Shaji N Karun's Kutty Srank narrates the story of a nomadic drifter who is forever lured by the call of the waves. It's not just the story of a man who could never get over his obsessive quest for truth and identity; it's a multilayered account of several other lives as well that got allured by the labyrinth of his rootless existence. The film is extremely complex and demands a repeated viewing on the part of the viewer if he is to really savor its magnitude.
Kutty Srank starts off with an end; an end to a life lived. An unidentified body of a middle aged man that is washed ashore in a canoe, brings forth three women who claim to have been associated with the man at some point in his life. Kutty Srank, as the sailor is called, is to each one of them a man as strikingly different from the other two as possible.
It's after sixteen years that Revamma (Padmapriya) returns from Columbo to her homeland. Her hopes to turn Buddhist along with her lover Prasanna a week later are dashed when her affluent dad chops him into pieces and throws him into the sea, half dead. Revamma admonishes her dad's accomplice Kutty Srank (Mammootty) for unintentionally having played partner in crime and begs him to take her away to some place where she could be at peace until her ship to Gaya arrives.
Death and blood pervades Revamma's world and her frantic struggle to flee from her past is echoed in Srank's efforts to cleanse his hands. The stench of rancid meat and gore forever remains in his bleeding nose, and Revamma offers a solution through atonement. He agrees and whisks her away to an islet where strains of a dreamy melody streak in.
Pemmana (Kamalini Mukherjee) plucks away a few mushrooms that have grown beside the remains of her lover and remembers that it was during a murky monsoon that had come raging down that she first ever met Srank. Floored by the charms of Srank who plays her hero in the dramatic recital, Pemmana doesn't think twice before offering herself to him. The looming clouds seem to move away, even if for a moment. Her naked silhouette fails to enthuse him though, and he leaves without a word.
The heavens seem to constantly shed tears, as Pemmana persuades Srank to drop anchor on her coast. Srank meanwhile dabbles at issues of faith and belief, much to the exasperation of the local priest Younus (Siddiq). As the clergyman threatens his wayward flock with expulsion, Srank dismisses it off and suggests that God would surely have something better to do than keep an eye on the millions beneath him. And to make matters worse, his mentor Loni Aasaan (Suresh Krishna) falls in love with a nun.
The third woman in the picture walks in and takes one hard look at the corpse, before she faints. Kali (Meena Kumari) is a mute woman in her late thirties who is an epitome of fear; raw dread that a human feels of another, that gradually dries up every bit of vigor left in the body. Abused and left abandoned all her life as an ill omen that induces misfortune, her banishment from the land is imminent. Nalini (Wahida) in her sketch of the voiceless soul, wonders why Kali who has lived with snakes for long, hasn't been able to suck the venom off the deadly monsters slithering around her.
Upon his arrival, Srank bangs on Kali's door in an attempt to murder her and cleanse the land of her affliction. The terrified woman staggers up from the floor and pees, as Srank watches in sympathy. He leaves, only to come back and spends the night outside her house. Not much later, we see him lying out cold in a thicket, stung by a snake and Kali nurses him back to health. Two months later, Srank gradually stumbles back to life, looking all worn out, and it doesn't take long before we realize that Kali is both the serpent and the savior for him.
Nalini for the first time in her life, feels jealous of Kali, and affirms that love can never afford to remain hushed. It has to find ways of expression, and Kali who had been a moldy symbol of servitude, regains her breath and blood. She looks like having gained a fresh existence out of Srank, who on the other hand admits that he has learned her splendid language of silence. So when he disappears on a misty morning, Kali knows he would be back for sure one day. She tolerantly waits along with his baby in her stomach, and then the breeze brings in bad news.
Shortly after regaining her senses, Kali vehemently proclaims with a vigorous nod of her head that it's not Kutti Srank who lies rotting away in the canoe. There is no reason for us not to believe her, since she is probably the one among the three women who has known Srank from close quarters. The classic volte-face that Shaji employs at this juncture throws all the former notions into disarray; the roundabout when it arrives elevates the film to an altogether different level.
Thus it isn't entirely a character expose of a man that Shaji attempts through 'Kutty Srank'. It is rather an authoritative treatise on convictions and the flimsy stuff that even the staunchest of them are made of. The mystery that pervades the life of Kutty Srank is deliberately dotted with numerous blanks that will leave the spectators - both of his life and of the film - in perplexity.
Nothing is what it seems in this intriguing exploration. The world of dreams could in most likelihood be the most real world out there, and the world of waking may in all probability be the most illusory one. We live in a state of consciousness that we believe to be true, until someone comes along and questions the very basic tenets of our existence. And then in our pursuit of answers we get smothered by questions that multiply by the dozen every moment.
It isn't exactly an easy job to retain an air of vagueness around, when sticks are being poked all over you to unravel the real person that you are. All the ambiguity, all the intrigue and all the indistinctness that make up this highly mystifying character is retained to perfection in Mammootty's portrayal of Srank. Through this eminent feat, he doesn't let us get an inch closer to the sailor than his director wants us to, and Srank gives him plenty of opportunities to showcase his incredible talent. The three women actors are tremendously effective, but Meena Kumari does strike a special chord by bringing in that extra little bit of vulnerability that makes her performance a truly remarkable one.
Shaji has some of the best technicians working for this film, and Anjali Shukla has crafted some brilliant frames that lend an additional visual charm to Srank's life. Sreekar Prasad has done a crisp assignment here and the original musical score by Isaac Thomas is nothing short of delightful.
As the three women go back to their lives with their stories having been told, I believe Srank still mysteriously rows around the dark backwaters. With more tides to conquer and more shores to find, the sailor would embark on yet another voyage and leave more trails of tales behind.