Blog | Sukrutham: Why This 1994 Malayalam Film Should Be Your Weekend Watch

A still from Sukrutham

A still from Sukrutham

It is often said that every Malayali film connoisseur is a wannabe filmmaker. The International Film Festival of Kerala promoted by the state government, for instance, has been a big draw for Kerala's film buffs since it was founded in 1996. Before OTT platforms dominated the film landscape, cinephiles used to make a beeline for such festivals to watch foreign-language movies. In fact, well before that, there were film societies and art clubs bringing avant-garde films to even small towns in Kerala.

Malayalam cinema seems to be finally realising its potential in the age of streaming, but the 'new wave' makers of today owe their filmmaking chops to the older generation, especially the class of the '70s. The likes of G. Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, John Abraham are a few gems from that era. This was an age when films from the state regularly vied for top honours with Bengali cinema for national awards.

Why Harikumar Was One Of His Kind

And then there were maestros such as P.N. Menon, K.G. George and Padmarajan, who made middle-of-the-road films that won critical and mass acclaim in equal measure. Ace director Harikumar, who passed away at the age of 68 last week, straddled that middle path. But there is something more unique to him: he traversed the distance between a connoisseur and a filmmaker seamlessly. Harikumar's passion for films was so compelling that it wasn't long before he became a filmmaker himself. There's a story to it too.

It was a chance meeting with ace director George that changed the destiny of Harikumar, then a government servant with the town planning department in Kollam. George was struck by the sheer attention to detail in a cinema review written by Harikumar of his film Swapnadanam (1976). And so, he decided to meet Harikumar in person, a meeting that ended up inspiring the latter to try his hand at filmmaking.

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However, unlike George, a graduate from Pune's Film and Television Institute of India, Harikumar neither had formal training in filmmaking nor had he ever assisted a director. In the simplest of terms, he was a novice, but his keen observation and passion for cinema meant that Harikumar would eventually take to filmmaking like a duck to water. What set him apart was the fact that he was an avid reader, which helped him choose unique subjects and treat them interestingly. His debut film Aambalpoovu (1981) was written by the Sahitya Akademi Award winner Perumbadavam Sreedharan, who many years later recalled that Harikumar never struck him as a newcomer while doing Aambalpoovu

The Golden '90s

Harikumar soon went on to work with many prominent writers in the Kerala film industry. He wrote both screenplays and dialogues for some of his early films, notably Ayanam (1985), where he collaborated with John Paul. Two other films, Jalakam (1987) and Oozham (1988), were collaborations with noted poet Balachandran Chullikkad. But it was the '90s that brought the best out of the director in him.

Harikumar did just three films - Ezhunnallathu (1991), Sukrutham (1994) and Udyanapalakan (1996) - that decade but they all stood out for their stories. If Ezhunnallathu is about a young man's search for his older brother, an illegitimate child, Udyanapalakan is about a grumpy ex-serviceman tending to his garden in a typical village setting and the relationship he develops with a young girl moving in next door.

Of Love, Loss And Life

It is Sukrutham though that remains Harikumar's most memorable film. Of course, this was also on account of its terrific screenplay by the accomplished M.T. Vasudevan Nair, whose vision could be translated fully on-screen by the director. Sukrutham's opening shot takes us to a hospital where the protagonist, Ravishankar, essayed by Mammootty, is undergoing treatment for terminal blood cancer.
Ravishankar's young wife, Malini (played by Gowthami), and their common friend, Rajendran (Manoj K. Jayan), are by his side, but when Ravishankar realises his days are numbered, he expresses his wish to move back to his ancestral village and spend his last days there. There, he is cared for by his childhood sweetheart, Durga (Shanthi Krishna).

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Ravishankar's impending death takes a toll on everyone around him, including the protagonist, who, in a moment of weakness, persuades Malini to move on and get hitched to Rajendran after his passing. The more time Ravishankar spends in his ancestral home, the more the grief of what could've been engulfs him. Then comes a twist: an old doctor-friend of his coaxes him to undergo a different kind of therapy at the latter's wellness centre. There's only one condition: a strong urge to live is imperative for this treatment to succeed. Perhaps partly influenced by the days he spent in his village, Ravishankar is cured miraculously within a few months. 

But a sombre jolt awaits him when he tries to start life afresh. In his ancestral home, he is rebuffed by Durga, who says she was merely taking pity on him. Malini has gone ahead and has planned a life with Rajendran; both resent his return. Back at his newspaper office, Ravishankar is told that his deputy has taken over his cubicle. What's more, he finds an obituary tucked neatly inside a drawer. Ravishankar edits it himself, and the piece makes it to print the next day.

In the final scenes, as the end credits roll, Ravishankar is seen walking toward a dark railway tunnel with the sound of a speeding train approaching him in the background.

A Film That Leaves You With Existential Questions

Sukrutham stays with you long after you watch it, leaving you with complex existential questions. M.T. Vasudevan Nair has dealt with similar themes of death and mortality in films like Aalkkoottathil Thaniye (1984), albeit in different settings. The climax sequence of Bandhanam (1978), written and directed by him, ended with the pronouncement: "For the sin of your birth, you are condemned to live till you die".

Not surprisingly, and perhaps symbolically, Harikumar named his Thiruvananthapuram home after Sukrutham, the film he came to be best known for. He reasoned that the movie marked his identity as a filmmaker for all times.

Swayamvara Panthal (2000), another memorable film by him, may have had some shades of Balu Mahendra's 1982 Tamil film Moondram Pirai (remade in Hindi as Sadma), but it didn't have the same tragic ending. That, ironically, might have robbed its lead, Jayaram, of the state award he won for the Best Second Actor.

Harikumar did not manage to make such films post that phase, though he remained very much active in Mollywood as a director and national film award jury member. Only a couple of years back, he had made a comeback with Autorickshakkarante Bharya, adapted from writer M. Mukundan's story, once again underlining how much Malayalam literature influenced his choices.

Malayalam cinema is seeing a blockbuster year with films like Manjummel Boys, Aadujeevitham Aavesham, Premalu, Bhramayugam et al winning plaudits today not just in Kerala but even nationally. A lot of history has gone into this journey, shaped and nurtured by filmmakers like Harikumar, the man who followed his dream and remained true to it till the very end. 

(Anand Kochukudy is a senior journalist and columnist)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author