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When women were kings
When bilingual writer B Jeyamohan found fragments of palm-leaf records in an old government storeroom in Nagercoil, Tamil Nadu, his curiosity was piqued. A close study revealed that they were actually ozhimuris (small records) of divorce among Nair couples.
Intrigued, Jeyamohan began taking a closer look at the matrilineal system that once prevailed in the Nair community in the erstwhile southern Travancore. The result was Uravidangal, a book in Malayalam, that delves into a time when succession to property was traced through the women in the family. Soon after it was published, two years ago, Malayalam director Madhupal evinced an interest in turning the book into a film.
The film, Ozhimuri, will release in July. Produced by PN Venugopal, it stars Lal, Swetha Menon and Asif Ali. "The idea is to highlight an age when women enjoyed maximum freedom within the family and to trace the factors that led to its collapse, " says the Nagercoil-based writer, who has also written the script.
The film's shooting is underway in and around Kanyakumari. It took Jeyamohan and the director two years to work out the complex plot into a script. "If you trace the matrilineal system, you will find that it existed even during the late Chera period. The ancestral property was enjoyed by the children of the women in the family which provided women with a sense of security and safety, " says Jeyamohan, who writes in both Malayalam and Tamil and has penned the script for Tamil hits like Naan Kadavul and Angadi Theru.
The Nair families of Travancore, particularly the southern part of the region, were known for their strict adherence to the matrilineal system. (As per this system, the mother in the family became stronger than the father. The right to the property was also traced through the women in the family. ) However, with the introduction of the Nair Act of 1925 in Travancore and the Nair Regulation Act in Cochin in 1938, the matrilineal system was abolished. "When the system ended in the 1940s, women lost all power, " says Jeyamohan.
Ozhimuri exposes the complexities of a transformational period when the matrilineal system dissolved and gave way to the patrilineal structure. The ego clashes and intricacies of the system are seen through the eyes of the lead character Thanupillai (Lal), who witnesses the lives of his mother, wife, and son's wife. "In the matrilineal society, women were free to seek divorce if they were not happy with the relationship they shared with their husbands, " says Jeyamohan. "The palm-leaf divorce records stand testimony to the freedom that women once enjoyed. "
The subject is very complex but director Madhupal says he has always wanted to work on such a theme. "If you look at the people of Kanyakumari, the centre of erstwhile southern Travancore, you will see that they have two identities, " he says. "Even though the district was merged with Tamil Nadu, the people have kept alive their cultural bond with Kerala. Most of them speak Malayalam at home and Tamil to communicate with others. In a way, they lead the lives of expatriates. I want to expose the contradictions in their lives. "
In many Nair families of Kanyakumari, the mother is still a dominant force. "If you look at history, you will see that the women of the Tranvancore royal family were powerful and we had great women rulers, " says Madhupal. "You can still see women enjoying power in some Nair families in Kanyakumari. I want to show the audience how a society that once practised a different system of succession lives now. "
Since Madhupal is very particular about an authentic portrayal of life in this area, he spent a lot of time studying its colloquialisms. "I spent a lot of time in Kanyakumari and Nagercoil trying to understand how Malayalam and Tamil mingle here, " he says. "We are shooting at locations where real incidents took place. "
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