Beyond the acid

Updated: May 19, 2019, 08:34 IST | Meenakshi Shedde

Uyare has something in common with both Take Off and Neerja, but persists with a woman's rebirth in this lifetime

Beyond the acid
Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeMost of us know some intelligent, spunky women with jealous, insecure, violent husbands/partners, and wonder why they haven't dumped them. The brilliant Malayalam film Uyare (High/Height) by Manu Ashokan explores what can happen when she does. It underlines how many Indian men have no clue they are a**holes — including the good guys. In fact, it juxtaposes what happens when a woman chooses a flying career, emblematic of the highest an independent, ambitious woman can achieve, and how she becomes an air hostess after a disfiguring acid attack from a jealous boyfriend, especially in a profession in which beauty is considered a basic requirement."

Malayalam cinema is streets ahead of the rest of Indian cinema. It has offered a joyous tsunami of recent good films — including Kumbalangi Nights, Sudani From Nigeria, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Ee Ma Yau, Eeda, and more. And now, Uyare, Ashokan's debut feature, raises the bar so high, we look forward to see what Meghna Gulzar comes up with in Chhapaak, starring Deepika Padukone as an acid attack victim. Uyare has something in common with both Take Off and Neerja, but persists with a woman's rebirth in this lifetime.

Pallavi Raveendran (a luminous Parvathy) is an ambitious, livewire woman, with a jealous, possessive boyfriend, Govind (Asif Ali). He is always trying to control her life, career, what she does and wears. There's a cogent back story as to why she hangs on to him. But it gets worse when Parvathy moves to Mumbai to train to be a pilot. When she breaks off their relationship, he throws acid on her face, scarring her for life. It is a shock, yet it is never sensationalised. And the film focuses on how she rebuilds her life in the skies. She manages a job as an air hostess, thanks to Vishal (Tovino Thomas), a bratty airline head. In the end, Pallavi accidentally achieves her biggest dream. It is a rousing, deeply satisfying climax, and the women in the theatre I was in cheered loudly, me included. There were 307 victims of acid attacks in India in 2016, according to the National Crime Records Bureau, mostly women, mainly as revenge for rejecting love proposals or sexual advances.

The direction by Ashokan is remarkably assured, especially for a first feature. Despite combustible material, it is never melodramatic; its understatement giving it power. He builds all key character arcs well, weaving in moving moments. Such as the first time Pallavi tentatively uploads a selfie on Facebook after the scarring. Or, when Govind's father requests them to withdraw the case she has filed: Pallavi sits right in front of him and removes her dupatta, forcing him to see her disfigured face up close. He steps away, unable to face her. Writer-duo Bobby and Sanjay's script is powerfully feminist and nuanced. It deftly delineates how Govind becomes someone Pallavi fears more than she loves. Yet, Pallavi refuses to allow Vishal to become her saviour: she will be her own saviour. Even though the climax is a fantasy, it is so well earned, it left me on a high.

The ensemble cast has acted really well, but the film is squarely on the shoulders of Parvathy, whose understated dignity refuses your sympathy. She gets under the skin of Pallavi, and we feel for her. Ali is superb as her insecure boyfriend. Thomas is a sly charmer; unfortunately, he knows it. Siddique is marvellous as the supportive dad. The film is sensitively shot by Mukesh Muraleedharan, who never sensationalises the tragedy, and Mahesh Narayan's editing keeps us invested. The film is produced by three sisters, Shenuga, Shegna and Sherga of S Cube Films.

The film, which released end-April, is still showing nationwide, including in Mumbai, and has fared well at the box office. Its success is exhilarating because it is an accomplished film, and because it is relatively rare to have an Indian film primarily powered by a woman. More so, because Parvathy, and other members of the Women in Cinema Collective that called out #MeToo misogyny, were severely trolled, isolated and denied work offers by a patriarchal film industry. Uyare, by being both feminist and offering Parvathy the lead, is a strong signal to the Malayalam film industry, that there are still some humanists who will act on their conscience— and talent. Above all, the film is a must-watch. See. It. Now. Stupidly, they didn't play its English subtitled version in Mumbai, so best to take a Malayali friend along.

Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at meenakshishedde@gmail.com

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