In his sophomore venture, Daayam (Inheritance), Prasanth Vijay tiptoes gently and noiselessly into the inner world of a girl dealing with the premature death of her mother. The result is a subtle, mellow study of bereavement and its upshots.
The independent Malayalam-language film makes a sharp departure from the conventions of the coming-of-age genre. It uses the muted and delicate narrative approach of the kind that marked the director’s critically acclaimed 2017 debut, The Summer of Miracles.
Scripted by Indu Lakshmi (who wrote and directed Nila), the melancholic slice-of-life drama had its world premiere this week at the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival 2023 and is part of the Malayalam Cinema Today strand of the upcoming 28th International Film Festival of Kerala.
Daayam, which benefits enormously from the director’s steadfast avoidance of simplistic methods of storytelling, homes in on highschooler Kalyani (a wonderfully effective Aathira Rajeev) and her engineer-father Vijayraghavan “Raghu” Nair (Pradeep Geedha) in the aftermath of the death of the latter’s 42-year-old wife.
Before they leave, relatives remind Raghu and Kalyani of the importance of ceremonies and rituals. Raghu has no patience for sacraments but society has its way. But once the religious rites are out of the way, father and daughter begin the tough and more essential process of adjusting to life without the glue that held the family together.
Kalyani is told that her mother died on an inauspicious day and, therefore, all her belongings have to be burnt so that no further ill luck befalls the family. The girl manages to save a recipe notebook that contains the secrets of the delightful dishes that the deceased lady would whip up. Her ghee payasam was to die for.
Will Kalyani follow in her mother’s footsteps and give her culinary skills a new lease of life? Or will the girl find a way of charting her own path? A blank page in the foolscap recipe book and the man she looks up to – her father, a government official with progressive ideals and an interest in language and poetry – hold the key to how life will turn out for her.
An aunt prevents Kalyani from performing her mother’s last rites because she is menstruating. Her father puts his foot down but eventually gives in. And that is not the only time that Raghu will disappoint Kalyani.
Prasanth Vijay’s consistently low-key manner of spelling out the inner dynamics of Kalyani’s world ensures that nothing is overtly verbalised. Everything that unfolds around her and her father, whose love for literature led to Kalyani growing up on Kumaran Asan’s poems rather than on nursery rhymes, is depicted through largely indirect means instead of being conveyed with words and gestures.
Raghu has many copies of Rabindranath Tagore’s Gitanjali on his bookshelf. It is his favourite book to gift. After she reveals this fact to a friend, Kalyani plays a video recording of her father reciting ‘Song Unsung’ and she herself, and then her mother, singing the Tagore lines translated into Malayalam.
Their life appears imbued with poetry. But the reference to a haunting ditty that has remained unsung could be interpreted as a metaphor for the life of a woman who hasn’t received her due. Will her daughter now meet the same fate?
Kalyani’s self-realisation is triggered as much by sorrow as by disillusionment but the changes that she undergoes are entirely internal. Her empowerment happens within her and manifests itself in a final ‘act’ that is a quiet decision rather than a loud declaration or a rebellious cry.
An ultra-conservative aunt (Rini Udayakumar) who brooks no deviation from tradition, an aggressive, alcoholic maternal uncle (Bala Shankar) who spells trouble and a female colleague of her father’s (Ranjini George) who is instrumental in opening Kalyani’s eyes to a disorienting reality aggravate matters for the girl in mourning.
In a society that is far more intent on enforcing its orthodoxies than on alleviating a girl’s anguish, Kalyani seeks refuge in her mother’s recipe notebook, the only article of hope that she has been able to save. Truths about her father, a man she idolises with apparently good reason, unsettle her existence further.
In The Summer of Miracles, the protagonist was a nine-year-old boy obsessed with the idea of becoming invisible. Kalyani is several years older. The crisis in her life is, therefore, anything but the result of a child’s fancy. Her world is in danger of going astray in the aftermath of the death of a parent who meant the world to her but she has to cling on to who she is and, just as importantly, who she wants to be.
Kalyani must decipher the complexities of the adult world in order to find a foothold in it and surmount the letdowns that come with knowing what lies ahead in life for a girl in a patriarchal environment. It is a world in which men believe that they call the shots but they are forced to conceal their selves for fear of being found out and called out.
The beauty – and the power – of Daayam stems from the nuanced depiction of the gradual changes that Kalyani undergoes as the world creeps in on her and a recipe book she has inherited from her mother reveals to her the need to read between the lines and decipher what the dead woman has left unexpressed.
Daayam is a genteel ode to a song unsung and its echoes in the life of a girl looking for a voice to express her aspirations.
Aathira Rajeev, Pradeep Geedha