Scripted by MT Vasudevan Nair and directed by Pavithran, Utharam is based on Daphne du Maurier’s short story, No Motive. One of the most intriguingly paced investigative suspense thrillers in Malayalam cinema, it’s also one of the most underrated. Here we take you through the many characters who slowly unravel through one of the most unconventionally delivered and profoundly human investigative tale of a long forgotten crime, deliberately erased by society.
No Motive, in a nutshell, reads thus: a woman shoots herself for no apparent reason, having previously appeared content with her life. Her distraught husband employs a private investigator to establish her motive. The investigator rakes through the woman's past and starts uncovering a multitude of secrets.
How does it play out on our screens? A few minutes into the film the household - consisting of a Karyasthan (Sankaradi) and a maid - is taken aback by the sound of a gunshot. The naïve maid, who is making a marinade for fish, wonders whether she would require more for the game bird.
And then, at leisure, the story unravels. Selena Joseph (played by Suparna, who is grace and mystery personified), an award-winning poet shoots herself one fine morning. MT invents a steadfast friend for the husband, Matthew Joseph (Sukumaran), in place of the private investigator and gives him a free reign over the investigation. It somehow makes the investigation more complex and personal, as the friend rightly point it out— “I might stumble upon some uncomfortable truths.” Balachandran or Balu (Mammootty) is the best friend, who is also a journalist. Balu finds it daunting at first, but his affection for Matthew and Selena wins over his scepticism and he doggedly pursues the case.
Selena’s story: a narrative thriller
The tempo of the film is set by finely etched characters and narrative strength, allowing us to feel both the intrigue building around Selena’s life as well as invest emotionally in her past and present. The question being set up and answered throughout the film is ‘who is Selena’. Here, the script does fall into all the poetic stereotypes of the time, the clichés that have created our genres. A poet, a dreamer, an eccentric, mysterious, fun yet forlorn, she is moulded like an unfussy version of Madhavikutty. Poets are always painted with this air of mystery, pathos and eccentricity. Hardly ever are they shown as ordinary people, living ordinary lives or making ordinary choices. But those are not the only stereotypes she lives by. Selena is also a kind and generous woman—the villagers and servants are fond of her. In one scene, Achuvettan describes her as “a woman of virtue” and goes on to add that “it’s surprising considering her religion.” Talk about underscoring misogyny, anti-religion and casteism in one sweeping statement! Also, it brings forth another sickening prejudice—promiscuity that is often exclusively linked to Christian women in Malayalam cinema.
If we set these aside, what is fascinating is the manner in which her story unfolds - through her present relationships. It’s through the conversations between Matthew and Balu and at times during Balu’s own musings that Selena starts to take a shape. Her friend Shyamala (Parvathy) talks about her as someone with a mad sense of imagination. Her reveries were often laughed at.
A story of friendships
Utharam is also about deep friendships. Between Balu and Matthew. Between Balu and Selena. Between Selena and Shyamala. Balu’s bond with Saleena is rather touching. Matthew and Selena are the only family for the orphaned Balu. He has been a constant source of encouragement for Selena's literary pursuits. When the world mocked her madness, Balu always stood up for her, nudged her to keep writing.
Balu’s life is a quick sketch of a typical journalist - the low salaried, highly intellectualised nomadic life that always ends up in Delhi. But in this case the profile falls in tune with Selena’s literary quests and, no doubt, Mammootty is superlative. As if to balance Selena's mystery, Matthew is a very ordinary man who finds happiness in little things. He is someone who quit being a news editor with the Times to look after his father’s rubber estate. Selena quickly became his world and the love was always reciprocated.
Shyamala (Parvathy) and Selena share a bond from school. It’s Shyamala’s accounts that help Balu piece together some of the puzzling aspects of her life. Balu meets Shyamala in Mysore and it’s interesting how two strangers bond over their deceased friend. Romance happens very organically.
At its core the film addresses the social stigma attached to suicide, teenage pregnancy and sex. Consider how even Matthew who considers Balu his best friend takes time to confess that Selena committed suicide. When the 15-year-old Selena becomes pregnant, what is more heart-breaking is her guiltless reaction. She pleads innocence with her father (Karamana Janardhanan Nair), the school authorities, the doctor and even the nurses. But the callous society which seems to be in a hurry to judge Selena turns its back on her. If only they had listened to her, they would have found out about the rape. But then would it have altered her fate or her child’s? She would still be blamed for letting herself fall into the trap.
That’s why Utharam is relevant to this day. The reactions, prejudices and repercussions remain intact. Only the faces and situations keep changing. Utharam doesn’t employ the usual investigative movie tropes to unearth the suspense. They deftly knit together characters and conversations and help us understand Selena. Yet she remains a delicious mystery—the poet who was inspired by the Bible, the young mother who had her child taken away from her and the one who called herself Zachariah’s female version. Yet in the end we know that despite her happy existence, changing roles and accolades, Selena yearned to be with her child. She probably had sleepless nights worrying about him. And ironically, wasn’t it this guilt and yearning that sharpened the beauty of her poetry? So, at long last when Balu and Shyamala decide to take care of Selena’s child, it just seems poetic justice has been served for a warm soul.
Comments material that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, abusive, slanderous, racially, ethically or sexually hateful or offensive, or embarrassing to any other person or entity are prohibited.
Fullpicture is an exclusive, comprehensive, online English magazine on Malayalam cinema, put together by a team of experienced journalists who share a passion for everything about Malayalam cinema. The idea is to put out well-written and well-researched features, exclusive interviews,...