With Ntikkakkakkoru Premondarnn marking Bhavana's return to Malayalam films after five years, Neelima Menon traces her evolution as an actor and the roles in which she shone.
Last Updated: 08.45 AM, Mar 14, 2023
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A LITTLE GIRL peeps inside a vintage Mercedes; a vision in white appears beside her. The screen lights up: Bhavana has made her entry in Ntikkakkakkoru Premondarnn. It’s the moment you realise how much you’ve missed watching her on screen. The last time Bhavana acted in a Malayalam film, it was in the Prithviraj-starrer Adam Joan, in 2017. In February of that year, as Bhavana made her way home from a shoot, a group of men assaulted her. By July, Malayalam film star Dileep had been arrested for his alleged links to the main accused. Various charges related to the case are still being investigated, and tried in court.
The case impacted the Malayalam film industry in myriad ways. On the one hand, it rattled the patriarchal all-male Establishment that had run things so far. There were some early attempts to close ranks around Dileep, but the outrage from within sections of the industry and the audience was strident enough that such tactics had to be abandoned. The status quo at the influential industry body Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) was no longer unshakeable. Meanwhile, a group of female artists and technicians formed the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), to platform the voices and concerns that had been hitherto muted. Through it all, Bhavana kept up her pursuit of justice, and worked on a stream of Kannada films. In 2022, she bluntly addressed her experiences of the past five years, giving a glimpse of her long and resilient road to recovery in the face of many setbacks.
Ntikkakkakkoru Premondarnn in that sense is a strong choice for Bhavana’s Malayalam industry comeback. In the film, she plays Nithya, a schoolteacher and recently divorced single mom (of a teen son) who has moved back in with her parents after the dissolution of her toxic marriage. When she meets her childhood sweetheart Jimmy (played by Sharafudheen), all their old feelings come back to the fore. The reigniting of their romance isn’t accompanied by even an iota of drama — they simply pick things up right where they left off. Jimmy is on the verge of getting engaged to another woman, when seeing Nithya once again, knocks him right over. Bhavana meanwhile infuses her portrayal of Nithya’s mindset with poignancy — part of her wants to be with Jimmy, but another part of her is still parsing through the trauma of her marriage. Still, she is no weepy caricature; Nithya is a woman who knows her mind, allows herself to grieve — and is open to giving love another shot.
Traces of Nithya can be found in Bhavana’s act as Janaki in 99, the Kannada remake of the Tamil hit 96. At their class reunion, a married Janaki encounters her first love Ram after two decades. She searches his face for answers, but Ram is cautious, aware of his boundaries. Unlike Nithya, Janaki seems “settled” in her marriage. She has accepted the reality that she will ever be able to let go of Ram.
Bhavana debuted in Kamal’s Nammal (2002) as the spunky girl-next-door who nurses a crush on one of the (two) male protagonists — reclusive Shivan. Her performance was by no means groundbreaking, but it did indicate the kinds of roles she could pull off with ease.
The period during which Bhavana made her debut was hardly Malayalam cinema’s most promising, so even though her output was prolific (and included functional turns in hits like CID, Moosa and Chathikkatha Chanthu), the really noteworthy projects came by only sporadically.
In Chronic Bachelor, Bhavana played the role of Mammootty’s step-sister with confidence. Swapnakoodu’s chatty Padma was a breeze for her to portray. But in Jayaraj’s Daivanamathil, a different Bhavana emerged. She played Sameera, the wife of a radicalised Muslim, with surprising maturity. Sameera is desperate to reform her husband, fighting with her family and the system to bring him back. Bhavana’s portrayal was equally substantial in Madhupal’s Ozhimuri, as the lawyer Balamani. Balamani was raised in a household where the grandmother declares that “a cow and a woman who has gone dry should be sent to the butcher”; Balamani’s own description of the women in her family is scathing: “To make babies is their main hobby and being married is considered a full-time job”. It is perhaps this mindset that makes her initially talk down to a client’s wife who has filed for divorce. Balamani is judgemental, independent, gentle — and willing to correct herself. And Bhavana does it all in an unfussy way.
In an industry that only rarely celebrates female comic actors, Bhavana has always made a meal of those roles that had some element of comedy in them. Her quirky Thrissur slang and the voice timbre that wasn’t that of a typical heroine perhaps worked in her favour. As auto driver Latha in Chotta Mumbai, her repartee with Vasco (Mohanlal) during the matchmaking ceremony is a riot, as she informs him that she is already seeing someone else. There is an easy chemistry between the two actors, and while it is no small feat to match Mohanlal’s comic timing, Bhavana aces it.
Her cameo in Mulla, and as Rosebella in Lollipop, are equally indicative of her comic prowess. Then there she is in the middling and regressive Happy Husbands, spot-on as a suspicious wife. Bhavana brings a naivete to her portrayal that makes it endearing. As Angel in Honey Bee, Bhavana shared an easy chemistry with leading man Asif, and it is among her most popular roles.
Chithiram Pesuthadi and Deepavali are among Bhavana’s Tamil films that deserve a mention. Also of note are Shyamaprasad’s Ivide and Rohith’s Adventures of Omanakuttan. In Ivide, Bhavana displays a never-before-seen subtlety and wisdom in her depiction of Roshni Mathew, a divorced single mom who finds love again with a colleague. Omanakuttan is among her most underrated performances to date. And then here she is, in Ntikkakkakkoru Premondarnn, making one of the finest comebacks of an actor, with a beautifully nuanced turn in a rom-com. Look out for the scene in which she breaks down before Jimmy and says she cannot do this anymore. Or the way she looks at him while reading his old love letter to her. She does the rollercoaster of emotions with flair, and stuns you with her terrific screen presence. Perhaps the best innings of her career starts now.