Of love that ages like wine: A hark back to Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam

Written by John Paul, who passed away recently, and directed by Bharathan, Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam is one of the most beautiful love stories of all time.

Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam is one of the finest collaborations between Bharathan and John Paul. Even though at the helm are an aging couple, one cannot remember a more intense love story in Malayalam cinema. This is love in all its fragility, humility and acceptance. It’s about equality and giving. It’s about understanding each other with a mere glance. It’s about fights, laughter, misgivings and loads of undiluted love. If John Paul creates a pristine village setting for the couple to flourish and age like fine wine, Bharathan, with his magical artistry breathes life into the characters and makes us desperately fall in love with them. It’s ironic that a decade later when MT Vasudevan Nair directed and wrote a similar but a more cheery and less dramatic story of an old couple in Oru Cheru Punchiri, the same John Paul produced it.  

On the banks of a pond in Central Kerala stands a traditional Nalukettu house with a quaint archway leading to a large sandy frontyard fenced by trees and plants. The two-storeyed house has airy rooms and a large old-fashioned kitchen with firewood stoves, hanging salt jars, smoke-stained walls and black oxide slabs. The serenity of the surroundings is further enhanced by its occupants—an old couple. The retired school teachers are in their late 60s. Written by John Paul and directed by Bharathan, Oru Minnaminunginte Nurunguvettam is one of the most beautiful love stories of all time. It’s about a man and a woman who are deeply in love with each other even in the twilight of their lives. It talks about love and desire that has weathered the superficiality of youth and are now invested in tender care for each other.

The narrative opens with a routine day in the life of Ravunni (Nedumudi Venu) and Saraswathi teacher (Sharada). While Ravunni post his retirement spends his evenings peering across the frontyard waiting for his wife to get back, Saraswathi teacher is slow in adjusting to the new pace of life. In that quiet village where everyone knows their way around and retired old men gossip, boatmen arrive with weekly groceries and the nearest college is miles away, the story unfolds.

It’s a world shorn of artifice, where villagers will probably not take too kindly to their idle and dull routine getting interrupted. To a millennial, it may look like an antique village painting they would rather hang on their wall.

Ravunni and Saraswathi, we are told, married in their 40s and that is exactly why, according to his friend, they are so devoted to each other. Ravunni is like a lovesick boy around her, and sulks whenever she suggests visiting her sister. He reasons that he has no one than her in his life. Even their fights are short lived, because Ravunni has no defense against his wife’s tears. Clearly their squabbles have never gone beyond a day.

Bharathan picks the perfect actors to play the couple. There is Nedumudi Venu who is astonishingly precise with his body language of an aged person, despite being in his late 30s when he played the part. The eyes that soften on seeing her, the pace in his stride, the naturality of a person who has lived in a village all his life as well as the sternness of a former teacher, the actor in him reflects all these facets.  Sharada with her long salt and pepper hair neatly tied back into a bun, draped in mundum neriyathum, a traditional attire reflects the gentleness and wisdom of Saraswathi. Her restrained smile and twinkling eyes make one wonder if she had ever picked up a cane in front of her students in her teaching career!

When a young woman (Parvathy is such a perfect casting) with big sparkling eyes, raven tresses and an enchanting smile walks into their home, the old couple finds themselves grappling with an emotion they had learned to live without—maternal instincts. Though initially Ravunni isn’t excited by the prospect of having a guest forcefully imposed on them by her casteist and obnoxious father, the resentment quickly evaporates. Unnimaya, having lived under the care of a loving mother who has withstood an abusive husband, is easily drawn towards the couple. She feels orphaned after her mother’s death and is terrified of her tyrannical father.

Maybe it is the unconditional love she witnessed that makes her reach out to them—for affection, love, security and a safe haven from the clutches of her father. The couple, who aren’t used to being taken care of by anyone, gratefully accepts the food she cooks (the first elaborate dinner she cooks which wins over Ravunni is a sweet scene) and the love she offers. After a former student mistook Unnimaya for his daughter, Ravunni can hardly contain himself as he shares it with Saraswathi. What’s interesting is that the couple not having children isn’t such a point of distress in the narrative (or maybe they have accepted it), rather it’s all about accepting the new relationship with gratitude.

Their gradual and awkward transition into parents are done with a lot of love. Be it the scene where Ravunni pinches the ears of a student who teases Unnimaya in college or scolds her for coming late from college (the mischievous glances they exchange are cute) or their abject disbelief, which turns into tears of joy, when she wonders if they can call them mother and father —every moment is a joy to watch.

Bharathan weaves together these little intense emotional spurts in a way that brings a lump into our throat. And the song montages are so vivid—especially the one in which they accept Unnimaya as part of the family. Not only does the beautiful melody lend a festive note to the frames, Bharathan poignantly pieces together the beginning of an inseparable bond between them. His vintage touch is there in the post-wedding montage song as well, subtly underlying the sensuous chemistry between the new couple and the assured but bashful romance of the older couple.

When Unnimaya gets pregnant, it’s as if the old couple are preparing for their parenthood and they take care to cater to her whims and fancies with a smile. The joy they never experienced as parents comes as a return gift for their kindness towards a stranger.

Of course, we aren’t spared the dramatics here. Each and every moment of joy and sadness is captured with a happy tear.  But we don’t mind that at all, because the essence of the film is the exploration of a relationship that is stronger than blood. And it is unfathomable, dramatic and at times comes across as a fairy tale. What happens between Unnimaya, and the old couple is that they fill a void in each other’s life. The soft-spoken and domesticated Unnimaya was perhaps the daughter they would have wished for. And Unnimaya missed both parents in her life. In hindsight perhaps that’s the whole beauty of that bond. It comes without any baggage or expectations.  

And can there be a more fitting title to a story? If Unnimaya was a ray of light in the couple’s lives, her child takes over the mantle and beams at them. But when they get too near to them, they are offered neither warmth nor light—just a glimmer of hope.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with Silverscreen.in. She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to Fullpicture.in and thenewsminute.com. She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

 

 

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