During a recent event in Kochi, actor Kamal Haasan brought up a point on the rising intolerance in the country, and mentioned the name of two films which, if made today, would most likely get banned. One was his own Hey Ram (also directed by him) and the other was MT Vasudevan Nair's Nirmalyam.
Though it has been a while since I've seen Nirmalyam — I had forgotten some of the images from the film — Kamal's statement compelled me to revisit it. The second viewing gave me a jolt. I don't remember experiencing the same thing during my first viewing. I guess it's the awareness of the fact that our country's present climate doesn't encourage filmmakers to do something this bold and groundbreaking. And Kamal's question kept repeating in my mind: Would a film like this get made today?
It's a miracle that Nirmalyam exists today, that too without a single cut. It's incredible to think that people were more tolerant back then (it was released in 1973). Imagine the furore this film would create if it were made in this day and age, when a filmmaker was forced to change the title just because it has the word 'Sexy' along with 'Durga' in it; when author S Hareesh was forced to withdraw his novel Meesha because a piece of dialogue in it hurt someone's sentiments. You would probably hear about the manhandling of MT Vasudevan Nair by some right-wing Hindu activists on the film's set. Unlike Padmaavat, I bet this film wouldn't even see the light of day.
And if MT were asked to release the films with cuts -- especially the two crucial scenes that would be deemed offensive by the nationalists today -- it would completely rip out the soul of the film. If that were the case, it would be better to release it online. One scene has a couple making love inside the premises of a temple; and another has the lead character, a velichapaadu (oracle), played by PJ Antony, spitting at the statue of a goddess.
Maybe, if released today, we can imagine the film with a shorter version of the lovemaking scene, in spite of the fact that it's not explicit. But what about the spitting? Is there another way to photograph that scene? Maybe there is; but would it carry the same impact? The film is about a man whose self-destruction is brought on by his staunch devotion to his deity.
First, the velichapaadu's son (Sukumaran) turns into an atheist because he hasn't been able to secure a job; and his father is unable to send him anywhere else because he doesn't have the means to cover his travel expenses. Naturally, the son can't stand the sight of his father. With no other option, he prepares to sell his father's sickle-shaped sword, chilambu, and aramani -- an action which greatly upsets his father. And in the final scenes, the velichapaadu learns that his wife has slept with his Muslim money lender -- her only solution to compensate for her husband's mounting debts. The man finally breaks.
And what better way to convey the devastating after-effect of this distasteful turn of events than to show him desecrating his place of worship with a remarkably disturbing ferocity. And who better than PJ Antony to play the velichapaadu? Antony was one of those few actors who possessed that rare ability to convey a lot even while sporting a blank expression. Throughout the film, there is an unpredictability to his performance that makes the finale much more terrifying and haunting than it actually is.