Until quite recently, the subjects related to the queer identity hadn’t been a part of Indian Cinema. Even if some efforts were being taken in the form of the films like “Fire” (1996) or the anthology films like “I Am” (2010) or “Bombay Talkies” (2013), they either faced severe controversies or catered only a core art-house film-enthusiast. With the change in the country’s legal affairs related to same-gender couples, there’s a rise in such topics and their voices are being heard. Swarnavel Eswaran’s “Kattumaram” falls in the same vein. It talks about the same-sex relationship in the context of Indian traditions. Moreover, it speaks on how that affects the people from a lower part of the social paradigm.
The film tells the story of Anandhi, who teaches at the school of her village. She is still recovering from the loss of her parents and other relatives who were taken away by the Tsunami waves, not long ago. Her uncle, Singaram, who survived along with her; is the only person left to give her a sense of belonging. Being the only paternal force left behind her, he considers it to be his duty to marry off his niece to a responsible man. He pursues every person that he thinks to be interested in tying knots with her. Despite that, she hardly shows any interest in marrying anyone, for a reason yet unknown to herself.
Meanwhile, a new supply teacher, Kavita, arrives in their village to teach the kids about photography. Anandhi quickly forms a bond with her, while eventually realizing her past. At the time when many fishermen from the village are trying to woo her, Anandhi gets infatuated with Kavita’s mere presence. Their bond grows even stronger when they confront their misery together. Consequently, the villagers get to know about their relation, which is unnatural according to their customs and beliefs. At the time, the only shelter for the couple remains to be village barber Alankaram-a transgender who’s ostracized by the community just like both of them. Furthermore, the implications on their lives as well as her compassionate brother’s livelihood affects even deeper than one can imagine.
Even within the duration of about 75 minutes, the narrative unfolds with a leisurely pace. Besides, more than just the central relationship regarding sexuality and accepting oneself, the film also spends enough time on the society that they belong to. This is not a progressive continent where the acceptance is natural. It’s a small village in the southern part of India, where even marrying her to a person from another caste would raise eyebrows. Which is why, their lesbian relationship is obviously a part of shame, not just for her but whoever’s related to her. Perhaps that’s why, as aforementioned, while confronting to herself about sexuality, she goes to Alankaram, who is an outcast as well.
Another thing worth mentioning is how the film never demonizes her uncle and rather makes him more empathetic towards her niece’s pain. Moreover, it presents the cause behind his decisions to be rooted in the social acceptance which presents a conservative society as the biting antagonist. Even his erratic behavior seems to come from the same.
The performances are natural even during the melodramatic moments. The melodrama doesn’t feel forced with the motivations behind it. Preeti Karan presents an empathetic portrayal of Anandhi without overdoing any emotions. Her performance is complemented by Anusha Prabhu, who plays fierce and vulnerable Kavita with overall ease. Mysskin often outshines other performers while depicting just enough pain masking behind the strong outward persona, which he needs to present to the world. He’s especially effective in the parts where his character can’t control the underlying emotions from coming to the surface.
Swarnvel Eswaran’s command is apparent on the performances just as well over his craft. Furthermore, the ruined shores and jungles add emotional weight to the narration with their effective cinematography. As a result, Kattumaram becomes an effective tragedy with the obvious metaphor of an actual Catamaran. In this case, the stability between the two parallel ways of thinking derives from understanding and acceptance.
The only thing I would have asked is a deeper insight on every character arc. Because, even at its most honest moments, the film doesn’t have a widely different plot that we see being unravelled. The intended minimal approach, even being complemented by the exquisite cinematography, loses its impact afterwards. The film, as a result, ends up to be an engaging yet a slightly underwhelming affair.
The Bagri Foundation London Film Festival celebrates a decade of bringing the best new South Asian films to the UK, with 5 cities, 25 venues and 25 specially curated films. It starts on 20th June 2019 in London continues until 8th July 2019, at cinemas across the UK.