If watching Hariharan’s movies has taught us anything, it is that he is a remarkably gifted storyteller with a unique flair for capturing the zeitgeist of a particular time. What gives his movies an inimitable tone is his approach to encapsulating the real ethos of the individuals and their stories with tautly packaged screenplays. Unsurprisingly most of his critically acclaimed works sprung from collaboration with the celebrated Malayalam novelist M T Vasudhevan Nair. Nakhakshathangal is a classic coming of age movie that considerably benefited from the narrative fluency of M. T Vasudhevan and directorial vision of Hariharan. The director transports us to a microcosm of traditional Kerala that is inhabited by characters grappling with themes like misplaced loyalty, unrequited love and Moral duty.
Although the story ostensibly unfolds against the backdrop a parochial society, it reflects the sensibilities of modern times. Screenplay deftly narrates the moral dilemma of an underprivileged young individual who is torn between love of his life and indebtedness. Story follows Ramu (Vineeth), a 16 year old orphan who stays with his overbearing uncle. Upon their pilgrimage to Guruvayoor, Ramu meets and falls in love with Gowri (Monisha) who has accompanied her grandmother to the temple. They connect over poetry, and are smitten by each other. After making promise to meet again, they bid farewell with tears streaming down their faces, and feelings for each other unexpressed. Embellished by some captivating music, Hariharan captures the cycle of instant correlation and infatuation unique to adolescents.
Driven to despair by mistreatment and negligence of his uncle, Ramu moves to a new home in town with a well-meaning Namboothiri (Jayachandran). The Namboodhiri lets him enrol in college, and promises to bear his educational expenses. In the meantime he visits Gowri’s place, only to learn that she is house maid at the place. Later, his hopes for education are dealt a blow when Namboodhiri has to return to his hometown. In a fortunate turn of events, on Gowri’s recommendation, the old lady takes Ramu into their home and give him charge of domestic chores. There he is introduced to a renowned lawyer (Jaganathan Varma) and his speech and hearing-impaired daughter (Saleema). The story grows dramatic when Ramu starts to earn the respect of the lawyer who sees in him an ideal partner for his daughter. Things go from bad to worse for Ramu as he finds himself sinking further into a mire of love triangle. Hariharan’s layered treatment of their relationship gives Ramu’s character an air of elusiveness. It sort of renders us incapable of predicting what Ramu might do next.
Today, Nakhakshathangal is regarded as one of the most mature coming of age drama of its times. Apparently, while the movie went on to become a success at the box office, it was its popular songs that have indelible impression on the musical senses of Malayalees. Written by the distinguished poet O. N. V. Kurup, and immortalized by Yesudas, Chithra and Jayandran, the five songs add a layer of poetic magic to the movie. Nakhakshathangal was stuff of the late 80, so yes these songs contain lip-synching that look particularly dubious when the young actors pretend to sing in the more matured voices of the singers. However, we’re willing to absolve the characters of their singing crimes, owing to ONV Kurup’s lyrical poetry in the songs.You get full shots showing the body movements of the lovers as opposed to mere isolated shots of their facial expressions. I believe these shots go a long way in demonstrating the ambivalence in their attitude and demeanor.
In retrospect, writings of M T Vasudevan Nair were as much a visionary reappraisal of individualism of the then Kerala society as Padmarajan’s writings were of modernity. If Padmarajan documented the struggles of urban people caught in transition between traditional society and modernity, M T narrated the individual’s deeply personal battle with his inner self. Nakhakshathangal is a drama that puts its lead character and viewers on a parallel trial. It is an intense drama that puts you in the shoes of its lead character. It urges you to see if you can solve his conflict any differently. Hariharan does not want you to leave the cinema with an absolute answer to the character’s dilemma, nor does he want you to pity the fate of the star-crossed lovers. He’s merely interested in provoking a thought on your part. If it were you, would the ethical individual in you navigate through these conflicts, and live with the decision you make?