Singaram (played by Mysskin) suddenly becomes a patriarch following the death of his sister and her husband, when their two orphaned children come into his care—his adult niece Anandhi and her little brother Mani. We witness Singaram attempt to fulfill his duty by marrying Anandhi to a good man. She refuses all of them systematically, raising suspicions among local villagers and forcing Singaram to confront both his own traditional belief system and that of his peers.
Taking place in a small coastal town in India recently hit by a tsunami (which killed Anandhi’s parents), the movie showcases the economically precarious reality of a fisherman and his two dependents, as well as the deeply rooted (and homophobic, or at the very least, heteronormative) traditions that will inevitably force Singaram and Anandhi to leave this place.
Given the film’s presence at the LGBTQ+ Inside Out Film Festival, it’s perhaps of little surprise that Anandhi’s refusal to an arranged marriage relates to her lesbian attraction to a recently arrived substitute teacher, the motorcycle-driving, cigarette-smoking photographer Kavita.
While the movie features a lesbian storyline, the flatness of Anandhi and Kavita as characters is disappointing. Although Anandhi is educated and a teacher, and resists her uncle’s desire to marry her off, she seems to have almost no mind of her own. Certainly, she doesn’t speak or express herself very much in the film. Kavita is a seemingly more independent and defiant character, unafraid to go against tradition, having already been in a lesbian relationship in the past, wearing pants and reading as less hetero-passing. Nonetheless, she also seems to have no mind of her own and is given a bare minimum of agency and speaking time. Overall, both women, though they refuse to submit, are presented as passive and relatively silent.
It is not only the two women who fall flat: the young brother, a recent orphan, seems to simply hover in the film, without much of a personality or any desires and needs of his own.
Singaram is the only well-rounded character in the film. In fact, I suggest the film is more about Singaram than the two women. It is his struggle we see the most of: his struggle to feed his family and to be a fisherman when the ocean seems to contain no fish and threatens to kill him at any moment, his struggle with Anandhi’s sexuality and lack of desire to marry a man, and his struggle with the local villagers’ reaction to Anandhi’s lesbianism. He is not only a buffer for Anandhi, but also the only character who seems capable of speech and action. His performance is the only one that truly stands out.
The film was directed by award-winning documentary filmmaker Swarnavel Eswaran. This is his first feature film. In an interview on globalindianstories.com, Eswaran explains how he fictionalized the true story of a young orphaned girl who was into sports and in a lesbian relationship, but who was pressured by her uncle to marry a man. Eswaran wanted to show how a positive ending was possible for a girl like this, under the condition that the uncle accepts her: “For me it was important that he (Singaram) accepts, because that is the way we have to go.”
Given that the happy ending Eswaran imagined necessarily demanded the acceptance of a patriarch, it’s no surprise the two main women characters fall so flat while Singaram, the patriarch, is so well-rounded. Perhaps if a woman had directed this film, we would have seen Anandhi and Kavita have minds and wills of their own, irrespective of whether the uncle accepted them or not. Of course, in patriarchal and deeply traditional societies where women are oppressed, it is too often the case that their minds and wills are crushed and made to wither. In these cases, it is difficult to imagine how women can have agency and freedom without a male hero coming to their rescue. Yet it is precisely this kind of imaginative work we ask of artists, writers, and directors.
Catamaran plays on Sunday, October 27 at 2:15pm at the National Gallery of Canada.
The Inside Out festival takes place October 24-27 with events around town. Check their website for a full event schedule.