Ore Kadal (The Sea Within) - 2007
Directed by Shyamaprasad
A loud denial rings through in the middle of Ore Kadal, Shyamaprasad’s third Malayalam feature film. A young, guilt-ridden housewife, Deepthi (Meera Jasmine), slams the door in the face of the man with whom she’d had an adulterous liaison. Even as the unhappy, dishevelled man shuffles off into a long, dim corridor, Deepthi has second thoughts and leaves her flat to stand at the stairwell of her shabby apartment building. The man is out of sight and she looks around for him desperately, her face signalling conflicting emotions: unbearable remorse and irrepressible desire. She looks up, down and all around to see where he’s gone. In the grey corridors and drab space, it is easy to see why that dissolute man has fallen for this woman, an incandescent child of the hills who seems to light up the urban milieu into which she has been thrust by marriage.
The man, a prominent economist and expert on the Indian lower middle class, Dr. Nathan (Mammootty), is given over to womanising and alcohol, rejecting relationships and preferring sex over love. Deepthi, a guileless and intellectually immature woman who is married to a sanguine slacker, Jayaprakash (Narain) with whom she has a young son, infiltrates Nathan’s frozen emotional landscape with the stealth of a wild animal. The initial exchanges between Nathan and Deepthi are material. He offers her and her sick child a lift to the hospital and then lends her money for household expenses - a request instigated by her unemployed, slacker husband. The tempo of this relationship changes when Deepthi visits Nathan to ask his help in finding Jayaprakash a job. Nathan has just learned of the death of a beloved aunt and his vulnerable, drunken flirtation with Deepthi ignites into a full blown affair.
Deepthi is hardly Madame Bovary, the bored wife of a provincial doctor looking for stimulation through a series of affairs. Rather, in a city with grey, colourless lives and where she can’t communicate with any other adult except her frequently absent husband, she’s forced to look for companionship with a man whom she initially admires much like a groupie (she lovingly wipes a dusty photo of Nathan and the Prime Minister with the edge of her sari pallu). When Nathan gets Jayaprakash a job, she tries to thank him but finds him dismissive and unapproachable. Prone to mental self-flagellation, she is troubled to think that there has been an exchange of favours in the affair. She falls pregnant with Nathan’s child and unable to own up to her oblivious husband, has a mental breakdown once she’s given birth to a baby girl. With an irony that’s apparent but thankfully not heavily underlined by the director, Deepthi and Jayaprakash are assisted in getting psychiatric help by Nathan.
Nathan, shaken by the events he’s set in motion, drowns his sorrow in whisky and confesses all to his best friend, Bela (a splendid Ramya Krishnan). Bela is the strongest character in the film and the most compelling. She’s a survivor of incestuous abuse and poverty and now a successful restauranteur. She acts as Nathan’s mirror, the one who shows him the flaws in his soul that he can’t quite ignore.
Deepthi returns from the psychiatric institute to a new house and tries hard to find some semblance of normalcy in her life. But she can’t quite escape the cycle of hopelessness and desperation that plague her family and others like them. Nathan’s seduction and exploitation of Deepthi while using her and her husband as a case study is one of the director’s subtle jabs at the hypocrisy of self absorbed intellectuals in their ivory towers. This cycle of exploitation and dependance is repeated when Deepthi has to face the attention of new neighbours - an unemployed lout and his pregnant wife. Much as Deepthi had once leant on the kindness of a stranger, these neighbours pressure her to lend money and food.
Shyamaprasad adapted the film from Sunil Gangopadhya’s novel Hirak Deepthi and the story’s literary roots show through. Unlike most Indian films, a lot is left unsaid and there’s no happy resolution for the emotional and metaphysical crises that erupt. What is essentially a story about the battle between the hidebound moral codes of the Indian middle class and the desires of the flesh is bolstered by Shyamaprasad’s clear vision that unfortunately lets him down in the final act. The last shot loses its poignancy thanks to the melodramatic, clunky dialogue that immediately precedes it. The scenes where both Deepthi and Nathan achieve some kind of grace after all the mental anguish they have been through loses its potency. One of the highlights of the film and which explains its title, is Mammooty’s recitation of a poem exploring the idea of the self as a sea and others as the shore, to be touched and embraced. Ousepachan’s haunting musical compositions (for which he won the National award) also subtly threads this idea through the film.
Ore Kadal is a brave film but it is far from a masterpiece. The quality of the film is affected by some bad editing and loss of continuity between scenes, at times in the same scene itself. There are frequent fades to black and while this may work at certain points in the plot, the repeated use of the technique palls.
Meera Jasmine, who shone in T.V. Chandran’s Padam Onnu: Oru Vilaapam, gives one of the best performances of her career. And in Mammooty she finds the perfect foil - the veteran actor has that rare ability of making stillness an essential, intuitive part of his performance. Both the leads are given ample support by Narain whose character grows visibly from the cadging, irresponsible husband to a truly caring human being. A man, who for all his bluster and put-downs of Nathan and others, attains a nobility that his wife and her lover struggle to achieve.
If there is to be a retrospective of Shyamaprasad’s work in the future, Ore Kadal should be screened in a double bill with Agnisakshi, his 1998 National award winning film. Ore Kadal expands on the themes of Agnisakshi: morality, spirituality and the immediate, corporeal present of most lives in a country that is constantly in flux. Both the films take a brave look at the gulf that lies between the Indian man and woman, and put into words and images that those unable to self reflect would comfortably ignore. And in their ignorance, they’d be losing the one quality that made them human: empathy.