Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Pinneyum/Once Again (2016)
A new film from Adoor Gopalakrishnan after absence of nearly eight years is welcome news to anyone in Indian cinema. A lot has changed for the doyen of Malayalam cinema; digital technology has taken hold and neoliberalism has shaped the middle class even in rural areas. You want to see a renewed critique of social values embedded in the realism that serves to both portray life and bring it under his microscope.
Pinneyum, based on a real event that occurred a while ago, moves in that direction. After watching the film, we sense a distance between the intentions of the director to put contemporary greed of the middle class at the center of the narrative and a film that stops short of the edge one expects to see. In the film, an apparently well-qualified man, Purushothaman Nair, finds a job in the Gulf after considerable rejection from the tough employment opportunities at home. Once there, he invests in life insurance so his beloved wife and daughter will live a comfortable life. Soon, he realizes that his wife can cash in the insurance policy if he can stage his death, disappear for a while and reunite with her for a happy life. His elaborate but rushed scheme that includes family members falls apart, only to bring grief, pain, and dark clouds over them. Greed costs and it costs dearly!
The first phase of the film is a patient exercise in painting the portrait of a middle- class family life. In the days of financial hardship, every relative, distant or near, sees him as a failure. Nair and his wife are caught in the swirl of little dramas where the members of the join family take it upon themselves to cast dark light on his abilities. Once he gets a job in the Gulf (itself a trope in neoliberal life in India), the signs of wealth become visible. He drives around in a car and returns often to visit his wife and daughter. The same family that once derided him comes around to make the most of their expectations of him. Rare relatives turn up to demand support.
The first half of the film is devoted to painting a complex image of village life, family ethics, and emerging greed in Nair. The film presents the transition in Nair from a needy and humble worker to a greedy plotter of dark deeds in a slow brewing movement, missing the effect it would have with in imprinting the director’s aim to paint a picture of middle-class greed. We miss the depth of probe into how greed is shaped in families so dedicated to traditional values of modesty. As he hatches a plot to gain insurance money, he implicates others, but this too takes place without any specific marker. Everyone is caught in the cycle of greed, which has taken over their values of stability and trust.
The second part of the film acquires some tension, as the narrative picks up pace across a number of scenes in widening sphere of action. The tones of the image change too. Darker images, intensified close ups and dramatic positions of the camera mark this phase. The events consume everyone. The subtle focus that the director places on the actions and body movements of his actors speak louder than words. The viewer’s entry into rural life in India and its loyal, closely-knit structures is methodical, instructive to a culture ruled by traditions. The world underneath the greed still returns to the main focus. The stated goals of the film about the power of greed appear less powerful than the ethics of family and rural life.
The director returns to the family again in the mildly melodramatic final phase of the narrative as Nair’s wife, Devi, has accepted the lessons of a plan gone wrong and embraced a life in which she is graceful and gracious. There is no suspense in Pinneyum, but a slow disclosure of the motifs that undergird middle class morality. Though the transitions in each of these phases and from one phase to another are less dramatic in the progression of the narrative, but in each case, it returns to affirm what has been the mainstay in Gopalakrishnan’s cinema- deeply rooted people struggling with the influence of the conditions around them.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films are also about the mastery of the film form. The image is imbued with deep sense of realism, a rootedness in the texture of things and the taxonomy of faces. The speech is intoned with acoustics of breathing sounds, punctuating complex emotions of rejection, consent, or mere pauses as the minds grapple with the motions of thought. Though filmed in digital image, the experienced eyes of the director can breathe life into the scenes in rural setting. Kavya Madhavan’s Devi, entirely aware that the weight of the film, particularly in the latter parts, rests on her, takes up the challenge. She displays a restrained limit to her melodramatic verve, reserving emotions inside of her as much as expressing them. As the film returns the director to a new era of digital filmmaking, appealing to a different audience, Pinneyum, is worth cherishing.