Stage personality Prema Karanth’s directorial debut, adapting a major novel by Kannada author M.K. Indira (1976). The novel’s protagonist, a mid-19th C. widow, resurrects a stereotype from reformist fiction, drawing ‘its emotional capital from powerful and deeply embedded cultural formations and is emblematic of the way Swadeshi formulations of gender, nation and indeed feminism have reappeared and are renotated in the literature of the late 70s and 80s’ (Susie Tharu/K. Lalitha, 1993). Based on the actual life story of Phaniyamma who from 1870 to her death in 1952 lived in the village of Hebbalige in Malnad, Karnataka. The woman’s story was told to M.K. Indira’s mother when Phaniyamma came to help her give birth to a child. Born into an upper-caste and respected family, Phani (Sharada Rao) is married aged 9 to a young relative who dies shortly afterwards. Having suffered the cruel conventions imposed upon widows throughout her childhood, Phani eventually grows into a strong, quiet and wise woman to whom many people come for help and advice. Flouting caste rules, she helps an Untouchable woman give birth to a child and stands by a young woman who, when widowed at the age of 16, rebels against the harsh norms imposed by an orthodox society. Mostly told in flashback, the film conveys the spirit of the original work through Sharada Rao’s dignified performance, suggesting not a radical critique of orthodox society but a purification of tradition adapted to modern conditions (evoked in the film through tight close-ups e.g. in the opening childbirth sequence, and fast-paced editing).
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