By Bharath

Moonnam Pakkam (1988) || Language – Malayalam || Written & Directed by – Padmarajan || Streaming on – Hotstar

[All images used in the following article are courtesy of Hotstar]

“Even if the body washes ashore, it will be on the third day (moonnam pakkam). That’s the law of the sea.”

A line that’s uttered more than once in the movie. It means that if you lose someone in the sea, then wait until the third day for the body to wash ashore. If it doesn’t, then don’t wait any longer. Not for the body. Not for the person.

It’s an often-witnessed narrative in Padmarajan movies to present to the audiences a deep bond formed between two characters, either a pre-existing one or one that is formed over the former part of the story, which decides the crux of an emotional roller coaster ride during the latter half. Not an uncommon trope in Malayalam/Indian cinema, yes, but the “Padmarajan-esque” way of doing it often stood out due to the unusual, complex and perhaps even anachronistic (he was considered to be a filmmaker ahead of the times for solid reasons) relationships portrayed.

Thoovanathumbikal, Namukku Parkkan Munthirithoppukal, Innale, Njan Gandharvan are movies that readily spring to one’s mind because the relationships are of a romantic nature (even Deshadanakkili Karayarilla could be a contender). Moonnam Pakkam does follow this suit but also stands out in a different regard with the relationship between an old man and his grandson forming the core of the movie.

Let’s split the movie into three informal chapters, shall we? Not because the film breaks its flow consciously (hence ‘informal’), but since there is a shift of differing emotions as we go through each stage of the story.

On Happiness

Thampi (played by Thilakan) is leading a serene, old-age life in his ancestral place. He’s looking forward to the arrival of his grandson Bhaskar (Jayaram), affectionately referred to as Pachu by Thampi, from Bangalore. Pachu has completed his medical degree and is coming to meet his grandfather after a long gap, along with 3 of his friends. Besides spending time with his Appooppan, Pachu also intends to meet his fiancée, Bhadra, who’s also Thampi’s friend’s granddaughter.

The days thus pass merrily with Pachu and his friends enjoying the beauty of the countryside, with Pachu spending quality time with everyone and especially showered with affection by Thampi. Thampi’s excitement and the yearning for Pachu’s presence is all the clearer to the audience when he mentions to his friend early in the movie that, “Pachu is the only living direct blood relation I’ve in this world now.” We get to know that Thampi’s son – Pachu’s father – had passed away many years ago and that Pachu has a rather dull and formal relationship with his mother who lives in Bombay. Pachu clearly tries to make up for the lack of love and affection in his life with the deep bonds he has formed with his Appooppan and Bhadra.

All’s going well. There is humour, fun and the beauty of nature. Love is in the air.

On Tragedy

What constitutes a ‘good tragedy’ in a movie? Does a movie that start out on a bleak, gloomy note make you sadder or one that hits you hard with a sudden tragic event? As subjective a question this can be, popular opinion may lean towards the latter. And what’s sadder than the death of a loved one? Again, subjective, but not many other things can beat that either. If anything can make an unexpected tragedy in a movie appear any more tragic, it’s by creating a sharp contrasting narrative. Moonnam Pakkam is no exception either, which is where the first chapter plays its role. We are fed with so much happiness, visually and verbally, the tragedy that strikes does jolt us sharper.

Pachu and his friends hit the beach near their home one day. During their unassuming games in the water, Pachu gets pulled under by the strong waves. Despite his friends’ desperate attempts, he gets taken by the sea. The news reaches Pachu’s near and dear ones with Thampi and Bhadra obviously the most grief-stricken ones and of course…Pachu’s mother who rushes over.

On Grief

Grieving in movies can appear cliched. It may sound insensitive, but it’s a cinematic truth. A character dies, people grieve them – in different ways. But what you wait for once the tragedy transpires and the grief sets in is what happens next. What comes of, or after, the mourning? What happens to those that mourn, how do they move on? Or do they?

The character study of Thampi established over the course of the movie is quite important during this phase of the movie. Thampi is easy-going, affectionate towards all, retired from the Railways (a man who has seen enough of the world around him) and well-respected by the town folks. The tragedy has affected him clearly more than anybody else. Yet, after the initial shock, he tries to put on a brave face and consoles the others around him, particularly Pachu’s friends who hold themselves partly accountable for his death. Thampi refuses to say aloud that Pachu won’t return, even trying to reassure Bhadra that Pachu might very well be safe, citing similar incidents around them in which people have eventually returned. This is unusual for someone so rational like Thampi, and as the audience, there are moments when we may wonder if it’s just a mask he wears to not break down or whether he truly is clutching on to a tiny glimmer of hope.

The third day comes. Pachu’s body washes ashore.

The grieving shall go on but there are ‘formalities’ – rituals – to be done for Pachu, which Thampi takes on himself. They visit the same beach and as Pachu’s friends watch from afar, waiting to bid Thampi a final goodbye before they return, Thampi performs the funeral rites. As everyone watches, Thampi walks into the sea carrying the funeral rice offering (Balichoru). He keeps walking, to the others’ dismay, ignoring their calls to not go any deeper into the sea. Thampi lets himself taken by the sea and the movie ends with the quote –

“And, yet another third day.”

The movie deals with the narrative of death and loss but moreover the subjective measure of grief. Would it be pertinent to say that Pachu’s mother’s grief may not have been the strongest of all? Can one undermine the loss Bhadra felt, who considered Pachu not just as a lover and dreamed of building a life with him, but also as her dearest friend? What scale do you use to measure Pachu’s friends’ sorrow, induced mainly by the guilt they carried, which would haunt them for a long time?

But when Thampi walks into the sea, carrying his grandson’s remains, what strikes us is the inevitability of eternal grief. For Thampi, perhaps it was a choice between living out his remaining days grieving the memory of his grandson, or death. No matter when his end came, from that day onwards he would be living in perpetual grief, with nothing to look forward to. Unlike for others, Thampi’s life emotionally ended for him that day.

Moonnam Pakkam can make you wonder – how would grief then be measured? As to how much one suffers, or for how long?

By Bharath