Keralite writer M T Vasudevan Nair, who is a magician with words—an alchemist who turns interactions into relationships—weaves stories that reflect the social dynamics of the times in which they are set.
Nair’s Kunjunni, portrayed brilliantly by Manoj K Jayan in the movie Parinayam (Marriage), brings to light the importance of having feminist men in patriarchal societies that hold scant regard for women. Released in 1994, the movie revolves around Unnimaya, a 16-year old widow from a Namboothiri family who faces trial for the illegitimate child growing in her womb.
Like a compliant lamb, Unnimaya is married to a rich seventy-year-old Namboothiri to be his fourth wife. Widowed soon after, she is coerced into the harsh life of deprivation that is her lot as a Hindu widow.
Into this bleak landscape come the vibrant colours and resonating drumbeats of Kathakali ((a classical dance form that portrays mythical stories). Unnimaya watches new stories unfold on stage night after night and falls in love with Madhavan, who plays the hero in these tales. All night long, she immerses herself in heroic tales from the Mahabharata, and after the story is done, waits for her lover to come to her. Early morning trysts after night-long performances lead to stolen moments and passionate love. Their love bears fruit, but in a hostile world.
Considered upper class and highly orthodox, Namboothiris in the early 20th century frowned upon widow remarriage and thrust upon women the burden of protecting family honor. The seed growing in Unnimaya’s womb is a direct threat to the cloyingly conservative mindsets of her interrogators—a horde of Namboothiri men intent on knowing the identity of the man responsible for impregnating a widow.
Amidst much mud-slinging and rumor-mongering, we see the angry, determined face of Kunjunni—the step-son of Unnimaya. Kunjunni’s presence deters others from using violence as a tool as he questions and mocks a tradition that pushes young children into the bedrooms of ageing men. A social reformer, Kunjunni fights age-old beliefs that impose societal hierarchies; he warns Unnimaya to protect her heart from blackening like the walls of the kitchen she is confined to.
Though Unnimaya is subjected to ostracism and inquisition—Smaartha Vichaaram—she refuses to reveal the name of the man who has fathered her child. Shunned and disowned by her family, she joins a Gandhian ashram and learns to weave. One day, she has a visitor.
Madhavan has come to seek her understanding. He owns up to his cowardice, confessing how the fear of exile from stage had held him mute. He tells her that he loves her, and that he wants to tell the world that he is the father of her baby. We see and feel the elation all around—at a love that has come full circle, at a story that has a happy ending, at the good fortune of a fallen girl who has been ‘saved’. But the idyll is shattered by the clear, soft voice of Unnimaya, who says with quiet conviction that her baby has no father.
She also fell in love, she says, but not with him. She lost her heart to a valiant and graceful Arjun, to a powerful Bheem and the charming Nala—to all the mythical men he portrayed—but not to him. Not to this Madhavan who stands in front of her—of that she is certain. She had loved a man in her dreams but found a completely different person, flawed and wanting, when she woke up to reality. And somewhere in the future, when her child asks for a father, that is the legacy she will bequeath—of the hero she had loved.
We realise—towards the end—that Unnimaya’s strength comes from Kunjunni, who encourages her to read books and poetry that stir in her the strength to reject the love of the man who didn’t stand by her, and to leave her home in search of new beginnings with her unborn child. The importance of the written word and the indispensability of men like Kunjunni, who stand up for the wronged—even if against their own—becomes crystal clear to an audience that marvels at Nair’s ability to dwell both in the man and in the woman.