Malayalam filmmaker Ajayan’s Perumthachan is one of the few films that I saw as a kid that made a strong impact on me regardless of the fact that I couldn’t entirely grasp all the ideas and themes in them. Obviously, only grown-ups could fathom the complexities in such films and how will a small child understand what is going on? However, at the time I was a big fan of films with a period setting and I think this is one of the reasons why this film appealed to me. Recently, I revisited Perumthachan after so many years. The urge to see it was triggered by a conversation I had with a friend on the talents of the late actor Thilakan and we got to discussing some of his films and our favorite Thilakan characters. Most of the films that popped up in our discussion were from the 90s – Kilukkam, Mookkilla Rajyathu, Spadikam to name a few – and then we finally came around to Perumthachan, another classic from the 90s.
Any discussion on Thilakan would be incomplete without this film, which to me is a supreme example of his versatility and acting prowess. Watching it for the second time was an altogether different experience for me. This time, it as if so many windows were opening up in front of me with bright sunlight and fresh breeze coming in from every direction. Whatever I didn’t understand as a child was immediately becoming apparent now. I grasped the several layers and the several psychological underpinnings this story has. In addition to that, some new thoughts and ideas were taking shape in my mind as well, which were all prompted by the imagery and dialogues. One of the most complex character studies ever made in the history of Indian cinema, Perumthachan is based on a story of the same name by renowned Malayalam author M.T Vasudevan Nair (he also wrote the screenplay) and tackles the legend of a famed architect named Raman who also went by the name ‘Perumthachan’ (Malayalam for ‘master sculptor’).
An intelligent, pious and highly intuitive man, Raman was great at calculations and making predictions. This is illustrated right in the opening scene itself. When a temple man is struggling to keep the evening lamp glowing owing to a gust of wind, Raman, who is taking a nap nearby, tells him not to blame the wind and instead the placement of the lamp and the stone below which serves as a permanent fixture. Raman gets up, picks up a slab of stone from nearby and places it in the direction of the wind. The temple man notices the ‘poonnool’ (the thread worn by Brahmins) and asks him if he is one. Raman replies in the negative. He tells him that he is just a carpenter and that he had to wear it as a custom while working in the temple premises. When the man learns that he is the great Perumthachan, a new assignment comes to Raman in the form of a new temple that is to be constructed on the insistence of a Thampuran named Unni (Nedumudi Venu).
He and his wife Bhargavi Thampuratti (Vinaya Prasad) are childless and they attribute this to an ancient curse which they hope will go away once the construction of the temple is completed. Raman learns of this fact without anyone telling him. He takes one look the surroundings and as per the insight from his “inner eye”, comes to the conclusion that they are childless despite having been married for 16 years. Unni and Raman know each other from childhood and there is a strong bond between them. One day this is tested when Raman casts his lustful eye on Unni’s young and vibrant wife. But Raman restrains himself and doesn’t proceed further. However, this creates a small dent in their friendship and Raman leaves for home. On the way home, he gets another assignment. We learn that Raman once had a wife who died in childbirth. The child, a son, survives and Raman decides to look after him. The son (Prasanth) is named Kannan Vishwakarman and grows up to be more talented than his father.
Raman becomes highly envious of his son after overhearing all the praises that are being showered on him by the locals. He fears that he is going to be useless and that his time of glory is over. He also resents his son’s progressive way of thinking and defiant attitude. At one point, Kannan mocks some of the strongly held beliefs and customs, which irks Raman. There are discussions in the film that speculate on the lineage of Raman. It is mentioned in one legend that Raman’s father was actually a Brahmin. At one point Kannan asks him if this was a myth created by the Brahmins to take credit for his talents. Raman gives a small, naughty smile at this thought. Raman becomes further upset when he learns that Kannan has fallen in love with Bhargavi Thampuratti’s daughter Kunjhikkavu Thampuratti (Monisha). In one legend, it is said that Kunjhikkavu was born out of an affair between Raman and Bhargavi. However, this is not how it goes in the film. Things get more heated and intense when this creates a big scandal which leads to an unexpectedly shocking climax.
This is a masterfully made and brilliantly thought-provoking film that urges you to come up with your own theories. While in the beginning of the story Raman is shown as a pious and peaceful man, he is slowly revealed to be someone with several character flaws. And then one day, he snaps. We wonder if his actions were motivated by professional jealousy or if he were jealous of the fact that his son is going the exact same path that he once wished he had taken but couldn’t muster up the courage to. It’s one of those stories that make one ask: Does every man have a breaking point – even the best of us? M.T Vasudevan Nair’s story is one of the many interpretations of the Perumthachan legend. Ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan’s solid camera work, Johnson’s evocative background score, and Thilakan’s extraordinary performance (he should’ve won the National Award for it) makes this film one of the bonafide masterpieces of Malayalam cinema. Director Ajayan had only made this one film in his entire career and it’s a mystery why he never made more.