I chanced upon Utharam (directed by Pavithran, 1989) one night as a background movie while I was eating. But a few minutes into the movie and I didn’t even dare to blink until the movie ended. I had never heard of this movie before, never watched any of it— if anything this is the ideal condition to watch any movie.
I’m enamored by Utharam’s craft. The film is based on English playwright Daphne Du Maurier’s short story No Motive. Many of her works were successfully adapted into films by Hitchcock, namely Rebecca, The Birds etc. Surely, Utharam has a strong foundation, but it was adapted and built into a brilliant film in Malayalam by MT Vasudevan Nair.
If you haven’t watched Utharam yet, stop right here. You have already been spoiled a little, and if your eyes dare more further down there is no coming back from that spoiler.
Utharam welcomes us with an accidental death that’s soon revealed as suicide. Poet Salina(Suparna) is dead and her mourning husband, Mathew(Sukumaran), entrusts his and Salina’s close friend Balachandran(Mammootty) with the task of finding why she killed herself. Balan, who is grieving his friend’s death, agrees without any hesitation. But Balan’s task is not an easy one for Balan as well as audience don’t know anything about Salina except that she was a kind hearted and talented poet.
To start somewhere Balan enquires about Salina’s family history, a personal history of mental health issues, and her relationship with Mathews. Mathews emphasizes that things were fine between them but his understanding of Salina’s history is too vague to even start the investigation. Anyhow, Balan decides to pursue as a “minor Sherlock Holmes” to offer Mathews a closure, thereby starting his mission to find out who Salina is.
As the investigation begins, Balan has to uncover Salina’s past to understand what has happened in the present. But Balan is not an investigator by profession, he is only a journalist. He investigates like a journalist would dig up a story, taking bites from multiple people who are in any way connected to Selina. Essentially, by searching the reason for Selina’s death, Balan is writing her story for us.
In writing Selina’s story, specifically her past, Balan has to rely on others’ memories. Balan first meets Salina’s only relative they know, her aunt Molly Aunty (Sukumari) who is believed to have raised her from childhood. To Balan’s dismay, strangely Molly Aunty is not resourceful to give any insight into Selina’s life. But Balan persists and discovers that Selina’s father was an Orthodox priest (who can marry) Antony/Kunnathoor Achan (Karamana Janardhanan Nair) and when Selina reached Molly Aunty she was about sixteen years old, depressed and aloof. This is the first hook that Balan receives, a shocking revelation that prods him to investigate further.
Balan proceeds to Selina’s native village and meets an old former Parish clerk from the church where priest Kunnathoor worked. Here’s where Balan brings out his chameleon-like behavioral traits. Balan acts like a native villager who has come to casually enquire about the priest and his daughter. He learns that Selina might have had tuberculosis when she studied in a residential school in Ooty, a school where she went on her insistence to be with her best friend. Balan has enough clues to proceed.
Balan reaches Shyamala (Parvathy), and immediately starts the conversation under the pretext of a buyer wanting to buy her ancestral house. Receiving no positive response from her, he shifts his character to an acquaintance of Selina. Selina’s name invokes elation in Shyamala who presses to know more. Balan changes to his normal self and informs her of Selina’s death, except the suicide part. Shyamala wistfully remembers their teenage years and how her best friend was a poet, dreamer, and philosopher even from school days. Probably because of Balan’s interest in Shyamala (as she is a beautiful, elegant unmarried woman) or Balan felt Selina’s best friend deserved to know how she died or he hoped Shyamala’s knowledge of Selina’s death by suicide may reveal crucial information, he reveals that it was a suicide.
From Shyamala, Balan travels to their old school in Ooty to meet the headmaster. With the headmaster, Balan is a wealthy businessman ready to shower money on the school to admit his daughter. Balan knows he can’t directly ask about someone who studied years ago. He attempts a psychological trick that would work universally on any headmaster/principal who is too bothered with the school’s image- he expresses his concern about a gossip regarding a girl student who got tuberculosis due to the school’s incompetence. To no one’s surprise, Headmaster gets defensive, and in his defense he surprises Balan as he blurts out the truth that Kunnathoor Achan took Selina away from the school because she was pregnant.
Balan is distraught. He is burdened by this latest discovery that he goes ahead with his “investigation”. His journalistic instincts and perseverance gets him to the hospital where Selina and his father went. Here Balan dons the role of an overly concerned husband with a pregnant wife, who plans to move to the town in sometime. He demands to see the hospital (probably eyeing for his next source) and finds attender Nanu (Innocent). Balan has the charm to adapt himself according to who is opposite to him. Balan takes Nanu out for drinks, and persuade him to reveal the story. He refers to his wife as slender, child-like, young, not ready to be pregnant etc (Balan’s imagination about Selina at fifteen in school) to simulate Nanu’s memory about such women (Selina) who might have come to the hospital for an abortion from unwanted pregnancy. Nanu quickly remembers Selina and her priest father and reveals how Selina was innocent and insisted she was not pregnant. Being a priest, Father Kunnathoor did not agree for an abortion and a boy was born. Selina was happy to be a mother and unconcerned about the father or how she got pregnant, Selina takes care of her baby with such motherly affection. For Balan, this looks like a scene from the Bible and Selina, Mother Mary.
He learns from another priest who assisted Father Kunnathoor that the boy was christened Immanuel, and he was forcefully taken to an orphanage despite Selina’s resistance. Balan learns that in her resistance, Selina fell outside of a moving car. The audience would connect that she might have reached Molly aunty after this and she might have had a memory loss as a result of the accident or a repression of traumatic memory.
Balan goes to the orphanage next and poses as a government official investigating orphanages for misdeeds. The orphanage manager informs him that Immanuel ran away from the orphanage.
Balan is stuck. There are no more leads to further his investigation or bring a closure. Although he uncovered important details about Selina’s past, it is of no use now. Balan goes back to meet Shyamala on whom he has a vested interest in. Thankfully his feelings are easily reciprocated, and Balan invites Shyamala to Mathews’s place and suggests that they can stay over in Ooty on the way. Quite a bold proposition which is not positively received in the beginning, but Shyamala agrees when he clarifies that he is not asking her to sleep with him.
At Ooty, Shyamala reminisces her school days with Selina. It’s really impressive how things fall in a perfect contraption from here on. When she sees Balan smoking, she asks for a smoke, remembering a time when she and Selina tried smoking.
Walking through the lanes of Ooty market, she remembers Selina posing as street seller helping a North East old woman. The old woman invites them for their ethnic festival, and someone passes them a joint. They smoke up, pass out on the way back, and after a long time wake up and reach school.
Balan connects the dots. In his hypothesis, the two teenage girls might have gotten raped by North East Indian men when they passed out- a terrifying and repelling piece of information for Shyamala. She reconciles with the new knowledge with Balan’s support and they go to Mathews’s home. Hinting at the closure of an investigation, the wipe edit happens again, but in the opposite direction.
But we still don’t have an answer to why Selina killed herself. Balan tries to talk to the house-helps at Mathews’s place. Achuvettan (Sankaradi) recollects that Selina had interacted with ragpickers in the morning. A derogatory word used by Achuvettan-“goorkha”- to refer to North East Indians helps Balan immediately construct rest of his hypothesis. In his imagination, as he tells Shyamala, we see Selina talking to the ragpickers, and on learning one of their names as “Immanuel”, her past memory is activated, and probably in shock and guilt, she might have killed herself.
Although Mathews is never let known of the (constructed) truth, the film ends on a happy note as Shyamala and Balan seem to be taking Immanuel into their care. The investigation started for Mathews’s closure, an answer for his questions, but at the end, only Balan, Shyamala, and the audience get a closure about who Salina was in the past or why she decided to kill herself.
Following is a skeletal structure of Utharam’s story – the past life of Selina from teenage to death, unwrapped to us through the investigative plot led by Balan. If the plot followed the chronological order of Selina’s life, it might not have been an intriguing or suspenseful film; I would say it might have been really stale as we wouldn’t have anything interesting to look forward to. If Shymala revealed that they had passed out on the road after smoking up in her first interaction with Balan and then headmaster revealed that she was pregnant, the film might have been about Selina’s baby rather than herself. The film is clear on keeping Selina as the focus and Balan as the hook; all the other characters aid to construct Selina’s story. By keeping Selina at the centre and following the order of revelations as in the film, we are able to understand how complicated her past was, with each flashback giving a new information.
Let us look at the factors that enable us to make sense of the plot easily. Realistically, it’s not easy to find the right people or right answers in an investigation about a woman’s past from years ago, but we assume that Balan is highly efficient and clever that he can find the answers. Except for Molly aunty in the beginning, he never returns from someone without a hook to the next person. This is reinforced by his charm to blend into any situation, the numerous phone calls he makes for sources, and establishment of his journalistic integrity and merit through the subtle mention of his byline on Phoolan Devi, of all people. In 2020, one may raise their eyebrow at stereotyping and vilifying a community, but Utharam can arrive at a closure (for Balan and us) only by giving Selina’s son features that would make him different among others. Balan would never be able to locate the son accidentally (in a way that seems plausible for us), if Selina was raped and impregnated by, say a Malayali. In a sense, using an ethnically different community is justified for the sake of the plot, nevertheless it is disturbing.
However, there are issues with using flashbacks as a reliable device for the truthful rendition of story because of the simple fact that our memories do not work easily and directly. Especially about things that happened years ago, we would suppress some parts, emphasize other parts, and sometimes even mix up memories depending on our mental state now and then. It is always a suspension of disbelief when we take flashbacks at face value, because we want the plot to move and developments to happen. Let’s say we question the authenticity Headmaster’s memory about Selina that it was a fake implication of pregnancy and Nanu, in his drunken state, was remembering someone else as Selina, then there is every chance that Balan was connecting the wrong dots and wrongly emphasizing a coincidence of “Immanuel” (after all, it’s a really common christian name). It’s our investment in the film and an identification with Balan that we wish to believe what is shown to us as real and truthful. It’s Balan who hypothesizes Selina might have gotten pregnant after rape by North East Indians, and who immediately presumes a North East Indian ragpicker named “Immanuel” as Selina’s son. Balan’s personal judgements and prejudices might have also played a part in his process of understanding Selina’s past. We also assume that everyone presented an objective version of what they knew about Selina and not subjective memories. But for the sake of enjoying this investigative story, we cast away our doubts and take a few things for granted.
So do we know Utharam after all, or did we just buy Balan’s constructed Utharam?