Friday, December 28, 2012


Those who depart from this world without
knowing who they are or what they truly
desire have no freedom here or hereafter.

But those who leave here knowing who they
are and what they truly desire have freedom
everywhere, both in this world and in the next.
- Chandogya Upanishad [viii.1.6]

The malayalam film Ozhimuri (Document of Separation) is loaded with references and often times direct constructs from Vedic literature that there is no mistaking of Jeyamohan's script and dialogues for its deep roots in  ancient wisdom. When you have more than seventy years of human lives to cover in the span of a film, the weighty themes from eastern thought if handled well can lend a certain aura to the overall impact. The director Madhupal, despite the handicap of budget and visible pangs of growth as a craftsman and artist has done more than adequate justice to the film.

The actors playing protagonists - there are three of them - have taken the film to a level where a discerning viewer is subjected to an experience that only true art can impart. While the movie's subtext is firmly planted on a specific culture (South Travancore) which in turn shifts into another, you take away the universal values applicable to each one of us one way or another. It’s been a long while since I have seen anything like this after the exit of Aravindan who had a clear and keen understanding of the timeless genius of Vedic wisdom.

The plot is outwardly linear which revolves around a divorce petition filed by an elderly couple (ThanuPillai and Meenakshi Pillai) who lived most of their lives together in an old world that no longer exists. Their land belonged to the erstwhile princely state of Travancore which had a monarchic and matrilineal culture that thrived for centuries. It is important to note that the common people genuinely liked their kings and were fiercely loyal. Contrast that with emergence of male dominant culture and the division of the land between two post independent states where Tamil became the language of the ruling class. Insights on the impact of geopolitical shifts on common man in and of itself are an interesting premise of this movie.

The narrative unfolds from the perspective of the couple's son, SarathChandran who reasonably believes in his mother's cause to get the document of separation from the civil court. He believes that after enduring a lifetime of torture and abuse from her husband, she needs respite. He has also been a victim of excessive punishment. He thinks domestic violence is a norm in most homes than an exception. 

He is sought out by a young lawyer Bala who took it upon herself to convince him of the futility of going through court processes, not to mention being the butt of ridicule since they will be asked uncomfortable questions of their marriage at this point of their life. He still thinks it is worth all the trouble.

The story takes off from that point onward.  In the true tradition of Gargi, Bala challenges Sarath on his perceptions and interpretation of the events leading up to the divorce petition. She also prods him to look deeper into him and watch his own thought processes and reflect on his destiny that if he stayed the course, he could very well end up like his father whom he detests. She quotes Yaksha Prashna which posed the question "what is man's self?" which essentially is a quest for immortal self and is attained through progeny.

Bala plays the role of a mentor - Guru to help Sarath dig deeper into the psyche of his parents and ancestors, offers alternative point of views and plausible reasons behind the choices they made at various junctures of their lives. Bala's mother has also been a victim of domestic abuse. In a funny revelation Bala talks about her father having been chased by Sarath's imposing father, took his anger upon the hapless wife at home.

The movie however is about Thanu Pillai, Meenakshi Pillai and the matriarch Kali Pillai - the fiery mother of a feuding son.

Kalipillai is the product of a culture that put women at the center of social and economic life existed for a long time. She stood up to symbols of power (She convinces a cop to reprimand her tenant), attacked threats (tenant), ran household on her own, spoke of women's strength and stature. She had had visitors who were artists and scholars. She chose her partners whom she divorced since the society and law stood behind women. She didn't approve of her son's choice of bride at first. The women however got close and genuinely cared for each other even as the self-destructive feud between Kalipillai and her son took to the worse. By the time they could relent on the ego war a wee bit, Kalippillai was at the brink of death.

There is a remarkable and haunting scene in the movie when the morbid Kalipillai sleepwalks out of deathbed past her reproachful son, stagger into the street to her death. On her way out she accuses the daughter in law of causing the rift between the mother and son although the opposite was true. Their feud goes way back and Kalipillai routinely warned her daughter in law of being soft and complicit in her own abuse.

Thanupillai's father Sivan Pillai was a wrestler who got the long hand of matrilineal system when he was fancied once and discarded by Kali Pillai, not before making Thanupillai a rebel and abusive misogynist. He married Meenakshi Pillai from a poor non-matrilineal family out of his choice who was to pay for the perceived wrongs and sleights of assertive women around him represented by his mother. As we get a closer look at his life, we learn about the childhood Thanupillai spent in fear and loss of his father in traumatic condition, according to him caused by the powerful women around him. We also learn later about his commitment towards fatherhood and loyalty.

In the end he is condemned to wallow in the dark of his monstrous ego as he too accused Meenakshi Pillai to have caused the rift between him and his mother after spending a lifetime clashing with her. But he is given a chance at redemption as his son with the help of Bala draws himself towards him spiritually to bring peace to a lifetime spent in torments  and fits of fury.

Meenakshi Pillai is the transformative character in the movie to grow from a frail and helpless victim of domestic abuse into a liberated human being during the span of the film. As we learn more about the seemingly tragic and unfortunate choices she made at various junctures of her life, we are allowed to see her perspectives on the events which we only had a partial view till then. We learn that she took the best of the choices she had and her priority was revealed to be her son who struggled to stay healthy during most of his childhood.

MeenakshiPillai realized the folly of being dependent of her brother and the fierce commitment of her husband as a father to her child. She tried to broker peace between the husband and his mother without success. She learnt quite a bit about being fearless and independent from her mother in law too. But when Thanupillai anticipating his death asked her to reveal what she told his mother that forced her to leave them to die in the street, she realized the unworthiness of being in a relationship steeped in ignorant clashes of delusional ego. Instead of protesting her innocence, she decided to liberate herself and asked for Ozhimuri.

You can hear the echo of Chandokya Upanishad as Meenkashi Pillai comes to the foreground of the screen to have a look at you. You know it’s time to untangle your life for your own sake! 


Chandokya Upanishad: wiki reference
Gargi: wiki reference
YakshaPrashna : wiki reference

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