The film opens to a decadent Nair Tharavadu that has seen better days. Its chief occupant, the patriarch, is bed-ridden. The news of his impending death has caused a line-up of visitors by his side—his children, their spouses, and grandchildren. This is the backdrop of the MT Vasudevan Nair scripted, IV Sasi directed Alkootathil Thaniye, also a fine reflection on the Malayalee nostalgia, the intrinsic patriarchal roots of the Nair coterie, the casteism, sexism and above all the hypocrisy of the middle-class Malayalee, and about going back to your roots.
MT Vasudevan Nair brings forth his kinship towards the Nair tharavadu and typically weaves the narrative around his favourite tropes—the Murapennu, the grouchy patriarch, the ambitious son, the greedy son-in-law, and the whining daughters.
Rajan (Mammootty, raw, a touch dramatic but still convincing in parts and this younger version is strangely reminiscent of his son, Dulquer Salmaan), who lives in the city, is married to Nalini (Unnimary), who hankers after a Harvard scholarship. Just to reinstate the theory that an ambitious woman cannot bring herself to be an ideal mother, wife or homemaker, there is an attender to take care of their only, often neglected child. Even her career highs are considered without enthusiasm by her husband, though he keeps reminding her (and himself) that he is happy for her. The thought of his wife sidestepping her domestic responsibilities doesn’t please him in any way. That way, despite being on top of the business ladder, Rajan by his own admission is a villager at heart.
But the film really is about Ammukutty (Seema who is simply brilliant!), Rajan’s Murapennu, an elementary school teacher who funds his MBA and ends up losing him. She is portrayed as the ideal woman—the smart, enterprising, homely, sacrificing, generous middle-class woman who lets go of her love and remains unmarried. On his deathbed, Madhavan wisely seeks her out—knowing very well she is the lone face whom he can trust despite being swarmed by his daughters and sons. Ammukutty never lets him down, even though he cruelly discarded her to find a richer prospect for his son.
It’s with this paragon of virtue that Nalini must compete. Interestingly, despite being judged for choosing her career over her family, it’s Ammukutty who finally stands for Nalini— “Will you not go if such an opportunity came to you? You would run, I feel. Let her pursue her dreams,” she tells Rajan. That also washes away the wave of bitterness between the two.
Alkootathil Thaniye holds up a mirror to middle-class morality. What starts off as a casual conversation between a brother and sister soon snowballs into a morality lesson. Her façade of arrogance peels away to repentant tears when he narrates her tales of licentious relationships. He talks about how she is fooling her naïve husband and tells her to get a hold of her life. He doesn’t judge her then. But somehow, it’s much later when she wonders why Nalini would want to leave her good life for an education abroad that Rajan pays her back in the same coin— “I could ask the same question about you. You didn’t lack anything but still you were not happy.”
Rajan is still living in the past. He is apologetic about the choices (cowardly!) he made or the ones that were made for him—Ammukkuty is still a sore memory, and it’s her image that rakes his soul. He is troubled in his marriage, with a job that seems to go against his values and wants to go back to his roots.
In one scene when Nalini offers to repay the money Rajan owes her, Ammukkuty looks shattered, she bursts out—all her pent-up loneliness and sadness for having lost the man she loved. Yet in the next scene, she comes back, begging forgiveness, anxious not to create any rift between the couple. But it’s in that moment Nalini realises that Ammukutty has been cheated by her husband.
The youngest sister is a stereotype—she has no identity, is selfish and possess the celluloid sisterly qualities (jealousy, discontentment and greed).
The local ayurvedic doctor (the reliable Kuthiravattom Pappu) who finds no joy in curing people and prays for death to appear on time. Rajan’s child who is unloved and finds a mother in Ammukutty who gives him an oil bath— “You look like you haven’t had a proper bath for a long time,” she tut-tuts. Nalini’s motherly image gets a severe beating in that one sentence. It’s further highlighted in a song that cements the bond between Ammukutty and the boy.
There is an interesting friendship between Rajan and his roommate (Mohanlal). Their equation loses steam when the friend who braves all opposition to marry a divorcee realises that Rajan betrays Ammukutty.
The film beautifully captures a decadent village, with its drawn-out naalu-kettus that had dusty kitchens with smoky, sooty fire-places, huge earthen and copperware, paddy-fields, antique couches, ponds and temples. The ideological clash between modernity and tradition exists in relationships and mindsets. Most often traditions are trapped inside trendy suits and suitcases, like Rajan says about himself.
In the final scene, as Rajan and Nalini look on, Ammukutty walks in, their son tagging along. Nalini looks at Ammukutty with respect, suggesting that perhaps she is grateful to the traditional woman for standing up for her. It also shows the possibility of a future friendship between the two women. Two women from different economic and social backgrounds linked by a man—one who has lost him, yet he still holds her in his heart with pride, while the other the woman he has a responsibility towards. Love in all its strength and dignity—that’s the lingering image of Ammukutty standing alone.
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