The social, sexual and emotional states of a widow in the Indian context is very often an unexplored yet demanding topic for discussion. Neeraja (2023), the recently released Malayalam movie attempts to delve into such dimensions of womanhood, seeking answers and giving reasons. This is the second directorial venture of Rajesh K. Raman after Shakespeare M.A. Malayalam (2008). It is the remake of the national award winning Kannada movie Nathicharami (2018).
The storyline follows the life a newly widowed woman Neeraja in her late twenties battling through her depressive mental states. Her battling is non-conclusive since she dictates herself no redemption from her romantic life with Alex, her deceased husband. But at the same time, she strives to move on in life with the happy moments of her married life. This paradox of her existence continues to invite troubles from strangers, family and friends.
Independent life and mental toll on women
With the coming of modernity, self-love, individual freedom and independent life are cluttered to the ideological realm of persona. But it largely lacks depth and understanding and usually serves only to mask the old ways. Neeraja (2023) also brings up the same issue where the lead character played by Shruti Ramachandran stumbles upon the milestones laid down by the patriarchal society.
Though financially independent, Neeraja becomes a pitiful sight for the people around her. The still-continuing blindness of the societal eyes which see an independent and energetic woman as simply incomplete or empty bodied without her spouse is the main understatement throughout. Her beauty, youth and untamed sexuality is viewed as a source of horror or something which is capable of destroying goodness and trudging it into the abyss of evil.
Neeraja, throughout the movie, remains caught up between these two extremes, wanting to keep her promise of faithfulness to her deceased soul mate Alex and badly wanting to give up her obsession with Alex. All these combined with no emotional support from family or close friends cause Neeraja to continue living in a world of imaginations and memories. It becomes sort of an obsessive-compulsive disorder and she hoards everything that belonged to Alex, trying to live just like she did in the old days with him.
Neeraja’s consultations with the psychologist is the only new array of hope for her. He slowly understands her and her rigidity with her vows to Alex. Though the psychologist tries to understand her, he cannot measure the depth of her thoughts or dreams. He simply blabbers away her needs as wantings of the body, whereas her soul is dismissed and casted away like the society that disregards a woman without a man.
Neglected sexuality of widows in Neeraja
During the initial release of the movie, the film crew confirmed the neglected sexuality of widows or widowers as the main theme of the movie. But owing to many factors like the script, dialogues, themes, conflict, male script writer and director, etc. the movie could go nowhere near its promises.
One of the two bold acts in the movie are Neeraja’s choice to go for self-pleasure devices and another being her act of blind dating. In the former, the movie has tried to free the taboo surrounding the use of techniques that are wholly condemned by patriarchal society, trying to blow an air of normalcy to it. And as for the case of the latter, blind dating is introduced as a new dating technique, to re-learn the idea that sexual desires thrives and blooms even in widowed persons.
But the movie has failed to completely address these issues in their full-fledged manner, addressing them only by standing at the periphery of thoughts. It is because Neeraja does not become successful in either of these attempts, namely blind dating or self-pleasure devices. It is due to the patriarchal strain of morality posed by the male scripter writer over the lead character that creates the issue.
Meera vs Neeraja
Meera is a foil to the lead character and wife of Arun, who later develops friendship and a sexual relationship with Neeraja. Arun and Meera are a couple in which Arun is unloving and Meera is devoted. Arun is presented as a typical patriarch with double standards. He marries Meera in an arranged mode of marriage and being more inclined towards the material dimension, he disrespects and dismisses off Meera as an unwanted, useless woman. The couple being childless, Meera looks up to Arun as her only happiness in life, subduing to him as far as she could. Her sincere attempts to win back his love, often copying the ways of Neeraja to express her love and adoration for him face pitiful. On the other hand, Arun initially seems to have respect and admiration for Neeraja until she directly approaches him for her needs.
The script writer and director Rajesh K. Raman in his attempts to focus on the unsaid sexuality and independence of widows has unconsciously created a victim in Meera. More than half of the movie upholds the struggles and mental trauma of Neeraja who becomes the focus of action. In trying to hold to her identity and fidelity to the deceased Alex, she foregoes and consciously neglects the impact each of her acts has on Meera and her marital life. When the psychologist asks Neeraja to find someone of her taste, she picks up much older Arun who obviously seems to be married. She befriends him and establishes an emotional connection before she could ask him to satisfy her needs. In all these, she never considers the consequences of her decision on the other women around her. Or, more conveniently Neeraja practices internalised sexism and even gaslights Arun into thinking that what she asks of him is her right.
Commodification of bodies in Neeraja
Even when everyone claims highly that sex is a bodily need, none can refute the fact that it is hugely colored by love and affection in most circumstances. When it happens in the absence of these, it becomes a process of commodification of bodies with or without rewards. Therefore, the words of the unnamed man that she picks up in the blind date becomes relevant. He says ‘. . . the feeling of being used is not exclusive to women alone, we also feel the same. . . liking, love, lust cannot be created from nothing. . .’ (46: 10 – 46:23).
Similarly, Meera protests against this same act of commodification when Arun approaches her for his bodily needs. She says ‘. . . do you think I am a television that you could switch on and off as you wish. . . do you remember when you hugged and kissed me lately? . . . I am just the one meant for washing, dishing or mopping. . .’ (1: 25: 19 – 1:25:27). Arun brushes it aside saying that she still believes they are living in their honeymoon period and demands her to think reasonably. Through his response, he tries to condition Meera into thinking this is the case everywhere and it is totally normal whereas, the very opposite happens to Neeraja on her date.
Here it is the understanding and wisdom of Chithra, the domestic help of Neeraja that stands the ground. She advices Neeraja to slowly forget Alex by giving tiny changes at first. Further, she reassures Neeraja that love, affection or spending time together is not enough but, understanding and loyalty are required to make any relationship to work out.
The movie ends on the next day after Neeraja’s intimate time with Arun and all of a sudden, his desire of her and her obsession with the memories of Alex seem to fade away too quickly and unrealistically. In conclusion, the movie gets narrowed down to the label of a fresh attempt on a neglected theme.