Articles and tweets on the horrific Asifa tragedy have made me feel rather depressed in recent days thinking of the world in which kids live. In a Whatsapp exchange, my Aunt remarked, “Don’t trust your child with anybody!” Of course, it might sound hyperbolic but such is the fear that these acts of depravity put in our minds. As I saw one of those hauntingly innocent pictures of little Asifa, my mind went back to Kutty, the remarkable debut feature of Janaki Viswanathan that was released in 2001. In case you have not seen the movie, let me tell you that there is zero graphic content. The eventual fate of the little girl, played marvelously by Shwetha, is heartbreaking. Sometimes leaving something to our imagination tends to be a lot more haunting than showing something on screen. I will hasten to add that Kutty is not a one-note depressing movie. I remember smiling quite a bit owing to the sweetness of several of its characters. There is not a trace of manipulation in this movie – the movie flows like a rivulet through joy, hope and despair.
An adaptation of a story by Sivasankari, Kutty tells the story of its titular character, a little girl who leads a limpid childhood in an idyllic village. She is the apple of her father’s eye. (The father is essayed by Nasser, who makes you want to give him a hug in the sequence where he pacifies his daughter.) To him, the little joys of parenting help vivify their tough lives. But her mother (Eashwari Rao who turns in the performance of her short career) is a little more worldly wise, constantly urging her husband to let go of his pampering ways. Fate strikes when the father dies in an accident. Struggling to make ends meet, the mother is forced to send Kutty to Chennai as a domestic help for an upper middle-class couple, played by Ramesh Aravind and Kousalya.
In Chennai, the couple treats her with affection but their son and Aravind’s mother (MN Rajam, who makes you want to give her a tight slap, throwing respect to the winds) ill-treat Kutty to the point where she wants to escape the house. This leads to the sequence that left me not only misty eyed but also made my eyes bereft of any more tears to shed, the day I first watched the scene. It is the scene where Kutty requests the kindhearted shop owner – Vivek is fantastic in this short role – to write a letter to her mother to come rescue her. But here’s the catch - she does not know the address. We, in the audience, are in Vivek’s shoes, watching helplessly as the girl breaks down.
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The movie also offers, in an understated manner, social commentary on the way even seemingly good natured people (like the ones played by Aravind and Kousalya) take the easy way out and don’t always do what is in the best interests of society at large. This is illustrated in a sharply perceptive scene where Kousalya talks to her colleagues about Kutty’s plight and the evil of child labor. All this happens while a school-age kid delivers them tea!
Above all, the huge reason memories of this movie refuse to be erased by the waves of time is that it skillfully juxtaposes goodness with sadness and poses difficult questions. How a kid’s body and soul must be protected with utmost care in a world where the juggernaut of antisocial elements can crush innocent souls, leaving many a victim in its wake. Kutty cautions us that for goodness to flourish, it has to co-exist with caution and heightened awareness. It is a testament to the skill of the writer-director that the movie never feels preachy or didactic. Like a seasoned filmmaker, the debutant director tells a story unflinchingly, trusting us to pause, reflect and most importantly, act on the messages packaged organically within the construct of the story. It is a certainty that these messages have to sink in deeply for humanity to stay afloat.