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05. Document of a disturbing era
     The Hindu, 6th August 1999, by K Santhosh

Shyamaprasad's 'Agnisakshi', a bold statement on the social status of Namboodiri women, won the National Award for Best Malayalam film.

Comparisons are odious. Nevertheless, screen adaptations of literary classics are unfailingly matched against the originals.

Exclusive appraisal may not be uncommon for the Malayalam feature film, 'Agnisakshi', directed by Shyamaprasad for the literary classic by Lalithambika Antharjanam on which it is based, has been the favorite of two or three generations of Malayalis.

To the director's credit, the novel and the film are not as like as two peas in a pod. The film is distinctive, yet it dexterously conjures up the spirit of teh novel, which documents a disturbing chapter in Kerala's social history, and chronicles some of the heart rending incidents in the claustrophobic Namboodiri illoms (houses). Antharjanam had described her work as 'satyakatha' (a true story).

Shyamaprasad's work was recently selected for the National Award for Best Malayalam film of 1998. Earlier, it had won 8 State Awards (including that for the Best Director), Asianet special prize and the Aravindan Puraskaram.

'Agnisakshi' is as much the story of the misdeeds of the forward classes, disintegration of the feudal order, nationalism and the rise of bourgeoisie after Independence, as it about the complexities of man-woman relationship, assertion of woman power, and the conflicts between the temporal and the spiritual.

Running the entire gamut of social, political and inter-personal issues is the transformation of the heroine (Sobhana) of the movie from a progressive girl married into an orthodox family, to a revolutionary who plunges into the freedom struggle, and finally to a penitent in a Himalayan ashram.

The evolution from Thethikutty to Devaki behn to Sumitrananda has not been forced but rather effected by force of circumstance. Witnessing these changes is Thangam (Praveena - Sreevidya), her husband's cousin and her only companion in teh cruel, compassionless illom.

Thethikutty finds her husband, Unni Namboodiri (Rajat Kapoor), a personification of all virtues, but one with a tragic flaw - of being obsessed with the other-worldly.

Her endless wait in her chamber, as her husband is closeted from dawn to dusk in the puja room, drives her to desperation. Hear her comments.

"Ihathinukollathavar parathinum kollukayilla" (those who are worthless in this world will be the same in the other too); "Pathujanmam pattiyayi piranallum Namboodiri illathil pennavarathu" (even ten births as a dog may not be able equal to living as a woman in a Namboodiri family)

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