How the child-woman in Adimakal, Intezar, Chilakamma Cheppindi and Nizhal Nijamagiradhu holds her own, despite being pitted against Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew.
Imagine a story with two threads. One follows the hate-to-love romantic trope made famous by Petruchio and the ‘taming’ of the man-hating Kate in Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Another thread, which is not part of the original play, is that of Child-Woman who arrives in the big city to work in Kate’s house. While Kate and Petruchio spar, Kate’s hearing-impaired Manservant becomes besotted with Child-Woman, who has, meanwhile, entered a relationship with Kate’s brother, the Rake (also Petruchio’s friend). When Child-Woman becomes pregnant, the Rake abandons her. Petruchio promises to help her and entrusts her in the care of Manservant, whose love wins her over. Kate discovers her brother’s deceit and eventually has her own happy ending with Petruchio.
Of all the things one remembers about K Balachander’s Tamil film, Nizhal Nijamagiradhu (1979), what stands the test of time and memory, is the hate-to-love narrative of Indumathi (played by Sumithra) and Sanjeevi (played by Kamal Haasan), especially the song, ‘Kamban Emaandhaan…’, where Sanjeevi gazes at Indumathi through his binoculars and sings of the wily ways of women. But this isn’t a critique of the parts of the movie that are misogynistic or problematic by today’s standards. This is about how the other thread in the story - of the domestic worker, that forms the core of the Malayalam original on which Nizhal Nijamagiradhu is based - is salvaged with the use of a fantasy device. This is about how stories can shape-shift over a decade.
In K S Sethumadhavan’s Adimakal (Slaves -1969), villager Ponnamma (played by Sharada) arrives in the city as a domestic worker for the man-hating, god-fearing Saraswathi (played by Sheela) who lives with her younger brother, Anandan (played by Jesey). While Saraswathi is quick to lose her temper with Ponnamma, she is also considerate towards her. The hearing-impaired manservant Pottan (played by Prem Nazir) becomes besotted with Ponnamma. With the spinster Saraswathi away performing rituals in the temple, and attending religious discourses by a self-styled godman, her brother, Anandan begins to ardently woo Ponnamma.
Anandan’s friend, Appukuttan (played by Sathyan) arrives, much like Petruchio, to disrupt the orderly household with his forthright opinions and poorly disguised amusement at Saraswathi’s archaic notions. When Ponnamma realises she is pregnant, Anandan forbids her from revealing their relationship, thereby denying her the legitimacy she craves. Appukuttan discovers this and entrusts Ponnamma to Pottan’s care, whereupon Ponnamma realises Pottan’s unconditional love for her. When Saraswathi finally discovers her brother, Anandan’s deceit, she attempts to make amends to Ponnamma by trying to get them married. Ponnamma assures them that she is already where she belongs, at Pottan’s residence. Having helped resolve this situation, Appukuttan prepares to leave the city for a new work posting, when Saraswathi confesses her love for him.
Adimakal was remade in Hindi as Intezar (The Wait - 1973) and Telugu as Chilakamma Cheppindi (The Parrot Predicted - 1977). They are as different as chalk and cheese despite being based on the same story.
In the Hindi remake, Intezar, Kate i.e. Sheela Devi (played by Padmini Kapila) gets a larger backstory on why she hates men, and comedian I S Johar gets a hefty role as a fraudster who poses as a godman. There is also a scuffle between the Petruchio of this story, Satyen (played by Baldev Khosa), and Anand (played by Vishal Anand), the rake, regarding the child-woman domestic worker, Chanda (played by Rinku Jaiswal). A rather dramatic climax, with guns entering the fray, occurs when Satyen and Chanda gatecrash the wedding of Anand with the wealthy Rai Sahab’s daughter. The story deviates sharply from the original to reinforce the mythological trope of the abandoned woman reuniting with the love of her life as it appears in the Ramayana and the tale of Shakuntala. Despite the manservant Bhola Raghav’s (played by Rakesh Pandey) unconditional love for Chanda and her child, Chanda opts for social acceptance and legitimacy that only marriage with Anand will provide. In this version, Bhola Raghav ends up being a Hanuman-like enabler rather than a contender for Chanda’s love.
The Telugu remake, Chilakamma Cheppindi, stays true to the Malayalam original, but it disregards the Hindi version and strengthens the Telugu narrative with regional elements and improved characterisation. Malli’s (played by Sripriya) fascination for scented soaps and her unshakeable faith in a soothsayer parrot’s prediction reveal her aspirations to break free from an impoverished life. She becomes a domestic worker in Bharathi’s house (played by Sangeeta), a Kuchipudi dance teacher, who lives with her brother, Madhu (played by Lakshmikanth). When the lovelorn manservant Kasi (played by G.V. Narayana Rao) gifts Malli flowers, she scoffs that she doesn’t need the rustic mandharam, when she has access to strings of heady jasmine. The Telugu version also adds a character called Manmadha Rao, who lives up to his name by playing Cupid to the love stories. It is he who draws Madhu’s attention to Malli as a woman, and a comely one at that. Until then, Madhu has only regarded her as a domestic worker.
The role of Ravi marks Rajinikanth’s debut as a lead. Ravi cannot turn a blind eye to injustice and thus alienates his friend, to help Malli. A bottle of perfume becomes circumstantial evidence for Bharathi’s suspicion of Ravi’s involvement with Malli. And when Ravi oversteps his familiarity with Bharathi, Kasi’s is the voice of feminism and consent. Manmadha Rao’s fetish for calendars becomes instrumental in revealing Bharathi’s love for Ravi, and extracting Madhu’s confession.
Malli daydreams of being married to Madhu, and the Tamil version builds upon this device to strengthen the narrative of the domestic worker. Also, the title of the Tamil remake is derived from a dialogue in the Telugu version, which says that while one man, Madhu destroys the real Malli, another man, Kasi worships her shadow.
In Nizhal Nijamagiradhu (The Shadow Becomes Real - 1978), the child-woman Thilagam (played by Shoba) acts as the narrative’s emotional fulcrum. If the Telugu version depicted Malli as sharp-tongued with people of her own class, and subservient to those in a higher station of life, Thilagam is played by Shoba with a touch of cheekiness. As an actor, she holds her own despite the formidable talent of Kamal Haasan being cast as the Petruchio-esque Sanjeevi.
Many of the characters' motivations are intensified, and some nuances add heft to the story. Sanjeevi stands against injustice and proclaims that if that made him a Communist, so be it. He knocks down the defences that Indumathi (played by Sumithra) has painstakingly built to protect herself from men, and even dances Bharathanatyam (since Kamal Haasan is a trained Bharathanatyam dancer) to prove to Indumathi that he is not as ignorant of the arts as she believes him to be. Sanjeevi is visibly anguished when he hears that Indumathi’s brother, and his friend Chalam (played by Sarath Babu) may be guilty of abandoning Thilagam. When Sanjeevi allows him to explain his side of the story, the cowardly Chalam lies, blaming the manservant, Sevudan or ‘the deaf one’ (played by Hanumanthu). Sanjeevi is the only one who makes the effort to find out Sevudan's real name and calls him Kasi, even when his own mother doesn't.
Indumathi is Chalam’s younger sister but has taken on a matronly demeanour, which Sanjeevi takes jibes at. But Indumathi is not unidimensional. When she finds that Thilagam owns only two sets of tattered ‘half-sarees’ (usually worn by adolescent girls), she donates her old sarees. This sartorial shift, in one fell symbolic swoop, denotes the flowering of Thilagam into a woman.
When Indumathi mistakenly assumes that Sanjeevi has impregnated Thilagam, her choicest abuses about Sanjeevi affect Chalam, whose fatal flaw is his cowardice. When Indumathi discovers Chalam’s deceit, her blinkers fall away. She realises that her brother represents all that she loathes about men. When she tries to rectify her brother's deceit by welcoming the domestic worker to become her sister-in-law, she is shocked to find that Thilagam regards Sevudan/Kasi as her husband. Eventually, Indumathi and Sanjeevi get their happy ending.
With so much working in favour of the love-to-hate thread, lest the story of the child-woman gets diluted, K Balachander employs a device unique to the Tamil version that punctuates the narrative - a fantasy track where Thilagam imagines herself to be a just and compassionate queen. Even in her fantasies, her child-like sense of humour is evident. As the movie progresses, we see the dominant child-like facet to Thilagam's personality in real life too. Thus, when she is bemused, she mimics people behind their backs. In the initial interplay between Thilagam's fantasies and the events happening around her, she casts the manservant Kasi in the role of the court jester and Chalam as the royal consort she seeks. In real life, she is used by Chalam and discarded, much like Indumathi's sarees. But in the make-believe world, it is not Thilagam’s worth that comes into focus, it is Chalam who must be worthy of her. Thilagam’s grand fantasies are tested and tempered by her reality, and when Chalam absolves himself of all responsibility concerning her, Thilagam imagines being throttled by him. In the end, it is not the regal, handsome, suave Chalam, but Kasi, the commoner jester, who is elevated to the position of her consort.
The remarkable aspect of this narrative that borrows so heavily from the Malayalam original’s allusion to The Taming of the Shrew (and its problematic misogyny), is that even in the worst of times, in every one of Thilagam’s fantasies, she is always the queen.
(Views expressed in this piece are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of OTTplay)