Meghamalhar lost a good opportunity to make a strong point.

The past can be a powerful player in our life. However, the truth is that it has no existence. Understanding this fact is vital to our peace of mind and happiness. Yes, Nandita and Rajeev shared a special bond in their childhood. However, that time had long passed by. Not to imply that the sweet tenderness of that bond should necessarily have changed. Meeting a dear friend is a joyful event. Instead of looking at that person and relationship as they existed, in the current moment, Nandita and Rajeev viewed their present situation in the light of their past. End result? Muddled emotions. Guilt, regret, pain… and so on.

The film has a couple of beautiful songs. Here is one.

On Responsibility and A Great Movie

Vijayan is a school teacher but his heart isn’t in teaching. He longs for the carefree days of his youth, roaming around town without a care in the world, basking in the company of friends and classmates, spending his father’s money on movies, alcohol and jaunts. Those days are long gone since he now has a wife Shyamala and two daughters to support. But every once in a while, he sneaks away from his day job to play hooky with his buddies, indulging in drinking/gossiping sessions, causing his family much consternation.

“Is this how a grown man behaves? Utterly irresponsible! He steps out to buy a can of coconut oil and is gone for seven days! No one knows where the man is!” and so on.

The father and father-in-law rack their collective brains and hit on a great plan. Let’s send the guy on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala. Now Sabarimala is not an easy trip. It requires dedication, focus, discipline, abstinence. After much resistance, Vijayan gives in and begins the 40-day routine. He gets through it without much fuss and proceeds to Sabarimala. Thousands of devotees making their way to the temple, subsisting on meagre food and rations, braving sleepless nights of discomfort and overcrowding, getting a momentary glimpse of the deity… Vijayan is touched to the core. He returns home a changed man. His beard grows longer and thicker, he dresses in black/white/saffron, makes 2-hour trips to the temple each morning, dispenses flowers and fruits to the devout few thronging his house. And delivers religious sermons to the students at school.

Family is baffled. The plan wasn’t all that genius, after all. It backfired, and so bad.

When the elders confront Vijayan, he retorts – Isn’t this what you guys wanted? Now I am a devotee, I don’t drink alcohol or eat meat, I am engrossed in thoughts of the Divine. What is your problem?

No answers. Family finances are dwindling, everyone is worried.

One day, Vijayan runs away, leaving behind a note – I cannot take this any more. I am leaving. Don’t expect me to return. Shyamala is distraught, the elders are distressed. Well, you gotta do what you got to do. Shyamala gets an old sewing machine, rounds up a small clientele, begins her life anew. And she gets busy, managing her little enterprise, and two darling daughters.

Vijayan is on a trip of his own. Wanders around from city to city, meets another seeker, and reaches an Ashram. Months pass by but he is unable to shake off the memories of the past. He does not want to teach, he does not want to work in the Ashram farm, he does not want to assist in the Ashram activities. The head monk asks him what he wishes to do. Vijayan’s response? “I wish to contemplate on God, that’s all I wish to do.” The head monk responds, “If you contemplate on God 24/7, even He will be annoyed.”

Forsaking your loved ones and causing them pain is not Sanyaasa, Vijayan learns. Neither is shirking one’s responsibility. Vijayan is restless, plagued by guilt. He gets into a fight with another Ashram inmate, finally decides to leave. He returns home only to find that Shyamala is a busy woman, running a successful enterprise. She gives him the cold shoulder, acts as if he doesn’t exist. He meets his father and father-in-law who make no bones about their anger and disappointment. His friends are happy to see him back but they cannot help him break the ice with his family. Finally Vijayan gives up, breaks down.

Shyamala’s heart melts, she accepts the prodigal son into her life… all is well.

Chinthavishtayaaya Shyaamala is one of my favorite movies. Tight script, excellent performances, great dialogues and a superb message. A spiritual seeker is not one who runs away from responsibility or forsakes his/her duties. Sanyaasa has NOT a thing to do with an individual’s external circumstance; it is an internal attitude. Cultivating a Sanyaasin’s attitude is something even a householder can do. It is simply the practice of Vairaagya, dispassion. Like King Janaka or Lord Rama or Krishna.

What I adore about this movie is that this immensely profound message is delivered with much fun, humor and lightness. No heavy “hit-me-over-the-head” seriousness or preaching. Now that’s what I call a fantastic movie.