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Marriage: A stinking corpse

Updated on: 09 June,2024 07:48 AM IST  |  Mumbai
Meenakshi Shedde |

I’m struggling to give you an idea of the film, while giving away the least of the storyline in this preview.

Marriage: A stinking corpse

Illustration/Uday Mohite

Meenakshi SheddeChristo Tomy’s Ullozhukku (Undercurrent), a brilliant debut fiction feature in Malayalam, is a Bollywood-Malayali wedding of the highest order, that is most auspicious. It’s an emotional thriller-drama starring the marvellous Parvathy Thiruvothu, as well as Urvashi, with a superb ensemble cast, that will release in theatres on June 21. Tomy earlier directed the powerful true crime documentary feature Curry and Cyanide: The Jolly Joseph Case, on Netflix, and two National Award-winning shorts, Kamuki (Sweetheart) and Kanyaka (Virgin).

Anju (Parvathy Thiruvothu) is newly married to Thomaskutty (Prasanth Murali), in green, small town Kerala, where people commute by boat; the marriage appears doomed from the start. There’s a pregnancy, a death, speculation about who the father is, a doting mother-in-law Leelamma (Urvashi), who develops mixed feelings towards her daughter-in-law--and all the while, a constant rain and flood that prevents the burial of the dead, with the oppressive waiting that reveals family secrets that implicate many. I’m struggling to give you an idea of the film while giving away the least of the storyline in this preview.

Despite the film’s quiet and desperate registers, it is a daring, brutally frank and frontal attack on the institution of marriage—here personified by a rotting corpse—and the institution of family itself. Anju is only the zillionth woman in South Asia or the world to be forced into a marriage she didn’t want, but man, she’s going to grab a little happiness while she can. It also underlines the unreliability of men as husband material and partners. And it comments on religion: when a young woman falls sick, her father promptly offers her to the Church, to spend the rest of her life as a nun: so closely and brutally tied are patriarchy and religion, that we barely notice the undercurrents.

The climax is one of the most devastating attacks on the idea of marriage—and family—and yet, is a masterstroke, suggesting a new kind of family that you didn’t imagine before. Already films like Kumbalangi Nights ripped apart the idea of the traditional family, while Don Palathara took down the Church in his magnificent, daring Family. In intention, Undercurrent seems in a similar zone as Kumbalangi Nights, questioning the role of marriage and family and the devastation both can wreak. 

Christo Tomy’s direction is absolutely assured. Although his film attacks traditional institutions, he remains compassionate, with no one villain. One could have called it a feminist film, yet it is tenderly empathetic to all its characters, however flawed. And with the torrential, near-Biblical flood when the dead cannot even be buried, he comments on the stinking condition of marriage and family. But the earth itself becomes unstable, fluid, and the tragedy also bears seeds of hope: everything is fluid and therefore changeable. In his masterstroke climax, this fluidity allows him to reimagine an unusual “happy ending”, redefining what a nurturing, lifelong companionship can be, what marriage can be, what family can be. One woman’s determination to be happy can change everything.

Parvathy Thiruvothu is excellent, effortlessly carrying the film on her shoulders; Urvashi is a good foil, and Arjun Radhakrishnan is superb too. 

The film is also daring for being a heroine-led film, where the men play secondary roles: it is practically unthinkable for Bollywood film to promote a film on the basis of two heroines, and a welcome move for Malayalam cinema as well, especially given its horrific, misogynist recent history that gave rise to the Women in Cinema Collective, of which Thiruvothu is a key founder member. Tomy’s brilliant, tightly written screenplay is like Asghar Farhadi’s screenplays: each new reveal or twist makes you reconsider what went before. Shehnad Jalal’s cinematography is richly evocative; and Kiran Das’ razor-sharp editing makes this film an emotional thriller. Sushin Shyam’s music is good but often overpowering, and Jayadeva Chakkadath and Anil Radhakrishnan’s sound design is effective. Big congratulations to the producers RSVP’s Ronnie Screwvala, and MacGuffin Pictures’ Honey Trehan and Abhishek Chaubey, with co producer Reverie Entertainment’s Sanjeevkumar Nair. Women crew include costume designer Dhanya Balakrishnan, casting director Varsha Varadarajan and Executive Producer Chetana Kowshik. The film is released by Central Pictures. The film project was earlier at NFDC Film Bazaar CoProduction Market, NFDC Screenwriters Lab and Film Independent’s Global Media Makers LA Residency. The film releases in Kerala on June 21, and if the response is good, it will go nationwide, the producer said. OK Malayalis, we need you to make this film a success so we can enjoy it in the rest of India, OK?

I will for long remember the revolutionary climax, with two characters sitting in a boat, imagining their future together. Absolute must see.

Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin International Film Festival, National Award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. 
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