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Movie Review - Agni Sakshi

Anu Warrier

Based on a novel by Lalithambika Antharjanam

Directed by ShyamaPrasad
Music: Kaithaprom
Cast: Rajat Kapoor, Shobhana, Sree Vidya, Madampu Kunji Kuttan, Praveena

Agnisakshi is the story of a Nampoothiri woman’s struggle to rise above the shackles of tradition and her journey towards self-realisation. Based on a novel by the same name by noted Malayalam writer Lalithambika Antharjanam, Agnisakshi is the story of two individuals who love and respect each other, but whose life together is doomed right from the beginning. Set against the turbulence of the freedom struggle, the film showcases the conflict between tradition and progressive reforms, the caste system and the emancipation of women.

It is through Thankam’s eyes that we see the story unfold. Thankam is the product of a ‘sambandham’ (a relationship outside marriage, but one that was considered the norm among the Nampoothiris of that period) between Unni’s father Apphan Nampoothiri and a Nair woman. On a pilgrimage to Haridwar, Thankam runs into Devaki, who refuses to recognise her. She is now Sumitrananda, a sanyasin. Past meets present as the story of Unni and Devaki is replayed in Thankam’s memory. She remembers Devaki as the wife of Unni, her gentle and spiritually inclined half-brother.

Brought up in a modern and progressive Namboothiri home, Devaki is influenced by her brother, whose progressive ideas fill her with a deep regard for the need for social and political reform. The more traditional role expected of her in her husband’s illam(a nampoothiri household) suffocates her. Deeply engrossed in his spiritual chores and filial duties, Unni forgets his dharma as a husband. Increasingly frustrated, (the women of the illam are not encouraged even to read) Devaki finds comfort in her friendship with Thankam.

Starved for love, Thankam becomes confidante and willing accomplice to Devaki. It is she who covertly brings Devaki magazines to read; she who willingly carries letters to and from Devaki and her brother.

Devaki tries hard to make her marriage work, but it gets increasingly harder as Unni’s responsibilities towards his family increase. As Devaki’s marriage slowly crumbles, there are definite social changes taking place in the outside world - changes that Apphan Nampoothiri does not acknowledge because they are a blow to his patriarchy; changes that Unni hides from because he does not want to upset tradition. Devaki is prevented from visiting her maternal home because her husband’s family is suspicious of her brother’s influence. Her brother is jailed for taking part in a protest march, and this leads to his family being condemned to ‘Brashtu’ – excommunication. To prevent their illam from being tarred by the same brush, Devaki is prevented even from going to visit her ailing mother. When she seeks her husband’s help, he advises her to obey the family’s elders. Yet, she leaves. Her husband watches her go, knowing she will never be allowed to come back. After her mother’s death, Devaki learns from her brother-in-law that her husband’s family have conducted her last rites. She cannot go back. Devaki now becomes a progressive reformer. As a Nampoothiri woman who has left her illam, she spearheads a movement for the emancipation of women.

Unni spends the rest of his days in spiritual solitude. In answer to a query by Thankam he assures her that he bears no rancour towards his estranged wife. He questions the wisdom of his own actions. Thankam is now married and settled in north India. Intermittently, she would hear or read about Devaki who was now at Gandhiji’s ashram.

Years pass, and society changes again.

When Devaki leaves the ashram in search of an elusive tranquillity, she removes her ‘thali’ (mangalsutra) and sends it to Unni. In an accompanying note, she admits that she had failed to understand her husband, and that ironically her footsteps were also moving towards spirituality. Now that she was renouncing the world, she was also renouncing all previous relationships.

Years later, Thankam returns to her illam with her son and grand daughter. Unni is still busy with his temple and the scriptures. Alienated from his own family, he bears no grudges. He is pleased to meet Thankam again and to become acquainted with his little niece. As it is time for them to leave, he gives Thankam the ‘thali’ and requests her to return it to Devaki, or else, immerse it in the Ganga. His demise, on the temple precincts, only serves to emphasise his attachment to his spirituality.

The film reverts to the present when Sumitrananda receives Thankam in her ashram. Upon learning that Unni is no more, she drops the thali into the fire. The purified gold – ‘thankam’ is given to Thankam’s granddaughter.

Shyamaprasad’s script has faithfully followed the novel’s sequence of events and flashbacks. Azhakappan’s camera captures the mood of the film in the dim-lit interiors of the illam. The honours go to Rajat Kapoor in the role of Unni Nampoothiri. As a young Nampoothiri caught between his duty as a husband and the traditions of his illam, he holds your attention. As the film progresses, he virtually ages before your eyes. In the way he walks, or closes the temple doors or talks to his sister’s grandchild, he IS an old nampoothiri. The surprise package was Praveena as the young Thankam. Witness her anguish when her father forbids her to study further. She is given virtually no rights as his daughter, yet her life is subject to his authority. He symbolizes the authoritarian patriarchy of the Nampoothiri society of the time. Thankam is not even allowed into the inner courtyard of the illam by the elder antharjanam because of the circumstances of her birth. In an ironical twist later, the same ailing antharjanam begs an older Thankam to take her away from a household where her own people do not care for her.

Veteran actress Sree Vidya plays the older Thankam competently. And so does Shobhana as Devaki/Sumitrananda. With deft direction and more than competent acting from the seasoned cast, the director has managed to transfer a noted literary work to the big screen quite successfully.

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