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Sunday, May 13, 2001
Wide Angle

Projecting old age as a celebration
By Ervell E. Menezes

ONE of the best Malayalam films in recent times is undoubtedly M.T. Vasudevan Nairís Oru Cheru Puncheri (A Slender Smile), simple yet powerful, as it graphically captures the joyous life of a couple that has been married for 49 years. It is a very quiet and contented life they live, he looking after his land and she cooking for him. But they arenít selfish, as old folks tend to be. They are good and helpful to their neighbours and the boy who throws stones at their mangoes is later made to come over to their home and is taught by the old man.

This is Vasudevan Nairís sixth film (his first was Nirmalayam, which won the Presidentís Gold Medal in 1972), but as he himself says, he is essentially a scriptwriter with over 60 scripts to his credit. In the best tradition of Kerala cinema, Oru Cheru Puncheri is an absorbing story of folks in the twilight of their lives and still being able to celebrate it.

Occasionally, they visit their daughter living nearby but Kurupís (Unnikrishnan) heart is with his plants, while Ammalukutty (P.K. Venkatta Nair) is always caring for her husband even if she taunts him from time to time. The humour is sharp and warm and Vasudevan Nair is able to capture the ambience of Kerala village life, the lush greenery, the inquisitive village postman, the good neighbours and match-making which is an essential factor in any community. And Nairís eye for detail is almost microscopic.

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Unnikrishnan and Nirmala in Oru Cheru PuncheriThe 95-minute film is ambles along but is at no time even remotely boring. The celebration of life is almost contagious as the viewer forms a rapport with the old couple and slowly gets used to the environment. Old age, they say, is living on memories, and this couple indulges in them with impish humour, especially Kurup, but they also live very much in the present and Kurup works hard on his land and cares for his trees like a gardener. Occasionally, they receive calls from their children who are abroad, but life is generally peaceful till suddenly, the end comes.

But it comes peacefully. As a film there has to be a fitting climax and death generally brings out the dramatic impact but it is handled effectively by Nair whom I met in an exclusive interview in his Grand Hotel room along with his producer John Paul.

What was his inspiration for this film, you ask him, and the 67-year-old film-maker reels off, "When I go to the villages I hear old people complain about their children not looking after them.I thought why not make a film about a happy old couple with no worries and celebrating life even though there is not much of it left. Let other old people see it and try and emulate them, instead of complaining."

Nair then cites the example of his elder brother who is now 80. "He is happy but unlike the hero of my film, he has a slight worry about his impending death." He also recounts the death of film-maker Hariharranís fatherís death. "He died just like my hero, hale and hearty till one day he died suddenly. It was after my film was released and people told me he died like Kurup."

I told him I enjoyed that bit of the film where when the two old friends meet and are drinking, Kurup throws the remaining water in it and uses it as a drum. How did he get the idea? Because artist Unnikrishnan is a drummer, so I asked him why not play the drum on the lota and he agreed. It was easily one of the finest touches in the film and when the two old friends parted it was hinted that it would be their last meeting.

Nair feels as people grow older they become worse as human beings. So, he thought why not make a film like this so that old people will say, "Let us also have a death like this." About his stretching the film a wee bit after the heroís death he says, "I wanted the heroine to take the place of her husband, to look after the land because she would be doing what he loved so much. Therefore, she refuses to go and stay with her children. She feels her place is where her husband was and that he would always be around."

Unnikrishnan is basically a comedian, he says, but he has done an excellent job as the ageing, but young in spirit, old man and he puts across the naughty lines quite convincingly while Venukuttan is somewhat restrained as the wife. The youngsters are newcomers with Master Vignish a real scene-stealer with those mischievous, expressive eyes. Sarada also turns in a good cameo role.

The film was financed by television, his first film to do so, but Nair is unhappy because his 95-minute film has been stretched to three hours with ads put in the middle. "Three hours is too long, at most it should have been two hours with the ads," he says. But then thatís what TV and commercials are all about, arenít they?

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