‘Women who face sexual assault from a stranger are in a better situation; if they summon up courage, they can at least file a police complaint and will be heard. However, a woman who is repeatedly assaulted by her husband is expected to remain silent and duty bound’. At the fag end of the film, Vishwak Sen’s character underlines the travesty of a marital abuse victim through a similar statement that comes from a space of desperation. In the courtroom drama segment of the Telugu film Mukhachitram, written by Sandeep Raj and directed by Gangadhar, both the victim and the lawyer are shamed.
The issue of consent, as highlighted in Pawan Kalyan’s Vakeel Saab (Telugu adaptation of Amitabh Bachchan’s Pink) is also mocked. Mukhachitram could have been written and executed way better but it deserves a mention for trying to highlight a neglected aspect of women’s safety with some sincerity.
Mukhachitram (which loosely translates to face portrait) reveals its cards by and by. It begins like a triangular romance between Rajkumar (Vikas Vasishta), Maya Fernandez (Ayesha Khan) and Mahati (Priya Vadlamani). Rajkumar spouts generic lines about plastic surgery, which mainstream cinema has largely used as a tool for identity transformation in thrillers, at a TED Talk. He talks about face reading and reiterates that face is the index of the mind, hinting at the face transplant that will follow in the story.
Cast: Vishwak Sen, Vikas Vasishta, Priya Vadlamani
Music: Kaala Bhairava
The women are polar opposites, deliberately characterised to fit into stereotypes. Maya is a screenwriter who drinks, smokes and is bracketed as easy-going, while Mahati is introduced as a conservatively dressed woman from a small town who conducts home tuitions for children. There is a backstory of Maya and Raj’s adolescent romance juxtaposed with Raj’s decision to convince and marry Mahati whom he has hardly known. Raj’s friend (Chaitanya Rao) is the other pivotal character that is aware of the relationship dynamics.
The first hour is rather listless and there is nothing to rave about the performances. Kaala Bhairava’s music provides some relief. However, the narrative is peppered with seemingly casual dialogues and chance meetings with new characters that we assume will add to the drama much later. The story takes off after a face transplant that follows an accident and nothing remains the same in the lives of the lead characters.
Priya Vadlamani, cast in a dual role, takes charge and does a reasonably good job of stepping into another character’s shoes, depicting a whole new body language. To discuss the story without revealing crucial spoilers, it would suffice to say that a character’s transformation, from a place of envy to empathy and rage, is convincing. The hidden facets of a marital relationship unravel and the woman has to choose between staying silent or seeking revenge.
The revenge process is fraught with several loopholes that we can spot much before it is pointed out in the courtroom. The last half hour is taken up by the face-off between two lawyers, played by Ravishankar and Vishwak Sen (in an extended cameo). The arguments are high-pitched, cinematic ( including with wry references to movie-style court arguments) and emotional. Vishwak’s character is pitched as the saviour but unlike Amitabh Bachchan in Pink or Pawan Kalyan in Vakeel Saab, is portrayed as vulnerable rather than a towering authority.
A tiny reveal during the end credits answers why Vishwak’s character comes across as underwritten; the reveal gives closure to a relationship. In these moments, Vishwak shows that he is a fine actor and leaves us with a smile.
Mukhachitram is far from perfect. We can question how a girl’s family would not think of being by her side at the hospital at a crucial time; it is also funny that the family does not recognise the drastic shift in her voice (Veena Ghantasala dubs for two characters). Mukhachitram makes a point about marital assault and the need to give the victim an empathetic hearing. If only it had been written, narrated and enacted better.
(Mukhachitram is showing in theatres)