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13. A Trail by Fire
     Vinu Abraham, The Week, 18th October 1998

Tele-filmmaker Shyamaprasad's foray into the big screen with Agnisakshi

The eternal quest for inner peace, born out of disillusionment in life, is what Agnisakshi is all about. Tele film maker Shyamaprasad's maiden big-screen venture is based on an award- winning novel of the same name by noted Malayalam writer Lalithambika Antharjanam. It is the saga of a woman, Devaki, who rises in revolt from the confines of her decadent society and her journey to self realization. Through Devaki, the film also seeks to explore the pre-independence era society of the Nampoodiris, the Brahmins of Kerala.

Agnisakshi unfolds through the reminiscences of Thangam Nair (Praveena). During a pilgrimage to Hardwar, she meets Sumithrananda, a sanyasin, played by Shobhana, who evokes memories of her long lost teenage friend Devaki, called Thethi in Nampoothiri parlance. The sanyasin refuses to recognize Thangam.

Thangam remembers Thethi as the wife of the gentle and spiritually inclined Unni (Rajit Kapoor) of Manampalli Illom, a Namboodiri household. Apphan Nampoothiri (Madampu Kunjukuttan), the elder brother of Unni, symbolized the authoritarian patriarchy of the era. The women in the family were confined to the dark corridors of the illam. Thethi, too, was spared. Her only solace was Thangam, Apphan's daughter in his relationship with a Nair woman.

Those were the years when several reformists within the society came forward to liberate the Namboodiri women. Thethi, unhappy with her life in the illam, left her marital home to join one of these movements. Meanwhile, Thangam married a wealthy Nair youth and set up home in north India. She would often hear of Devaki Manampalli, the reformist and freedom fighter, and knew it was her friend Thethi. The next stage in Thethi's quest was Gandhiku's ashram where she became Devi behan; she soon left the place following some bitter experience. In search of elusive tranquility, she embraced sanyaas and became Sumithrananda to set up ashram at Hardwar.

Unni, who spent the rest of his days in solitude studying scriptures, had all the while preserved Thethi's mangalsutra as a reminder of their short matrimony. This, before dying, he had handed over to Thangam asking her to give it to Thethi or if unable to trace her, immerse it in the Ganga.

The film reverts from the flash back when Sumithrananda receives Thangam in her ashram and accepts the mangallsutra. She melts the gold in fire, a sing of atonement, and gives it to Thangam's granddaughter.

The film, which was recently premiered at the 51 day-long Surya Twentieth anniversary film, video, dance and music festival at Thiruvananthapuram, has been faithful to the novel in following the same sequence of events, flashbacks and almost the same dialogues. More importantly, the film accomplishes a better and detailed treatment of Unni by highlighting the thematic preoccupation of the novel-spiritual quest over materialistic pursuits.

By choosing a popular novel of the 70s, much acclaimed for its theme than craft, as the plot for his first big screen venture, Shyamaprasad has to some extent succeeded in kindling the curiosity of the viewers, especially those familiar with the novel. But this also makes him prone to scrutiny and criticism.

Though conforming to the novel is commendable, it seems to deprive the film of new thematic explorations and prevents the director, whose Malayalam telefilms Nilavariyunnu and Uyirthezhunnelppu have won international acclaim, from experimenting with the craft. Also, the few songs in the film seem out of place.

Azhakappan's camera makes the film a visual treat by absorbing the dim-lit interiors which effectively symbolize the period in which the story is set.

Scripted by Shyamaprasad himself, the film offers ample insight into the characters, their worldly struggles and their efforts to find peace within.

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