Reel Review: Sancharram - The Journey - Ponni Arasu

Ponni Arasu

About three years ago, the now director of Sancharram, Ligy Pullapally told some of us with glee on her face – ‘I want to make a movie about two Mallu girls falling in love and runnin’ around trees in Kerala’. Little did we know at the time that she would actually go ahead and make it.

Sancharram, a breath of fresh air in Indian cinema is the story of two Malayali (the people of the South Indian state of Kerala are Malayalis, affectionately called Mallus) women – Kiran and Delilah – in high school falling in love with each other. The film is set in the background of Kerala, ‘God’s own country’, with its lush greens, rivers and ponds and with all its romance. The two girls, Delilah (Shruiti Menon) – the lively, popular, and naughty one, and, Kiran (Suhasini Nair) – the quiet, introspective, potential writer, are childhood friends and find themselves passionately attracted to each other. The story is, for the most part, about how the protagonists deal with this attraction and their families’ reactions to it.

The film is contextualized within the social and religious scenario in Kerala. While the love story of the two girls is highlighted, it is juxtaposed with other stories such as that of a Hindu-Muslim heterosexual couple in the same class in school. Delilah and Kiran themselves are an inter-religious couple (Christian and Hindu).

Sancharram also addresses issues relating to sexuality as a whole in our society through the figure of another girl in their class who seems to have been ‘betrayed’ by her boyfriend. It is this girl who expresses a sliver of support to Kiran while they are being ostracized by their peers. The comic relief in the movie is the subtle comic critique of heterosexual norms expressed in many ways but embodied in the good Malayali boy – Rajan (clearly an apt name for a boy who also acts like ‘the king’) who is in love with Delilah. The parents find out about the relationship between Delilah and Kiran, partially through Rajan, and all hell breaks loose.

Long ago Kiran’s subversive foremother had eloped with a poorer man and cherished a fragile bangle that was a simple ‘gift of love’ in the midst of all the glittering gold. This becomes the symbol of Kiran’s love for Delilah. This gives both Kiran and her love story a profoundly majestic character. Delilah’s grandmother, the only daughter of a rich Christian family in Kerala, is alone in standing up for her granddaughter’s happiness, while however, not saying anything about her relationship with Kiran. This proves to be a touching moment in the film expressing simple warmth and love that is beyond the ‘normal’, ‘abnormal’, hetero-sexual, homosexual and so on. However naïve it may sound, many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) people in our country know that often this can be the only basis for even a semblance of acceptance and support in our families.

Sancharram has to be seen in the context of the history of the representation of LGBT people in Indian Cinema. Apart from the famous Bobby Darling (the real name of the actor who has often played the effeminate gay character in mainstream Hindi cinema) – the eternal gay best friend of the hero who feels up the latter’s biceps – gay men have been seen in movies such as Mango Soufflé, Rules-Pyaar Ka Superhit Formula (Rules –The Superhit Love Formula) and in a comic and yet not-so-offensive manner in Kal Ho Na Ho (Whether Tomorrow Comes or Not). Hijras have always been part of our popular cinema as comic relief, and cross dressing by men is another popular trend. Hijras as protagonists and as a community have been seen in movies such as Shabnam Mausi (Aunt Shabnam) and Navrasa (Nine Emotions). Lesbians are remembered most maybe because they were seen the most, or seen only in Fire, Girlfriend and now Sancharram. The first two films were released commercially while Sancharram could not be released in Kerala as the director had planned. The distributors were not willing to take the risk. Cinema halls have thus perhaps been spared from being burnt down by Hindu fundamentalists as was the case with Fire. Sancharram is now doing the rounds of the film festival circuit and has won much acclaim. We hope some day that it will be released in theatres. 

The basic difference between Fire (two north Indian women in oppressive marriages as the protagonists), Girlfriend (two north Indian young women – a ‘man-hater’ and a confused heterosexual woman – as protagonists) and Sancharram, is that Sancharram is more sound in placing its protagonists within a very specific context. Also, the filmmaker has held on to many aspects of mainstream Malayalam cinema. The camera, screenplay and music are in a style that is of most films in Malayalam. She tells a love story without losing the strengths of mainstream cinema in Kerala and yet not compromising on the nuances that come with the fact that it is two women who are in love. The strength of the film is this balance because of which one can hope for a good commercial run in Kerala. The assumed titillation at the mention of any kind of overt sexuality will also ensure that audiences come in. The chances of it seeing a commercial release are bleak, but one can always hope!

One often wonders what ‘queer’ portrayals in film would look like. Sancharram can be a case in point. It is the story of two women portrayed in a way that can make it appeal to all those who might be in romantic relationships that don’t fall strictly within the accepted norms of gender and sexuality. It can appeal to those for whom mainstream portrayals of romance so far have been restrictive and thus unappealing. Even the mildly jarring abstract dance sequence in Sancharram does not take away from the simple way in which the relationship is built up in the film.

At the end of the day it is a well made film showing a heart-warming love story with all its struggles and beauty. From the perspective of visibility of lesbians in this country, Sancharram is a welcome addition that captures the struggles of lesbians without excluding broader issues of gender and sexuality.

In short, Sancharram with its brilliant cinematography, the music that lingers long after, the gorgeous backdrop and good acting by everyone especially the two women with character is a must watch with one or many special someone(s)!

Ponni Arasu works at CREA (Creating Resources for Empowerment in Action) in New Delhi. She identifies as a queer feminist activist and is also a member of the Nigah Media Collective that initiates discussions around gender and sexuality by using various kinds of media.