Three Malayalam films on elder abuse

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Shoma A. Chatterji reviews three Malayalam films which expose the shocking ritual of killing old parents, when children feel the latter are a burden. All three films juxtapose the true beauty of nature against the brutal nature of human beings.

In the last two years, three Malayalam films have thrown up three shocking realities of elder abuse in some pockets of Tamil Nadu. Two of these films, namely, Jalasamadhi (Death By Water) directed by Venu Nair and Pani (Fever) directed by Santhosh Mandoor, underlines the real killing of old parents by their adult children. This is murder that is kind of institutionalised under the pretence of a ritual custom everyone knows about but no one complains to the police.

The third film Idam (Abode), the directorial debut of Jaya Jose Raj is different, but it also deals with the subject of killing a parent who refuses to submit to threats by her adult sons to sell off her house and property and hand over the proceeds to the sons. The films were screened at the recently concluded Kolkata International Film Festival, 2019.

The first two films are based on the practice of Thalaikoothal or “death by water.” The offenders choose from a range of 26 different methods to kill. Based on Sethu’s novel Adayalangal, Venu Nair’s Jalasamadhi, revolves around thalaikoothal (senicide), the heinous practice of killing the elders in the family when they become a liability, which was reportedly practised in certain regions in Tamil Nadu.

Jalasamadhi

The film, based on the little-known practice of thalaikoothal (senicide), is set in a fictional village in the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Senicide is also practised in some other parts of the world. In Japan, for instance, it is known as ubasute. Those who practice it or back it call it “voluntary euthanasia” but it is neither “voluntary” nor “euthanasia” because whether the old parent wants to die or not or is terminally ill or not or is in pain or not, is not considered at all.

“When the most senior person in the family becomes a financial liability, they are killed by their family members. Sometimes it is carried out after making the person unconscious. Sometimes it’s forced,” explains Venu.

“Jalasamadhi was shot in a small colony of Tamil-speaking people in the interiors of Karuvakulam (26 km away from Kumily, Idukki district of Kerala). There are just 100-odd houses, a lake and a temple. The colony is surrounded by forests on all sides. It is an isolated place and suited the atmosphere we wanted to create in the film,” adds Venu.

The film’s shocking exposition rests almost entirely on the shoulders of M. S. Baaskar who portrays the strong protagonist Munuswami whose wife and wayward son want him out of the way, so that the son can get the father’s job in the sugar factory which is the rule set down by the newly established sugar factory.

“Jalasamadhi focusses on the inhuman attitude adopted by the people towards the older generation in general. Respecting one’s elders is a part of Indian culture. However, that is fast changing. One reads about senior citizens being abandoned due to various reasons, especially when the family experiences a financial crunch. Even children are being abandoned on the streets; mothers killing their children … This ‘throwaway’ culture is one that is influenced by the rise of consumerism. I am cautioning against this throwaway culture that gripped human beings,” sums up Venu.

Pani

The second film Pani (Fever) directed by Santhosh Mandoor was screened at the International Film Festival of Kerala last year. The story follows the journey of Raghavan, a septuagenarian who at an early age after marriage relocated from Palakkad, a district in Kerala with his wife Janaki to a lesser known barren hillside village on the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. He loves his small forest of trees, fruits and plants, as if they are his own children and teaches his school-going grand-daughter about the utility of plants. He is constantly disturbed as he sees his sick friend being ritually killed by his own son who openly says that he is fed up of taking care of his father who refuses to die. Another cancer-ridden mother who is given shelter by Raghavan’s wife, walks away in fear and is never found. She was constantly abused by her children for refusing to die.

His son who works in a stone blasting quarry is lured by his boss to persuade his father to sell the forest. The father refuses but when he leaves to visit his daughter, the son forces his mother to undergo the severe oil bath till she gets fever followed by forced feeding of tender coconut water. In her unconscious state, he steals the documents of their land and places her thumb impression on it. When he finds she does not die, he forces milk into her mouth. When the father returns and finds that his wife is still breathing, he carries her in his arms and walks into the forest he has created himself. He walks away in the midst of the huge bulldozer reducing his forest to stone and dust. M. R. Gopakumar gives a stunning performance as Raghavan.

Pani is Mandoor’s debut feature film which received him the Special Jury mention for direction at the Kerala State Film Awards 2019.

Idam

Idam (Abode) is the first feature film of Jaya Jose Raj where he is the script writer, director and producer. He is an alumnus of Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, in screenplay writing.

Idam is about a 70-year-old widow, Bhanu, (Seema Biswas) who, after her husband’s death, brought up her two sons all by herself. She now lives alone in the ancestral bungalow with a huge garden filled with fruits, vegetables and flowers she looks after herself with the help of an old retinue. Her two sons live in the city but the younger one who is a good-for-nothing, often visits to ask for money and even stoops to stealing from the home. Bhanu is on the verge of being sent to an old age home. “What makes this mother different is that instead of wilting on hearing this news, she takes a decision that shocks all of them. It was meant to be a plan to test her sons’ love for her. Whether she succeeds or not is the story,” says Seema Biswas who won the Best Actress Award at the Ottawa India Film Festival in Canada in June.

The two sons keep forcing her to sell the entire property and divide the proceeds between the two brothers, but she staunchly stands her ground and refuses to bend. The younger son says that his only child has cancer but Bhanu thinks it is a ploy to extract money from her. They hatch a plan to do away with her. When the sons feel the answer to her living alone is to put her in an old-age home, she retorts with a ‘shocking’ idea. She says she will marry again to continue living in the ancestral house.

The sons come to the ancestral home with their families under the ploy of celebrating Bhanu’s 70th birthday. Their real purpose is to mix poison in one of the dishes Bhanu has prepared for the feast. What happens in the end is a strange twist in the tale.

The very enlightening undercurrent in all three films is the role nature, greenery, forests, the sky and water play in them. This juxtaposes the true beauty of nature against the brutal and cold-blooded nature of human beings who are prepared to murder their old parents when they feel the latter are a burden. The greenery and the water bodies also add to the visual beauty of these films set against stories of human’s cruelty against fellow humans.


Shoma A. Chatterji

Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema, twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards.

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