During the 70s, during the art movie craze, we used to see these black and white movies in Doordarshan. Most of these movies would be shot in the dark, and usually nothing happens. Shabana Azmi, Smitha Patil or Nazeeruddin Shah would be sitting and staring at the fire or at the wall for a long time and after about 30 mins, there would be a dialogue or two. These movies were regarded as classy though we did not understand anything at the end. Sharat’s Sheelabathi, starring Kavya Madhavan and Sunil is a movie in that mold which leaves you bored.
The movie beings with the arrival of Sheelabathi (Kavya Madhavan) and her mother Sumangala (Urmila Unni) to Kerala from Bengal. Though her name is Sheelavathi, she says it as Sheelabathi since that’s how it is told in Bengal. Sheelabathi gets a temporary job in the school as a computer teacher and she stays behind with her grand parents. Her grandfather (C.K. Babu) though very old is active in farming. For his treatment Sheelabathi takes him to the local doctor Jeevan (Sunil) and becomes friendly with him. Sheelabathi also mingles with her students and gets to know their problems.
The entire first half consists of non-events.The day after her mother leaves, Sheelabathi gets up from the bed, walks around the house. Then she sits in the corridor for a while. Then she walks upstairs and looks out of the window. Since the plot does not have sub plots, there is not much diversion. So we get to see Sheelabathi teaching Powerpoint (Ellarum program cheythu kanikooo) and taking her grandfather to the hospital more than a few times. The grandfather keeps complaining about farming and you tend to think this movie is about the problems of farmers.
In the second half, the grandfather is ditched. A bore well drilling machine makes its appearance and there is a water shortage in all the wells. People start fighting over scarce water and Sheelabathi remains an observer to this. Then few of Sheelabathi’s female students start disappearing. Some are sexually assaulted and one dies. At this point, we were so confused on what this movie was trying to show. Then in a meeting in the school, parents accuse that it is due to the new teacher’s computer courses that such incidents were happening in the village.
Meanwhile Dr. Jeevan disappears without telling Sheelabathi. He reappears later, but Sheelabathi does not meet him. Then one day Sheelabathi herself disappears. Then the movie ends. As Priyadarshan said in one of his interviews, we have an average brain and could not understand what this movie was all about.
Apart from this confused and aimless story, each of the scenes are boring by itself. In a movie we want to get to know the characters and identify with their problems. In this movie, the scenes are short and ends abruptly. There are no establishing shots nor followups and the camera is usually fixed at one point while people come in and go out of the scene. There is a scene in which the headmaster from the school comes for lunch in Sheelabathi’s house. He chats with her grandparents for a while and leaves. During the entire scene, the camera remains fixed in front of the fridge.
An atom is made up of a small nucleus and electrons orbiting around it. The size of the nucleus is so small that the atom is considered to be almost empty. That is the case of dialogue in the movie, which is just barely a line or two in a vast space of silence. One of the kids stop coming to school and in one scene she is seen walking towards the camera, bored. Sheelabathi comes from the opposite direction, looks at her and says a line like, you should continue studying and walks away. The kid fades away into the background while the camera focuses on a tree leaf. The next scene is something like Sheelabathi sitting in her house and gazing at the sky.
Kavya Madhavan as Sheelabathi has just a few scenes to show her talents since most other scenes are pretty lifeless. In the beginning of the movie, Sheelabathi is seen in Jeans and tops refusing to switch to more traditional dress. She also gives curt replies. As the movie progresses, you see her slowly change. First she changes her dress to churidar and then towards the end she is seen in sarees. While there are changes in the outside, changes happen inside her too. She becomes friendly with villagers and students and finally is able to understand her problems. Kavya has done this part, subtly and very well, but we believe she was able to give much better performance as Ganga in Perumazhakkalam. In this movie she speaks Malayalam with a Bengali accent which would have been irritating if there had been more dialogue. Most of Sunil’s scenes are to chat with Sheelabathi or her grandfather and he has acted more in For The People than this movie.
Anand Balakrishnan has done an good job with the one camera he has. The outdoor scenes are framed very well. Unlike commercial movies which use background music to drum the message into our heads and manipulate our emotions, music is very sparingly used here. The appearance of the drilling machine and the sound it makes upsets the tranquility of the village. The film maker did not use any background music here as the visual and the natural sounds convey to us what is happening. The film has two excellent songs by Ramesh Narayanan. The song Nirayouwanathinte was sweet, but our favourite is Paathira Manal
Water Scarcity, Sexual abuse of girls and the problems facing farmers are serious issues in Kerala and we would love to see good movies which handle these topics well. We read about all these incidents in the newspaper and expect movies dealing with these topics to provide more depth and make an impact on us. Unfortunately, Sheelabathi stays more at stating the facts level. When we started watching the movie we knew about these issues. At the end of the movie we did not learn anything new.
The director, R. Sharath‘s first movie `Sayahnam’ won seven State awards and the Indira Gandhi National Award in 2000. This film was followed by `Sthiti’. He worked as an assistant to Shaji N. Karun in `Piravi,’ `Swam’ and `Vanaprastham.’ After that he made a couple of documentaries.
Using such documentary style of film making for feature film was too boring for us. Currently even for serious topics, viewers expect a crisp narration.We are not big fans of very subtle movies like these and on the face movies like Kathavaseshan. Like Buddha, we prefer the middle path.
Cast: Kavya Madhavan, Sunil, Indrans, Gopinathan, C.K. Babu, Urmila Unni, Sobha Teacher.
Music: Ramesh Narayan
Produced by: Radhakrishnan Nagavally
Directed by: R.Sarath
Cinematography: Anand Balakrishnan
Editing: Unni Vijayan