Well, this was a bit of an interesting downer! A movie about sex that was not at all sexy. Appropriately so, sex work is not sexy for the sex workers, it is just a job that they do from necessity. And it’s not necessarily sexy for their clients either, it is also something from desperation and misery. So, woo! An accurate depiction of life for a sex worker! Which means, depressing and grinding and tiring and dangerous and yet dull at the same time.
Let’s talk about elephants for a bit! My experience with elephants goes back to when I was a little girl and I used to visit my grandparents in St. Louis. The St. Louis zoo had the first ever baby elephant born in captivity, baby Raja. He was adorable, and he grew very very slowly, so every summer we would go visit him and watch him learn how to walk and tumble around and be cute.
(So cute! Like Dumbo)
But, right from the moment he was born, the zoo administrators started giving interviews and talking about their plans for “musth” (yes, same root as “Mast”, but I am using the zoological spelling to clarify that it is specifically about the elephant phenomenon). And hearing about this was my introduction to the whole concept of puberty and male violence.
Musth isn’t exactly the same as puberty, or anything else. It seems to have a sexual component, but also a non-sexual one of pure violence and aggression. Some female elephants are attracted to it, some are afraid of it. Some males become hyper sexual, others will become hyper violent and kill females. And also their own young, anyone is in danger from them.
This threat over-shadowed Raja’s whole childhood. This cute little calf was going to grow up to become murderously violent. No one knew exactly when it would happen, or how, but it was almost guaranteed to happen at some point and they best they could do was prepare and hope for the best.
Now, let’s talk about violent men! Men, unlike elephants, have higher reasoning skills. They have the ability to make moral judgements, and to have empathy for others. When a man “gives in” to his own version of “musth”, it’s not because they can’t control themselves. It’s because they choose not to control themselves.
Think of it like drunk driving. I’m not mad because you got behind the wheel of a car drunk. I am mad because you drove to a bar knowing you would be going home drunk, that you didn’t give your keys to a friend before you took that first drink, that you didn’t exercise control at the point at which you still had control.
All of that is a long way round to get to the themes of this film. This film approaches the fallacy of the argument to excuse sexual misconduct that “I couldn’t control myself”. And the argument of “I’m not hurting anyone.”
We spend a lot of time in this film with sex workers and their clients. And what the film is at pains to show is that the client holds all the power in this situation, and that is the problem. Yes our hero, Biju Menon, is generally kind to his prostitutes. But it is still a position of power. And while he is kind, they have become prostitutes through situations of grave injustice, and Biju is taking advantage of their past suffering instead of trying to help.
There are a lot of clear comparisons with Ranjith’s earlier film Devasuraam (which I totally got even before I knew it was the same director! Yay me!). In both films, our hero is a wealthy landowner of the area who lives alone with his servants and tends to enjoy low company more than high company. And in both films, he takes advantage of a helpless woman. But in Devasuraam, it is clear that it is one small lapse, he is aware that this is wrong even as he is doing it. And then he is terribly punished for the entire second half of the film for his tiny slip. Whereas in this film, the journey of the film is in realizing exactly how and how much he is sinning. Because he is not an elephant in musth, he is a man who has a responsibility to society and people around him, and he is failing in that through his own selfishness.
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We open with a scene that is unclear if it is supposed to be comic or tragic. For Biju, it is comic. But for the woman with him, it goes from comic to tragic. His local pimp has brought him a new prostitute. He directs her in his requirements, that she light a prayer lamp and, while he lays down, pretend to sob over his body as though he is her dead father. He is completely cheerful and unashamed in all these requirements, and I never feel any hatred or anger toward the women (or to any other sex worker in the film), I had no fear that he would actually hurt this woman. But it was unpleasant for her, and he seemed unaware of that.
The pimp outside also seemed unaware of this unpleasantness. The woman begins to sob as requested, finally falling over with grief, at which point Biju pops up and tries to stop her, but she admits that her father really has died recently, and this has brought it all back. Biju calls the pimp in hands him money, and tells him to help the woman get a legitimate job, he will bear the expense.
It’s a very nice thing for him to do, but it’s also kind of shocking that it took something so extreme for him to realize that is what needs to be done. He had no problem ordering this woman to mourn over him, to make her take part in a perverted charade. It was only when he was face to face with her real grief, and the real tragedy which drove her to this state (she admits that it was only her father’s death which forced her into prostitution for survival), that it seemingly occurs to him that this little game could be unpleasant for the other person involved, and that she could only be going along with it because of a massive tragedy in her background of which he was unaware.
That is the lesson we learn over and over again in this film. Our hero is sensitive and kind and loving to all. But in his blind quest for virility (I’m not sure if the subtitles clearly state that he is impotent, but it is heavily implied), he is forcing others over and over again to do what he wants without regard for their own comfort. It’s not just prostitutes either. His maidservant climbs a ladder instead of the stairs to bring him his morning coffee, because he is tired of seeing her come up the stairs. His friend/confidant is the son of his family caretaker, who follows him around neglecting his own family.
(Also impotent and not clearly stated: Amrish Puri in this movie!)
And then there are the prostitutes. Through out the film, Biju’s regular pimp and madam attempt to interest him in someone. It never seems forceful, these are not pimps who are kidnapping girls or threatening them. The situation does it for them, they are the solution to problems that already exist. We see glimpses of a widow, a young married woman, women working for too little wages in factories, all sorts who might need to supplement their income for survival.
The procurers find these people and make arrangements with them, Biju pays them, it is all seemingly above board and harmless. But the harm is there before he pays them, before they are recruited. It is that they need to be recruited in the first place. It is that the only solution society offers these women is prostitution, not support while they find jobs, get educated, get a divorce, anything else.
That is the lesson Biju slowly comes to learn. He thinks because he never physically harms these women, or allows them to come to harm by someone in his employ (his chosen pimp and madam are clearly not harmful people). Because he even organizes an event for them, a function to honor retired prostitutes hosted at the local communist hall. That he is “good”, that he understands them.
It takes an older prostitute to set him right, to point out that honor and money mean nothing, what she needed was help and sympathy then, when she was driven to this point. That every prostitute hides a story of misery and he is failing to see it. Instead just seeing them as tools to fulfill his needs, or attempt to fulfill his needs.
Going back to the elephant, “Musth” is not necessarily sexual. It is a violent irritation, an itch they can’t scratch, an anger in them. Sometimes it focuses on female elephants, sometimes not. That is what Biju is experiencing. A desire, a need for something ill-defined, and he is lashing out all around him (in a very pleasant sort of humorous way), drawing everyone else into his obsession.
(Literally an itch, they have this weird secretion that leaks out of them and irritates the skin. Elephants are weird)
Which brings us to the title character, “Leela”. She is the most damaged of all possible women, most damaged by the uncontrolled (because it was not chosen to be controlled) male desires. A few years earlier her father, while drunk, had raped her. And the local doctor, a friend of Biju’s, had helped with her abortion of the resulting child. She and her father had moved to a different town in shame, and Biju brings his loyal servant and his loyal pimp with him to go talk to her and her father. It appears that he wishes to purchase her into prostitution. That he has taken his lessons about serving others and translated them to mean “pay a lot of money to make the most desperate woman you can find into a prostitute and you will feel better”, instead of cutting prostitution out of the equation entirely.
(Leela is played by Parvathy Nambiar, not the famous Parvathy, a different one)
And he is still only seeing people, especially women, blindly in terms of what they can do for him. He takes this damaged girl, he forces her to stand in front of an elephant, to live out his fantasy of having sex against an elephant’s trunk. Until, finally, he snaps out of his spell. He simply kisses her on the forehead and walks away, ordering his servant to prepare for a wedding, he is bringing her home to marry her honorably.
This picks up on a moment from way way back at the beginning of the film. His servant asked him why he didn’t marry and he said it would be “unfair” to disappoint his bride. Which means that he only sees marriage in terms of sex. And that he only sees prostitutes as disposable objects who cannot be disappointed. Now, he is finally past that. This girl can be his partner in ways that are non-sexual, and he respects her enough to marry her, despite her tragic past.
Only, it isn’t that simple. He can’t just “save” somebody like that. He has already pushed her, and himself, too far to go back. And so she dies, victim of his lust, and victim of the all powerful elephant which represents it. The seemingly calm, seemingly friendly, seemingly harmless elephant. Who has so much power that a casual twist of his trunk is enough to kill someone, without even meaning to hurt them. And a woman so helpless, driven to such extremes of desperation, that she doesn’t even see how to escape.