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Polandine Patti Episode 19

With this episode, we begin a look at Malayalam films centred around the sea, and examine the importance of the sea to those that live near it and from it, and examine the sea as a metaphor.

Download Episode 19

Episode 19 Highlights:

Spoiler Alert! We try to remember to alert listeners to spoilers, but just in case, know that we talk about the films in-depth, so be sure to watch them first if you’re concerned about spoilers!

While we didn’t get to mention this in the episode, Harsha recommends the podcast “Rethinking ‘Keraleeyatha’: Centering Oceanic Histories” as an excellent companion to our series on The Sea.

[00:00:17] Spoiler Alert!

[00:01:33] We will start with Chemmeen and it’s important to note that the personification of the sea, Kadalamma (lit. Sea Mother), is revered in many fishing communities shown in these films.

[00:02:43] Chemmeen is a huge milestone for Malayalam cinema. It’s the first Southern film to win the National Award and frequently mentioned in lists of the best 100 Indian films. Alas, good prints with subtitles have been hard to find.

[00:03:14] There have been critiques in recent years from the community depicted in the film that it’s a regressive and unflattering portrayal of them.

[00:03:40] The film is an adaptation of a novel by Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai and centered around a belief that a fisherman’s fate is dependent on his wife’s chastity.

[00:04:00] The story is about Karuthamma, played by Sheela, who is in love with the wealthier Muslim, Pareekutty, played by Madhu. Her ambitious father tasks her with getting money from Pareekutty for his own boat and nets. Pareekutty agrees with the understanding he is able to sell the catch for them.

[00:05:18] When Karuthamma’s father becomes successful, he marries her off to a man who is able to live with her family and join them in the business.

[00:05:45] So much pining

[00:06:20] Karuthamma tries to be loyal to her husband but the tragedies start on her wedding day, along with the rumors following her about her relationship with Pareekutty.

[00:07:22] Harsha always found the movie hard to get into. It might be partly because Thakazhi is not from the community he is writing about.

[00:08:53] The music is beautiful. You don’t see these big orchestrations today.

[00:09:20] Katherine finds Madhu gorgeous. Harsha finds Sathyan’s acting more accessible.

[00:10:48] There’s a lot of sadness and loss in the story. Stories about marginalized groups in the mainstream often portray them as happy people despite their poverty and marginalization.

[00:11:58] Bobby, in Hindi, has a similar portrayal of Christian fishing communities.

[00:12:23] In Malayalam, the problematic depiction of fisherman is an issue of caste more than religion.

[00:13:15] When your way of life centers on something as unpredictable as the ocean, it makes sense to have superstitions and beliefs built around it as a means to control the uncontrollable.

[00:13:55] North American coastal homes often have something called widow’s walk, a balcony intended for sailors’ wives to look out for their husbands who have been lost at sea.

[00:14:30] In Ireland, there’s a myth that Aran sweaters were supposed to have unique stitches for each family and drowned men were identified by the stitch used by the women in their family.

[00:15:03] The film’s legend persists because of the National Award and because of the crew, including Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Manna Dey. 

[00:16:20] There’s a pre-Chemmeen Malayalam cinema and a post-Chemmeen Malayalam cinema. In the film Celluloid, the Father of Malayalam Cinema, JC Daniel, is depicted hearing the news of Chemmeen’s win with a mix of pride and sorrow.

[00:17:45] Celluloid’s thesis about the need to honor our film histories is relevant to Chemmeen. The lack of investment in remastering and making it more widely accessible means it could be lost in time.

[00:18:40] There is a chance before Madhu, who is 90 in September 2023, and Sheela pass to capture their experiences in a documentary or oral history project.

[00:21:05] The film required a high level of national, or “pan-Indian,” cooperation to make.

[00:21:42] Lots of movies are 50 years old so it’s important to provide context on why this particular film turning 50 is important to venerate.

[00:23:41] This is a great example of the sea as a metaphor for the lives of people who live off it.

[00:23:47] Chemmeen also sets a template for the depiction of Kerala’s fishing communities in Malayalam cinema

[00:24:05] Thumboli Kadappuram is our next film and it’s very different in tone, including comedy.

[00:24:40] Two fisherman, Methrinju and Williams, played by Vijayaraghavan and Manoj K. Jayan, respectively, are rivals in their fishing community. The locals look up to Methrinju. His love interest, Clara, is played by Silk Smitha.

[00:25:28] When Williams elopes with a wealthy man’s daughter, Mary, played by Priya Raman, Methrinju offers them sanctuary in his home.

[00:26:26] Soon, the community begins to circulate rumors that Mary is having an affair with Methrinju when Williams is at sea.

[00:26:48] Katherine’s previous experience with Jayaraj has been his artsier fare. This is a massy film.

[00:27:37] Silk Smitha’s important role also surprised Katherine. Harsha is surprised at her contemporary reputation as just an item girl when she’s done significant roles in films like Spadikam.

[00:29:42] Williams and Mary’s meet cutes are shot beautifully and Jayaraj shows off his artier skills.

[00:30:39] The character of Stanley/Chellappan is the kind of 90s comedy character that is jarring to those of us watching in the 2020s. 

[00:31:36] When fishermen in film are depicted as the epitome of bravery and masculinity, anyone who deviates from that, like Indrans’ character or the lead in Chandupottu, is mocked for their femininity.

[00:32:13] We are so glad Indrans can play more full-fledged roles now.

[00:32:37] Harsha enjoys Priya Raman from among the early 90s heroines who were not the big stars like Shobana, Revathy and Urvashi. She is now known more as a television serial actor.

[00:34:11] The cast includes actors like Augustine and Sainuddin, both of whom have passed away. Others like Prem Kumar and Manoj K. Jayan were omnipresent in Malayalam films of this era and did not transition into New Gen films.

[00:36:18] Malayalam films in the 90s employed huge casts of character actors to give them that lived in feeling while telling the story of a hero and heroine.

[00:37:36] Harsha believes one of the reasons Bollywood films are struggling recently is because of the lack of a world that feels lived in and familiar populated by tangential characters.

[00:37:52] We discuss Anurag Kashyap’s comments on rootedness in South Indian cinema.

[00:41:07] Bollywood is stuck between a rock and a hard place addressing the current Indian social context. They would prefer to exist in a timeless, placeless urbanism.

[00:42:52] Were fisherfolk in the 90s still talking like they were in Chemmeen and not using motorboats?

[00:44:00] Our next is Puthiya Theerangal, directed by Sathyan Anthikkad and his moral values.

[00:44:58] The main character, Thamara, is played by Namitha Pramod. She’s an orphan and fisherwoman, who finds and takes in an old man, played by Nedumudi Venu. Nivin Pauly plays her friend and love interest.

[00:47:22] Thamara going out fishing on her own boat is a marked difference from the other stories. She is supported by her community and thrives, despite being an orphan.

[00:48:12] Sathyan Anthikkad’s characters often survive with the goodwill of the community.

[00:49:02] There are references to Chemmeen, once again showing its long shadow.

[00:49:35] Nedumudi Venu’s character is written as a plot device. He has little agency.

[00:51:10] This is not a Nivin Pauly film. He’s the eye candy.

[00:51:28] Once again, we see frequently seen elements like fishermen who have an interest in the arts and theater and the sea taking loved ones away.

[00:52:56] Namitha Pramod was a young teenager when she starred in the film. She hasn’t really acted much once she became an adult. We previously discussed her in Al Mallu.

[00:54:33] We both thought that it fell apart in the second half.

[00:55:01] Rajagopuram, shot in Hampi, is very pretty. Cinematographer Venu shot the film with a lot of color. It was a bright spot in our series on the sea, which can often be bleak.

[00:56:23] Next time, we discuss Mosayile Kuthira Meenukal, Akashathinte Niram and Amaram.

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