Can an individual love two different persons at the same time? What does the word ‘love’ with its several connotations mean when one touches the autumn of one’s life? It is apt that a greying state discovers that romance exists beyond youth and so Pranayam follows a movie like Salt N' Pepper – from middle aged romance to old aged romance.
Pranayam is set in an urbane backdrop where a married woman meets her ex-husband after several years and then she and her husbands (current and ex) forge a relationship that enriches and heals their lives. The protagonists are all well over the hill physically but they carry the same pangs of emotions that youngsters have. The presence of two men and a woman does not make it a triangular love story; yes, there are hidden tensions and jealousies which however evaporate quickly enough because of the progress of time.
Achutha Menon (Anupam Kher) is a lively and childlike character who takes joy in small things in life but considers himself a loser, both professionally and personally. He lives a lonely, almost nomadic life with his son Suresh (Anoop Menon) throughout his life. They both find emotional solace in each other but Menon is never able to overcome the void created by his divorce. Meeting his wife Grace (Jaya Prada) after several years touches a raw chord and sets the ball rolling for a relationship which acts as a healing for years of suppressed emotions. It is a quiet little performance and the gracefulness and chirpiness that Anupam brings to the character makes the audience largely root for him; however, I did think that Rizabawa’s dubbing seemed a little heavy at times for Kher.
Mathews (Mohan Lal) is bedridden and needs his wife’s help on a day-to-day basis to accomplish most tasks but their love is just as robust as ever. As a retired Professor of Philosophy, he is a man of words and this gives the director the opportunity to give him the best lines. He is an intellectual who immerses his life in books and music after he suffers a stroke that paralyses him one side. He is less despondent than Menon and believes in living life to the fullest and has a sense of self-assuredness, despite his disability. A lesser actor may have been easily carried away and gone overboard but Lal is marvellously restrained as he achieves a delicate balance between the dramatic and understated overtones of his performance.
Grace’s silence and eyes speak more than her words which are measured and uncertain. She is unsure of her emotions and is caught in an inner turmoil at being in a situation between the two most important men in her life. She is an unblemished beautiful woman with vulnerabilities who tries to balance her conflicting sense of emotions. She is just about comfortable going along with the flow of life with the knowledge that the love of Mathews will ensure that she is on the right path. The quiet, unassuming dignity which goes along with the pain and guilt of a tortured soul that Jaya Prada brings to the character makes it a fabulous performance.
The first half is raw and lingers aimlessly at times and it is only in the second half that the movie settles firmly on a saddle. The younger generation romance of Menon and Grace does not fit in with the scheme of things; considering that Blessy does not take pains to explain the real marital conflict that they faced, this phase of events has no real meaning in the movie. The younger generations get a raw deal and their characters are undermined at the expense of the protagonists, something that could have been avoided.
Blessy actually does well in not trying to get into the nitty gritties of the past – all the conflicts of the past have no meaning now as they live life in the twilight zone. The only hints that we get at the problems that they had reflect out of the assessment of the characters at different points – like Mathews saying that Grace is always enthusiastic at the beginning of every venture but unwilling to take it to completion or Grace remarking that it is so typical of Menon to make much of a fuss about things which later on turn out to very insignificant.
The relationship between the three characters is fascinating and a courageous one for the director because he steps into an area infested with social taboos. But the script ensures that the sanctity of marriage and the thought of love outside marriage do not come into conflict with each other (something that Mathews reminds Grace when he says Alassamayi thurannitta vaathililoode pranayam ariyathe kadannu varum).
There are no simple solutions to past mistakes but hard truths that need to be accepted – something that the three of them slowly accept but the society finds difficult to understand. However, the battle lines, so as to say, are initially drawn – the first time Mathews meets Menon, he clearly asserts his role by conspicuously exhibiting affection towards his wife which she reciprocates later on when she refuses to accompany Menon to a place without her husband.
Guilt is a critical feeling that drives the plot along with the emotion of love. Menon carries the guilt of taking away his son from his wife and not doing enough to sustain their marriage life while Grace shares an equal sense of despondency at having lost her family. In a brooding moment, while throwing stones into the sea, Menon explains that the second throw always goes further than the first because there is a determination to better the first throw the next time – a nod to the success of Grace’s marriage.
Mathews understands that while his wife remains faithful to him, she cannot overcome the truth of Menon being the first man in her life; there is a small pain that he carries (manassil oru karadu) that he wishes to heal when Menon re-enters their lives. The movie ends on a sad and surprising note; was it the sudden outburst of long held pains and emotions or a sense of guilt or a sense of relief that brought about the sudden finale? The cynical side of me was asking whether the ending was a throwback to the 70s and 80s when deliberate tragedies were the hallmark of Malayalam cinema.
There is a genuine absence of melodrama which helps Pranayam convey its emotions very delicately to us without taking any sides. When Grace and Menon meet each other, there is no avalanche of words or music; it is a quiet gentle talk between two persons who have suddenly run into each other after years of running away from each other. It is due to the maturity zone that they find themselves in that any talk about the past or current situation is without any rancour or anger – it is an almost peaceful understanding that things need not have been this way if only…Even when there is a demise at the end, the emotions remain under wraps and quite subdued (echoing Mathew’s comment that death is not an abrupt end, but rather a gradual progression towards an inevitability where we die every minute).
The script however stutters when it deliberately tries to elevate their love for each other by drawing our attention to the next generations. Blessy goes ballistic in his treatment of Mathew’s daughter and son-in-law who seem to be present in the movie only to create a sense of anger of tension, even when there is no room for it. The need to create an antagonistic environment just to justify certain actions is unwarranted and does not jell with the rest of the mood of the movie.
Watching Pranayam reminded me of MTs Oru Cheru Punchiri where the ripening of old age is celebrated by the small quarrels and dialogues between the old couple in the movie; by contrast, Blessy invests less in the dialogues and focuses on the visuals that accompany Mathew and Grace in their relationship. Their body language, touches and affectionate gestures also drive a similar point but with a greater visual impact; even physical intimacy is conveyed which is rather unusual for Indian filmmakers who shy away from bringing the thought of sex after a certain age.
Even when Grace and Menon come together, there is just that slight degree of discomfort which submerges slowly into the wave of emotions that drives the two people. Towards the end, even when they hug each other, it comes across as a natural gesture without creating any guilt in anyone’s mind.
Love, old age and death are central themes in Pranayam and in unison they create a silent melody that lingers along for most of the movie. At a social level, the movie tries to understand love at multiple levels – between a man and woman, husband and wife, son and father and one man and another. Sadly, the word love has such a superficial presence in our vocabulary that we limit its boundaries and restrict it. Does every relationship need to be limited by coining a word for it? Can love not exist simply in absolute terms as an abstract emotion that we will never fully be able to comprehend because of the narrowness of our vision?
Pranayam is arguably Blessy’s most accomplished and ambitious movie so far. An unhurried plot that sweeps gently along with fabulous performances makes it a treat. Nevertheless, I reckon that the movie would have a very polarizing set of audience - for or against types and is not everyone's cup of tea.
P.S In an interview, Blessy mentioned that when the story was narrated to the 2Ms, Mammootty was keen to do Menon’s role while Lal was interested in Mathew’s role!!! Interesting thought that..