Chances are that you know a woman like Pallavi Raveendran – full of beans, with a clear vision for her professional career yet a puddle of misplaced devotion, fear and guilt around the man she loves. Pallavi’s boyfriend Govind is a conservative control freak. He wants to be not just her husband but also the boss of her time, her wardrobe and her plans. Women like her are met with incredulity in the public discourse around intimate partner violence aka domestic violence, because most people find it hard to believe that someone so apparently strong could be bulldozed by another human being.
Yet there are Pallavis all around us – the actor with the world at her feet who initially covered up the truth when her famous boyfriend physically abused her, the millionaire pop superstar who took her boyfriend back after he was violent with her, an efficient colleague using makeup to camouflage bruises from her husband’s beatings.
Pallavi in Uyare (High) is on the way to becoming a professional pilot when Govind’s possessiveness brims over. To punish her for straining at the straitjacket in which he seeks to bind her, he throws acid on her face.
That terrible moment comes as a shock even though the promotions have prepared us by letting it be widely known that Uyare is the story of an acid-attack survivor piecing her life back together. The feeling of shock arises despite there being not an atom of sensationalism in the scene, because the narrative is designed to draw the viewer into Pallavi’s dreams and hopes by then. I can speak for myself: I had begun to care.
An acid attack is not a mere gimmick in debutant director Manu Ashokan’s hands. His sensitivity is evident in the way the assault is not treated like a twist in a thriller (the sound design in this portion is stupendous). His achievement lies in the fact that Uyare is not a film about Pallavi’s tragedy, but about her journey up to that point and thereafter.
Uyare has been written by the acclaimed team of Bobby and Sanjay whose empathy for women shines through this soul-shattering yet uplifting film. It is a stark departure from the refrain about all men as paavam victims of inevitably traitorous women that is repeated in most Malayalam films. It is also a break from the trivialisation of harassment by much of mainstream Mollywood. It raises no slogans but its messaging is clear.
The story gives Pallavi supporters not saviours. She shares a heartwarming friendship with her classmate (Anarkali Marikar). And her equation with her new-found pal Vishal Rajashekharan (Tovino Thomas) is stripped of the male messiah complex prevalent in cinema worldwide, of the sort exemplified by that scene in the otherwise progressive recent Hindi film Ek Ladki Ko Dekha Toh Aisa Laga in which Sweety (Sonam Kapoor) tells Sahil (Rajkummar Rao) to find others like her in other towns and “save them too”. In Uyare, no one but Pallavi saves Pallavi.
Uyare’s Vishal needs her as much as she needs him. The graph of their association overturns the global Disney Princess stereotype of women finding their salvation via gallant knights in shining armour on white horses, as it was overturned by Hollywood’s Maleficent and Frozen or their tentative precursor Pretty Woman in that final scene in which Edward (Richard Gere) references a dream that Vivian (Julia Roberts) earlier recounted to him and asks, “So what happened after he (the prince in the dream) climbed up the tower and rescued her?” to which Vivian replies, “She rescues him right back.”
While on the subject of fairytales, Uyare’s only missteps involve its far-fetched optimism about the likely fate of a woman like Pallavi. The public reaction to her after she is disfigured is far kinder than it would be in reality. In Uyare’s sanitised world, the mean passenger who objects to her scarred face not being veiled is a very rare exception. Certainly there is a lot of good out there, but there is evil and selfishness too, the extent of which contradicts the film’s rose-tinted take on humankind in these passages.
This utopian worldview could still be excused, what cannot is the absurdity of two in-flight dramas involving Pallavi. Without giving anything away let’s just say that Pallavi’s reactions in both scenarios are believable, one of them a completely human, spontaneously angry response and the other spurred by a major emergency, (Spoiler alert) but her airline’s subsequent leniency towards her and the national civil aviation authorities’ silence are not just improbable, they are downright ridiculous. (Spoiler alert ends)
It is difficult to understand why Bobby and Sanjay authored such silly interludes in an otherwise intelligent, credible storyline. In the rest of the film, they get not just the larger picture right, but also the thoughtful, well-observed details with which they pepper their screenplay. Like the manner in which they demonstrate the psychological benefit of distance in an oppressive relationship. Or a man blaming his own demanding career and neglectful parenting for his child’s wayward ways instead of pointing fingers at the mother, as is the standard practice. Or a judge allowing his ego to overrule humanity.
That this is a thinking film is evidenced by the respect it shows its primary audience – that is, the Malayalam-speaking Malayali based in Kerala – by embedding Malayalam subtitles in the print for its occasional English and Hindi dialogues. This is in addition to the overlay of English subs throughout.
Uyare sets up its story very well. It conjures up an unnerving atmosphere right from the start as we are introduced to Pallavi’s charms and Govind’s surly watchfulness. This is in no small measure due to the film’s pale grey-blue-brown-black-and-white palette and low-key tenor. Though the narrative could have done without that long romantic song before Pallavi leaves Kerala for her flying academy in Mumbai, the mood is set.
It helps that cinematographer Mukesh Muraleedharan approaches Pallavi with dignity, as he does the other survivors in their brief appearance. At no point is his camera’s gaze on them exploitative and calculated to titillate. The manner in which Muraleedharan’s lens looks at Pallavi after she is injured is akin to a friend who is determined not to divert his gaze yet also not to stare, who wants not to be hurtful yet not to cause discomfort either.
Ashokan and the writers could not have found a better cast or team of technicians to translate their vision on screen.
Siddique is beautifully restrained as a father struggling to hide his heartbreak from his daughter. So is Prem Prakash playing Govind’s Dad. The scene of a confrontation between the two gentlemen and Pallavi is written, directed and acted to near perfection.
Tovino Thomas plays cute well, as we know from Mayaanadhi, Godha and other films, but he also knows how not to allow cute to spill over into cloying. The challenge for him in Uyare is to make a somewhat immature, needy, insecure character not irritating but loveable, and he strikes a fine balance with Vishal.
The find of Uyare is Asif Ali. Though this young actor has been around for a decade and is a star, I have rarely found him remarkable. As Govind, however, he is exceptional. The easy thing would have been to overact this character as an overtly repulsive fellow, instead Ali makes us fear him. There is something volcanic about his Govind, as if lava is simmering just below his skin and will pour out of his pores any moment.
At the centre of this constellation of talents is a genius. Parvathy’s superpower is her ability to mutate into the persons she plays, erasing all reminders of her bodily presence in the character. This is not an actor in the role of a survivor, she IS that survivor.
Uyare’s world-class prosthetics and make-up team handles part of the physical after-effects of a corrosive substance being thrown at Pallavi’s face, Parvathy takes care of the rest. Her body language is transformative in an indefinable way, her emotions under-stated but profoundly felt. When she briefly explodes with rage at a regressive suggestion made in court, she barely raises her voice yet the force of her feelings is palpable.
Parvathy and her co-stars are a major reason why it is possible to look past the glitches in the second half of Uyare. Manu Ashokan and Bobby-Sanjay’s film is a searing portrait of an indestructible woman and a fitting tribute to the resilience of the human spirit.