Literarily Speaking: A. Bhimsingh’s Tamil movie was an adaptation of Jayakanthan’s short story and novel
Last Updated: 02.25 PM, Sep 06, 2023
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One afternoon, a naïve young Ganga waits in the pouring rain for a bus back home from college. A car pulls up, and a charming young man offers her a ride. She is hesitant at first but gets in the back of the car. As he drives, she admires the plush interiors and is curious about the young man who admits to pursuing her for the last couple of years. When he veers away from the road leading to her home, she is confused and perturbed. He stops the car in an isolated place, and despite her feeble protests, they have a sexual encounter. When he realises that Ganga was uncertain but also not consenting, he is remorseful. Ganga returns home and tells her mother about the encounter, and her mother performs a ritual cleansing by pouring water over her. She urges her to put the incident behind her, and extracts a promise not to tell anybody about it.
Grey rape or ambiguous sexual consent is today regarded as another form of date rape, where consent is not explicit. In Jayakanthan’s short story, Agni Pravesham, the protagonist Ganga’s mother’s unusual resolution of grey rape created a furore among readers. Jayakanthan then used Agni Pravesham as a backstory for a novel called Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal adapted by Bhimsingh to a 1977 movie of the same name.
Ganga (Lakshmi) holds a senior managerial position at work. She reads a short story called Agni Pravesham by an author called RKV, and she is shocked by the parallels from her own life twelve years ago when she had a sexual encounter with a stranger in his car. Ganga is an embittered woman, scarred by the incident and its aftermath even years later. Her mother had blamed her, and her brother had evicted her and their mother from his house. The two women had come under the care of Ganga’s maternal uncle, Vengu Mama (Y.G. Parthasarathy). While her uncle is the person who continues to challenge her defeatist beliefs, he is also lecherous, and he misuses his position as her benefactor by touching her inappropriately.
Ganga, today, asks her elderly and widowed mother, Kanagam (S. Sundari Bai), to read the story in a bid to convey to her that if her own mother had been a source of support to her like the one in the story, her life could have been different. Kanagam confides her insecurities with Vengu Mama, who is visiting them. Ganga overhears her uncle telling her mother that instead of Ganga accusing her of not reacting appropriately, she could well channel that insolence by finding the man who she had the encounter with. To Ganga’s face, he scoffs that she can never aspire to be a wife, only somebody’s concubine, alluding to himself.
Ganga decides that she has had enough. She contacts the author of the short story, RKV (C.K. Nagesh), who happens to be the librarian in the college she studied in at the time of the encounter. But when they meet, he doesn't seem to recognise her as his protagonist. Instead, he brags to Ganga that his resolution of the story, with the mother’s cleansing of the young woman, was his way of setting right a grave wrong done to a young woman from the college he worked in. He mentions that he now knows the man in the car Prabhu (Srikanth) whose daughter today studies in the same college.
When Ganga and Prabhu meet, it is a meeting of two strangers with no shared history, barring one encounter. While Ganga tells him of how the incident changed her life, Prabhu regrets that a casual sexual encounter on his part has had life-altering repercussions for Ganga. He admits to simply assuming consent and had regarded their sexual encounter as a seduction and not rape.
Prabhu is self-aware but also a wealthy wastrel in a loveless marriage, with minimal contact with his sons because of his alcoholism. We see little of his wife, Padma (Rajasulochana), and it feels fitting in this story of subtleties that she is not caricatured or vilified. Prabhu is fond of his daughter, Manju (Jayageetha), whom Ganga soon meets. Manju regards Ganga as one of Prabhu's more decent friends, and Ganga soon becomes a mentor to her.
Ganga and Prabhu become confidantes in each other. While Ganga falls in love with him, as evidenced by the change in her sartorial choices and small acts of love, Prabhu is wracked with guilt and is intent on getting her married. Kanagam is appalled by her daughter’s association with Prabhu. However, Ganga's brother and her uncle meet Prabhu, soon regarding him as a gentleman and Ganga as the problematic element in this situation.
Will the guilt-wracked Prabhu sacrifice his love for Ganga as atonement for his grey rape of 12 years ago? Or will he find a way to formalise the deep love that they share for each other? Will Ganga consent to marry the widower whose marriage alliance the author RKV brings to her?
Perhaps no Indian novel or movie has explored the subject of grey rape in as much detail as Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal, but it is also so much more. It delves into human nature and portrays women as victims of the fleeting and subjective morality at the heart of patriarchal society. The movie leaves one with more questions than resolutions. How can Ganga fall in love with the person who had forced a sexual encounter on her? How can Ganga reconcile Vengu Mama’s lecherousness and his benefaction over the years (although in the end, she does stand up to his escalating advances in a non-negotiable manner)?
Jayakanthan wrote a sequel to the novel called ‘Gangai yenge pogiraal’ that resolves many of the questions that ‘Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal’ raises, so perhaps the story in written form may be regarded as a trilogy. Bhimsingh went on to adapt another Jayakanthan novel to screen, Oru Nadigai Naadagam Paarkkiral, and repeated some of the cast from Sila Nerangalil Sila Manithargal including Lakshmi, Srikanth, Y.G. Parthasarathy and C.K. Nagesh.
While bringing alive the characters with his casting choices, Director A. Bhimsingh remains mostly loyal to Jayakanthan’s story, carrying into the movie the texture of Ganga’s relationships, and the symbolisms from the story - like the besmirchment by stagnant rainwater, and Vengu Mama’s belt. Interestingly Jayakanthan himself wrote the two songs composed by M.S. Viswanathan. One features RKV’s (and by extension, Jayakanthan’s) role of a writer as a witness to society. The other describes Ganga at the crossroads of life.
Through the character of RKV, Jayakanthan voices his reasoning for the ritual cleansing ending in the short story. He does not absolve any character of their choices, including Ganga, but his most ingenious accomplishment is that through his stand-in, he perhaps includes himself in this list of flawed beings.
You can watch Sila Nerangalil Sila Manidhargal on OTTplay Premium
(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)
(Written by Saritha Rao Rayachoti)