People have always gone on and on about Mammootty’s breathtakingly handsome looks. Judge me all you want, but I’ve always had trouble seeing this as they have. Till Ram’s Peranbu, that is. I now finally see how glorious he is to behold, and it’s not simply because of the shape of his hairline, the warmth of his face, the life in his eyes, although they all certainly help.
It’s his ability to show Amudhavan, the character he plays in this film, in all his delicious complexity as a human: The frailty, the strength, the prejudices, the empathy… Peranbu—and you can say this about barely a film every year—sheds light on the human condition.
Filmmakers have typically looked to celebrate the human spirit amid loud cheering and thumping music, but director Ram does this through deep silences and quiet conversations, for the most part. This affirmation of life is made evident right at the beginning of the film when Amudhavan, the narrator, says that his motive of documenting his story is to make us all realise that we lead blessed lives.
The temptation is to look at this superficially and conclude that Amudhavan means this in a self-pitying way, after resigning to his life’s challenges—foremost of which is being a single father of a spastic girl. You could conclude that the narrator is suggesting that somehow, our lives are better than his, and you’d be wrong. Peranbu doesn’t judge.
It’s not saying your life is more blessed than Amudhavan’s. It’s saying that our lives, our respective journeys, are all equally important, not one more than other. “Aasirvadhikkapatta vaazhkai,” in the words of Amudhavan.
‘Aasirvadhikkapatta’ is a curious choice of word, for, it begs the question, “By what or whom?” It’s in a sense deterministic, the implication being we are not in control, not of the cards we keep getting dealt with anyway. Director Ram’s answer isn’t a deity, not of the conventional variety. He’s perhaps a pantheist, given how each of the film’s ten chapters reference nature.
Chapter 3 is Iyarkai Kodooramaanadhu (Nature is vicious). Chapter 8 is Iyarkai Irakkamaanadhu (Nature is merciful). Chapter 10 is Iyarkai Vidhigalatradhu (Nature is ruleless). It’s quite clear: Nature isn’t inherently good or bad; it’s simply what it is. And humans, beings of nature, aren’t good or bad; we are what we are. This reluctance to judge, to label people, is a striking feature of Peranbu.
And it’s perhaps necessary if you are indeed to be capable of peranbu (boundless love). If this review seems contemplative, it’s very much in keeping with the nature of this film. Amudhavan is a deeply reflective person, and open to learning and unlearning at a speed unthinkable for many of us.
Peranbu isn’t just about a single father learning to care for his spastic daughter; it’s about what it is to become capable of true love. It’s about what it is to look past constructs like gender and sex. And as Amudhavan discovers, sometimes, loving another person even means hurting oneself.
Peranbu charts the personal—and I’m almost tempted to use that vague word, spiritual—growth of Amudhavan, as he gets purged off a lifetime of acquired prejudices and mistaken notions.
From running away from humanity—literally, as he, along with his daughter, seek refuge in a lonely cabin on the hills—he realises that escaping isn’t the solution, not least for the development of his daughter’s social skills.
It’s the story of a selfish man who neglects his wife, slowly coming to terms with the deep contentment drawn from being selfless.
In a sense, it reminded me of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, and how Jean Valjean, who starts off as a criminal, learns to live and love, while raising his daughter. Ultimately, both stories are about two men who learn to love people for who they are, instead of who they want them to be.
Like when Amudhavan realises that his daughter being unable to count more than three isn’t really a problem when you’re counting something as infinite as stars.
This film is about something as infinite as stars: Love, and what a folly it is to control and curtail and judge in the process. This empathy at the heart of Peranbu is deeply moving—not moving till tears, but beyond.
There are all sorts of ‘bad’ characters populating this world. There are the evidently dislikeable ones like the sand mafia men who try to threaten Amudhavan out of his house on the hills. There’s a female character who deceives, a man who’s shockingly docile in the face of ‘infidelity’.
There’s an elderly woman (Vadivukkarasi) who spits venom. But director Ram isn’t interested in painting a sob story for the two central characters - Amudhavan and his daughter., or drawing your sympathy for them. He’s simply showing that their lives—like all others—are challenging and rewarding and beautiful and ugly, sometimes all at once.
That’s why Paapa’s mother isn’t judged for eloping. In fact, the film goes to great lengths to protect her from our judgment. Sex workers, transgender people, the easily violent… Peranbu won’t judge, and won’t give us fodder to, either.
The film is also beautiful to behold (cinematography by Theni Easwar). The hillstation house naturally lends itself to this, but more impressively, even the congested, unaesthetic rooms Amudhavan and his daughter live in, later in the film, are shot with much love.
Be it the lively yellow mornings of Chapter 2 or the dark desolation of the beach in Chapter 11, Peranbu is evidently the result of high craft. And while on it, I also thoroughly enjoyed the unobtrusive nature of Yuvan Shankar Raja’s music.
A quiet piano bit, once in a while. A guitar being strummed about. Or sometimes, just ambient music. So meditative is Peranbu that I found the occasional song quite offputting. I’d much rather have preferred the festival version that supposedly doesn’t have them.
If I had to nitpick, I would say that some of the life learnings of Amudhavan occur rather rapidly. An incident here and an incident there seem enough to make him unlearn lessons learned over a lifetime, and on occasion, you wonder what about him has primed him for such quick transformation.
While on Amudhavan and his daughter, the film, without making a big fuss, sets about exposing quite a few issues in our society as well. The treatment of transgender folk, the awkwardness over discussing sex, the taboo around masturbation—especially concerning women, a culture that puts men’s needs ahead of women’s… and above all, a distaste for the different.
Peranbu ultimately becomes about three very uniquely different individuals, who are all treated with distaste by society. By the time the film ends, it wasn’t just Mammootty I couldn’t take my eyes off. The spastic daughter and the other person seemed no less beautiful to me.