Four Women (Naalu Pennungal)

Courtesy photo
Adoor Gopalakrishnan/India 2007

In the West, when we think of traditional women’s role, it’s usually depicted as a triumvirate: maiden, mother, crone. But, as Erma Bombeck once pointed out in a book title, motherhood is the second oldest profession. It’s this straightforward logic which centers this film on four different women’s stories.

Four Women is four short films, joined together only by a credit sequence and separated only by title cards. The short stories by Thakazhy Shivashankar Pillai on which they are based are well known in India and appear to have been literally transposed onto the screen. It works because thematically they are all similar – women’s reactions to the choices the men in their lives make.

The first story “The Prostitute” is emphatically grounded in 1946, perhaps because it’s such a relief to think that this is not happening today. In the first story, the young prostitute of the title is able to change profession when a young laborer falls in love with her, only for her to learn how hard it is to change reputations when you’re still living on the same patch of sidewalk. The heroine in “The Virgin” is a business-savvy young woman whose parents arrange a match with a man whose reputation in business is her equal. But no one expects how his business skills affect their marriage (although the title provides a hint). In “The Housewife,” a loving married couple has come to terms with the loss of their children to early deaths, until the wife’s old boyfriend, a father of eight, hears of their misfortunes and proposes a solution. In the final story, “The Spinster,” a family’s oldest sister (Nandita Das, known internationally for her starring roles in Deepa Mehta’s Fire and Water) must cope with the ramifications when her suitor decides to marry her younger sister instead.

The similarity of these dilemmas is emphasized with recurring shots: men eating as women wait on them, people rinsing out their mouths, women lying in bed framed by shadows or bedframes as the camera hovers over them. The men in the families aren’t brutes – husbands and fathers are loving and concerned – but the other men these women encounter are a menace. Only their reputations protect them, and their defense against these men is limited. When accused of illegal fornication, the young prostitute stands motionless, eyes down, allowing her husband to speak in her name. But the spinster makes sure her whole family knows what she thinks, although she has no one to help her. Das’ ability to suggest endurance and spirit in the most crushing of circumstances builds to the film’s most powerful shot, when she steps into a dark house from a blazing afternoon, so her shadow is framed in the doorway, a dark space where a person should be.

“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” my grandmother used to say. Even if they are set 60 years ago and half a world away, the stories in this film still echo with truths about women’s lives today. Short and to the point, Four Women is a mirror which should make us all uncomfortable with its reflection.

© 2007 Sarah Manvel. All rights reserved.

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