They walk towards the beach, Kaimal and Susheela - husband and wife. She is a few steps behind him. Even in the car, she had taken a seat in the back with the daughter, while the son sat in front, with the father. They are sitting on the sand. Kaimal awkwardly tries to start a conversation— “Do you remember the first time we met?” By then Susheela is already lost in another world of longing, as she gazes at a couple holding hands. Directed by KG George, Mattoral, an adaptation of CV Balakrishnan’s book of the same name, is a singularly realistic celluloid depiction of the aftermaths of an extra-marital affair in a marriage.
The film opens to Kaimal’s home. KG George uses the same stark narrative style of AdaminteVariyellu—the routine dreariness of the household where the wife is an invisible, utilitarian figure, the children eat, play and go to school and the husband works. Conversations are minimal, relationship goals basic and days just about slog along.
Kaimal (portrayed with definitive brilliance by Karamana Janardhanan) is the typical chauvinist husband; a product of social conditioning he is convinced that his wife’s sole responsibility in life is to serve him and be a good mother. From handing him bath towels, to serving him food she quietly goes on, while he gets annoyed when she doesn’t answer the phone at first ring. Kaimal isn’t an agreeable spouse. His misogynistic streaks extend outside marriage and we see subtle hints when he suggests inviting a politician instead of an actress to inaugurate a friend’s shop, or when he advises his friend, Balan (Mammootty who is exquisitely natural) against sending his wife, Veni (Urvashi) for work. But at the end of the day, he is also a nice man—honest at work and principled.
Susheela’s (Seema, who is superlative) characterisation is intriguing. It’s not as detailed as Kaimal’s, yet her frustration and sadness cannot be more eloquent. In a marriage where her husband decides the quantum of her emotional and physical needs, Susheela is already a finger-puppet. Much like Vasanthi’s, or even Alice’s, predicament in Adaminte Variyellu, with varying degrees of torment. So one fine day, when Susheela walks out, we are shaken not surprised. Those scenes, done without melodrama, touch a raw nerve somewhere.
Kaimal’s “delusional” kingdom of happiness comes apart when his wife walks out of their marriage, to be with a mechanic. He comes home from work, waits for her to bring the towel, calls her, sends the children to fetch her from the neighbours’ and then the truth seeps in. Even in that moment of despair, Kaimal doesn’t let go of his false pride and ego. “Don’t inform Veni that Susheela’s missing,” he tells Balan as he seeks his help to find her.
KG George lets out delicate signs of her would-be-lover—the mechanic. Only one scene, in fact, where she gently glances at him as he waits for her husband. And he smiles back. At her new home, Susheela realises that she has jumped from the frying pan into the fire. But even here, Susheela remains impassive, probably because she has long been taken for granted by her loved ones.
The film itself unfolds without making her feel miserable about her decision. Even in the moment of realisation and shock, Susheela doesn’t think of returning to her husband and children. KG George doesn’t allow any outsiders to gloat over their misery. There are only passing, long shots of bystanders whispering among themselves— “Everyone wants to hear about others misery, humiliations and insults,” says Kaimal, in a rare philosophical mood.
The strongest voice of reason and compassion remains Balan, who begs Susheela to rethink her decision. Towards the end, thinking that there still might be hope for them to reunite, he is elated. There cannot be a better characterisation of a true friend in cinema than Balan. Even though his own life occupies the other end of the spectrum.
Balan and Veni—a young and happily married couple. Balan is as progressive as the authors he reads and his equation with Veni is very modern and liberal. George breaks a lot of stereotypes with Veni’s character—the modern, free-thinking woman who balances work and home. When her work partner (Murali), like most men, misconstrues her friendly nature for being promiscuous, Veni is outraged and shows him the door. It’s a superbly done scene and more so because the man immediately realises his folly, apologises and walks out. There are no cliched follow-ups of cinematic vengeance where she is thrown out of the job. Interestingly, she doesn’t even find it necessary to inform Balan. It’s her battle and she has dealt with it.
Kaimal is the biggest revelation in Mattoral. It’s incredible to witness his character arc—from the rigid, strict disciplinarian to an emotionally and physically spent, lonely man. Towards the end, when Balan reveals that Susheela’s paramour has found a new woman, Kaimal’s reaction is heartbreaking— “She is the most naïve woman I have seen in my life. Avaloru paavamanu.” KG George’s mastery over the craft is especially evident in the scenes that show Kaimal’s slow emotional disintegration. In one such scene, Kaimal talks to Balan about his loneliness, unaware of the irony that they were both lonely in that marriage. In another, he is skimming through their marriage photos, leaving the viewer teary-eyed. Equally moving is the letter his daughter sends him.
In the end when their reunion is staged, Susheela and Balan are met with the body of Kaimal lying lifeless at the beach. He had stabbed himself to death. K G George leaves the viewer to come to their own conclusions—it can be that the pain of betrayal and separation was too much to bear, or it can be that his pride and ego didn’t allow him to meet his wife who left him for another man. Or did the auteur in the end fall in a moral dilemma behind the serendipity of such a reunion?
Mattoral is the kind of cinema that is self-reflective; situations are tangible, characters are multi-layered and it cleaves open gender stereotypes. Most importantly it is, in its narration, a non-judgmental voice. Yet another knockout work from the auteur.
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