On first viewing, Amma, a 36 minutes long bio-documentary by Neelan, is a labor of love for his mother, who is now 97 years old. But as you watch it, the film transforms into a journey into the history of a community and that of Malayalee women waking up to the call of freedom and humanity. Arya Premji pioneered that revolution along with her husband, the legendary actor Premji of Piravi fame, who was also a social reformer, playwright and poet. She was one of the first ‘feminists’ in Kerala much before the term was coined. A widow at the age of 14, she defied all social norms and community rules to marry again and fought her way through life without compromising on her ideals and values. This film is about that legendary woman, someone who broke new paths, dared to challenge decadent tradition and boldly fought ‘moral policing’ of the times head-on to live the life she believed in.
What immediately strikes one in the film is the gracefully vibrant physical presence of ‘Amma’ Arya Premji herself. She is full of poise, grit and charm. Added to it is a certain kind of rustic humor that people like her, who have struggled their way through life and have no complaints about it, gather at old age. Looking back at the ups and downs, twists and turns in her life, she speaks about them in a totally detached manner as if she is talking about someone else. She recounts critical moments and incidents from her life which are also intricately linked to the social history of Namboodiri women in Kerala during the last century and social reform movements of the period that questioned age-old traditions and dared to dream of freedom and justice for all.
Her early life was like that of any other Namboodiri girl of her times. As was the custom of the time, she was married at the age of 14 to a man much older than her. He had married her own elder sister earlier, but the latter died after giving birth to a child. After a brief period of marital life, the first tragedy struck her in the form of his sudden death, which was followed by 12 long years of widowhood in a big feudal household. But it was a time when her community was in the throes of change and she herself became a part of it. Her decision to remarry naturally created a furor within her family and community, both of whom ostracized her and her new husband. But what sustained the couple was their anger against the oppressive system and hope that the new age ushered in. A second life with a revolutionary like Premji as husband followed, which was also a fall from a life of plenty to penury. For the next few decades, she took charge of familial responsibilities, facing the struggle for survival and raising children, which had its own moments of joy and despair. But her life was not confined to just the home. She was part of the communist movement, giving shelter to underground leaders, and later, contesting local elections. And then her husband departed from this world, leaving her alone all over again. Most strikingly, while she recounts her life, there is a never a moment of bitterness or rancor.
Shot almost wholly in the interior, the film tenderly follows Amma’s daily routines, activities and movements. The film begins with her waking up amidst the getting-ready-for-office buzz in the house and takes us through the daily chores of the aging woman who needs to be tended to for many things, and ends with her retiring at night and lying down to sleep. This grid of mundane and repetitive daily routine of the film provides it with a very rustic and this-worldly feel, punctuated with flights into her personal memories, incidents from life, cryptic comments and observations and above all, the act of reminiscing itself, all unfolding the past of her life, and the history of her community and times. It is this layering that makes Neelan’s bio-doc a very tender, humane and touching visual narrative that is a historical document, and at the same time a stark reminder about the endless struggles of women, a gentle beacon to the present about the undying faith in life.
Malayalam, Short Documentary, Color