Editorial Note: Being Feminist is a fortnightly column that features personal narratives documenting the emotions, vulnerabilities and innermost contradictions every feminist encounters while trying to push through various degrees of patriarchy in private, professional and public spaces.
The most piercing aspect of watching director Lijo Jose Pelliserry’s Malayalam film Ee Ma Yau is the sounds that drown human voices. Every scene is full of sounds, the sounds of Chellanam (the coastal town where the story is set) meeting seawater, the slight thud of water against the wind, the soft leaping of boats over rolling waves, the quick sweeps of sand left behind by a slipper, all quietened by the sudden delivery of a cuss word.
I find the sounds of loneliness more haunting than that of death. Vavachan Mestri, the protagonist comes home only to die in front of his family. A live duck in his sanchi (bag) and demonetised money in hand, the bus drops him off by the coast. He has finally come back from his runaway life, returning to the solitude of his wife and other apparitions he talks to in a drunken state of anxiety.
The people of Chellanam berate him, they tell him that his constant want to leave his responsibilities behind is the reason why his daughter Nisa is in a premarital relationship. His heart shamed and hurt, he wipes sweat off his brow before calling Nisa, only to not ask her if the allegations were true.
Let the town go to hell, let them say what they want, Vavachan Mestri chooses to not hurt his daughter, the last act of kindness he decides to do before his peaceful collapse. Death was his final flight from home, a place he has an immense dislike for because Vavachan Mestri never wanted the edge of the sea to be the edge of his world. He came back home only to leave it again.
Home is a loaded word for me. My mothers and grandmothers have constantly made and unmade what home means to me. My father and brothers have chosen to peacefully collapse for the sake of finding it. It is between their silences and outbursts that I grew up equating loneliness with the meaning of home.
For a long time, my desire to run away, to become a loud noisy woman began in my room, where my study table meets the window under a stubborn silence that hangs over it. Here, the edge of my table met the edge of my world and nothing else mattered. Here I read and wrote until the sound of loneliness was less devastating than the sight, smell, and taste of my room. The sounds that eerily hang in Ee Ma Yau and over my table taught me how feminism could be found in the solitude of homes, in rooms, backyards, and kitchens.
The women in Ee Ma Yau rush to their rooms to plot their friendships, sadness, and grief in the privacy they built for themselves. Nisa secretly calls her boyfriend after locking her room, only to be interrupted by her sister-in-law Sabeth. Sabeth lovingly teases her about the affair, quite unlike the men who shamed Vavachan at the beginning of the film. Through the kitchen door, we see Sabeth again, watching her mother-in-law cook, both exchanging small pecks of love and laughter. When Vavachan dies, his body lies in the center of the room like a spider surrounded by silver threads of women weaving a web of grief and loss. From these rooms, we see the comfort of women holding other unhappy women.
In her novel, ‘The Days of Abandonment‘, Elena Ferrante’s women reveal to me the need to be disruptive. She writes, “as a girl, I had liked obscene language, it gave me a sense of masculine freedom. Now I know that obscenity could raise sparks of madness if it came from a mouth as controlled as mine”.
Most women I know inhabit two different faces. The face you wear at home is controlled, disciplined, or as a friend of mine put it, “home is where your real self takes a nap”. The face you wear outside home is disruptive, always kicking up a fuss, obscene and loud. When Elena Ferrante talks about masculine freedom endowed by obscene language, I think of the men and women of the Malayalam film Churuli who wear both faces at once.
The film follows Antony and Shajeevan, two police officers in search of a slippery criminal hiding in the small village of Churuli. Between the two, Shajeevan is the reluctant paavum (calm) police officer, who at first is terrified of the vile tongue of the people he meets in Churuli. Little does he know that Churuli is a magical land where people like him find refuge and freedom. The spirit of Churuli called perumadan is shown to be evil, but in reality, he is the protector of the land. He tricks and annihilates anyone that threatens the magic of Churuli, a haven perumadan created for those who want to escape and be a disruption to the normal.
In Churuli, Shajeevan finds a sort of masculine freedom that his previous life denied him. Churuli becomes his new home and in it, he dissolves. Like Shajeevan, the homes that I seek are sometimes obscene and public because the ones I currently inhabit are too lonely and private.
The women I meet in cities tell me the ways with which they found feminism outside their homes – in protest spaces, libraries, parks, pride parades, and women’s marches. It appeared to me that the ‘outside’ was where all feminist action took place and if I do not find myself in the heart of it, I am failing myself.
My conversations with these women made my unhappening town unfeminist to me. In their eyes, my hometown offered less to women and the antidote they suggested was to run away in search of spaces just like theirs. My town woke up to church bells beckoning people to mass and a sing-song of Christians on their way to Sunday school. Boys took over what was left of the land to play football and we simply stood on the sides to watch.
The space between my writing desk where I studied and wrote and the kitchen in which Amma cooked and played music, I called home. My relationship with feminism evolved here and kept changing with the various meanings I assigned to this space.
At home, my pride flag is always neatly folded and tucked under my bed. I have no parks where women sit in circles to plan protests, there are no benches that invite saree-clad asses, my town does not nurture libraries or spaces where women feel comfortable just as men do. But in the darkness of the town cinema hall, I find a spot to sit alone with myself, without drawing eyes or questions, turning my absence outside into presence and that reassured me.
I took refuge in cinema, especially the ones that depict towns in their full deviousness and unkind spaces, dotted heavily with threatening men that somehow seem more relatable to me. This is how I fell in love with the films of Lijo Jose Pellissery. Despite the heavy flak his movies receive for the scarce women characters and the hypermasculine audience his narratives are aimed at, in his films I see the violence of my hometown that I keep to myself.
His film Angamaly Diaries blew up on-screen the streets I walked to church, the buses I took to school, and the women and men I meet every day, speaking a dialect that is sharp but could be lovable if it tried. The film shows Navya Bakery, an age-old bakeshop with coffee tables overlooking the town, under the humidity of that room in which I nurtured my after-school friendships, a scene where Vincent Pepe breaks up with his girlfriend Sakhi. Sakhi begins to cry and Pepe tells her off rudely, “stop crying, people are watching!”, and at that, I jeer at him from the comfort of my theatre seat.
“People are watching!”
I think about canals that run through my town and the cashew nuts we picked along its banks, the enzyme of them growing a stain in our pocket the same color as our childhoods. Home is where Amma has a routine and Appa has belongings. For many women, moving out of their homes to find spaces that seem to have more action, more freedom, and more break from routines is an uneasy dream.
In the films of Lijo, I find harsh truths and the violence of my unfeminist town that I crush between my fingers every day. The women who have lived here before me had done it, without the privilege of abandoning their hometowns.
Featured Illustration: Ritika Banerjee for Feminism In India