In the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami that took the lives of their parents, Anandhi (Preeti Karan) and her cousin are raised by their uncle Singaram (Mysskin). Anandhi is a teacher at the local school, and Singaram is focused on getting his niece married. But Anandhi is not interested in the suitors he tries to arrange, and when a photographer, Kavita (Anusha Prabhu), arrives to teach photography to the children as part of a vocational training programme, Anandhi befriends her – a friendship that blossoms into something more, eventually turning the lives of Anandhi and Singaram upside down.
Mysskin turns in a solid performance as Singaram, a man of few words whose time is divided between his job as a fisherman and his responsibility to those around him – whether it’s Anandhi and the need to see her suitably settled, or Malar (whom he contemplates marrying, defying a tradition that you don’t marry pregnant widows), or even Alankaram (Selvam), the village’s aravani, who proves supportive and helpful to Singaram and Anandhi in the end. In a society where conforming to social norms weighs heavily on everyone in the community, Singaram stands apart, straddling both the need to respect tradition and the need to do the right thing. Singaram is repulsed by the idea that local tradition would permit him to marry his niece, and though he does everything he can to try to find her a husband, he ultimately respects Anandhi and her wishes. He’s frustrated she keeps turning down potential suitors – in one prescient scene, Anandhi tells her uncle that she doesn’t believe he will ever marry a woman and she will never marry a man in this lifetime – but he allows her to make the choice.
Singaram stands as the film’s moral compass, allowing us to see the hypocrisy that lies inside the traditions that are held so dear, even as he is compelled at times to act within those social norms.
At the centre of everything, of course, is the lovely and delicate relationship that blooms between Anandhi and Kavita. Preeti Karan gives us an Anandhi who is smart and strong, and it’s fascinating to watch her slip into thoughtfulness and confusion as she is trying to process her feelings for Kavita, and utterly joyful to view the moment where she comes to the realization of how she feels about Kavita, and her willingness to go after what she wants when she realizes, finally, what it is, in great defiance of the village’s traditions and beliefs.
Swarnavel Eswaran’s feature film debut, Kattumaram reminded me very much of the Malayalam film Chemmeen, both of them set in South Indian fishing villages where there are strict social traditions that people – especially women – are expected to conform to. The sea, as well, acts as a source of pathetic fallacy – not surprising, perhaps, when the sea is at the centre of everything in these people’s lives. Everyone in this village has been touched by the wrath of the sea in one form or another: Anandhi and Singaram having lost much of their family in a tsunami, the pregnant Malar whose fisherman husband was lost at sea. In Kattumaram, waves churn and emotions simmer just below the surface. Eswaran balances the bitter with the sweet, sharing a compelling and thoughtful story that is a welcome addition to Indian queer cinema. I’m also reminded of Buddha’s parable of the raft, perhaps most fitting for a film entitled Kattumaram: on one side of the water, there are traditions and social norms to live up to, and one is trapped by them. But if you build a raft, it can carry you away to a place where you can escape them, a place where you can allow your true self to emerge and flourish.
Kattumaram screens in London on June 21st, and 29th. 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. For more on the festival, please visit: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/