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Married at 12, mother at 14

K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN comments on "Padom Onnu: Oru Vilapam" that focuses on problems faced by teenage Muslim girls in Kerala forced into early marriage.

THE premiere of "Padom Onnu: Oru Vilapam" (Lesson One: A Wail), T.V Chandran's latest film, saw protests from a group of Islamic periodicals of Kerala. The date of release was postponed more than once for two reasons: theatre owners were afraid of getting involved in a sensitive issue dealing with the minority community. The other was a suspicion of the film's commercial viability.

But, at the recently concluded International Film Festival of Dacca, the film bagged the gold medal for best film and attracted much attention in a predominantly Muslim country. The general feeling of serious film-viewers in Bangladesh was that "it is our story" and there was a demand to exhibit it in "our villages".

Shoukath Aryadan, the son of a politician and ex-minister, produced the film. Recently, Shoukath spoke about several threatening calls suspected to be from a notorious Islamic fundamental group, adding "the honour it earned from a Muslim country like Bangladesh shows that my film is not anti-Islamic."

"Padom Onnu: Oru Vilapam" tells of the woes of Muslim girls in the interior villages of Malappuram, a district in Kerala dominated by Muslims.

Young girls around 12 to 14 years are married off to elderly men as their second, third or fourth wife, thus violating their fundamental rights for education and freedom. The local school is the platform for the bride-seekers to choose their brides, which happens in some Muslim centred villages.

The main consideration of such weddings is the dowry that either enables the groom to go to the Gulf in search of better pastures or raise funds to return the earlier wife's dowry during a divorce.

Divorce in the community is as common as a wedding, drawing a new theory that almost every wedding is followed by a divorce. The teenage wife is never asked for an opinion either for marriage or divorce.

Poor girls, divorced within months of their wedding, return home often in a pregnant state. Mothers when barely 14 or 15 they live in poverty as single parents.

The film develops through the story of Shahina (well known actress Meera Jasmine), an unusually intelligent 14-year-old. Shahina is the only daughter of Safiya (noted Mohiniattam exponent Pallavi Krishnan), a divorced single woman in her late twenties who struggles to make a living by selling snacks in local eateries.

When Safiya realises that her daughter also has to go through such a grind, the shock kills her and Shahina is one more in the number of teenage mothers.

Through several anecdotes, director T.V.Chandran, who penned the script, unveils the general situation. Chandran, known for his advocacy of women's issues, also shows the silent protest of the Muslim women.

At one point, when the teenage Shahina frees herself from the clutches of her husband, Razak, (Irshad) by scuffing on his face, his first wife applies medicine on the scratches. On seeing this, his mother, (Roselyn), comments, "Where else would one see the first wife applying medicine on the scratches from the second wife?"

When Razak tells her of his decision to divorce the adamant Shahina — this after raping her by giving a sedative through his first wife — the mother responds, "Aren't you the seed of a father wedded four times?"


T.V. Chandran

Safiya dares to send divorced Shahina to school. Even Safiya is shocked when there is a proposal that her divorced daughter become the fourth wife of Hajiar, the most important man in the locality. Safiya reminds her brother and the village broker, who approach her with the proposal sans any dowry, that the Hajiar is older than her own father but this falls on deaf ears.

Another significant character is the teacher of the village school, Kasim master, (Babu Annur) always saddened by his students' sudden disappearance due to marriage. Kasim questions the marriage of under age girls and proclaims it to be against Islam and is blamed by the Hajiar for lack of progress in his views. Kasim is blamed for Shahina's pregnancy, as Razak claims during divorce that he has not touched her. The villagers point to Kasim, who gave her private lessons to compensate for the break in her schooling.

Chandran and cinematographer Jayan have visualised some of the best scenes of contemporary Indian cinema, through "Padom Onnu: Oru Vilapam". The tragic theme of the film exposes the travails of a community in a fully literate State like Kerala.

However, unlike Chandran's other works like "Mankamma" or "Susanna", the character of Shahina does not leave a deep impression on the viewer. Perhaps the thematically vibrant topic subdued this.

There are a few arresting moments in the film. The daily trudge of the teenage Shahinas to the river is haunting.

The last shot where innocent children cry and play on the riverbank while their unfortunate pubescent mothers bathe and wash is an unforgettable wail.

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