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Siraj Syed

Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 



Phullu, Review by Siraj Syed: Misleading title, taboo subject, tenacious treatment

Phullu, Review by Siraj Syed: Misleading title, taboo subject, tenacious treatment

This is a good example of a film named after its lead character, with no regard for audiences’ perception of what it might stand for, and no clue about the storyline. The word is not a corruption of phool (flower), though it could well be an attempt to synthesise phool with ullu (owl; figuratively, a fool). We can go with the assumption that they intended to call him the flower fool, Phullu.

Phullu is about a village bumpkin who takes it upon himself to spread personal hygiene among the women of his village, and tries all possible means to convince them to do away with traditional methods of attending to menstruation, lest they, as is likely, get infected. Why the writer chose to make a man a central character when the matter is talked about in hushed tones even among women, is knowledge that we are not privy to. That the makers chose to make a film about menstrual cycle, and stuck to their theme in the narrative, is, nevertheless, both bold and tenacious.

His mother makes quilts from stuffed rags, most of which are obtained as leftovers, from a tailor in the city, by Phullu. He also shops for things that women of the village ask him to, but accepts no money for his efforts and earns nothing at all. Burdened with a bumpkin son and a teenager daughter, Phullu’s widow mother gets him married, hoping that responsibility will knock some sense into him. Soon afterwards, she starts looking for a groom for her daughter.

Initially, Phullu is reluctant to get married. He loves his easy village life and refuses to go to take up gainful employment. Then, once he is smitten with the beauty of his bride-to-be, he agrees to the arranged marriage (what else?). On the nuptial bed, he acquires carnal knowledge, and goes berserk.

Ignorant about women’s issues like menstruation, he lands up in trouble when he insists on meeting a woman who had asked him to bring something from the town, to hand over the article personally. It is the norm in large parts of India that women in their cycle period are not allowed to touch things, go to temples or meet visitors. He is driven away by the outraged family.

A series of happenings make him realise that sanitary napkins are a boon, and cloth is a poor, even dangerous, substitute for pads. Incredibly, he starts working in a factory that produces pads, not too far from home, and learns the process, so much so that he can now make them on his own. Simpleton that he is, he is sure that he will be able to convince all the women in his village to stop using infection prone cloth and start using hygienic pads, beginning at his own home. Going a bit too far in his effort, he wants to make and distribute the expensively priced branded item free, or at a hundredth of the cost. Obviously, he is asking for trouble. And the first person to beat the daylights out him is his stentorian mother.

“We aim to create awareness about the use of the sanitary napkins, we even have conversations with doctors who are explaining the hygienic importance of choosing sanitary napkin over a cloth,” director Abhishek Saxena told news service IANS, a week ago. Except for a pharmacist sitting at a chemist, who mouths a couple of lines about pads, there is not much evidence of “doctors explaining the hygienic importance....” Have those scenes been deleted by the producers themselves, or excised by the Central Board of Film Certification?

Scripted by Shaheen Iqbal (TV) and Anmol Kapoor, Phullu captures the ambience of a village in north/north-east India very well. This is due in great measure to the dialogue, which is in Bhojpuri dialect of Hindi-Urdu, affirming that the makers did not fall in the trap of compromise, by bringing in the widely spoken Hindi, at least in some bits. A strong, earthy fragrance is maintained throughout the film. Though it is a dialect, most audiences familiar with Hindi will have only a few hurdles in dialogue comprehension.

All the characters are well-delineated and the realistic approach maintained, except for the indulgent romantic song, from an early 60s’ Hindi hit film. Choice of subject having been made, a carefully structured path is chosen, one that does slip into vulgarity. Such films either manage to shock and awe, or peter out into inanities. What we have on offer is middle-of-the-line approach to an edgy, high voltage issue.

The released version of Phullu is probably highly sanitised, by the CFBC, guessing from the knowledge that such films are rarely made in India, and, those that are made, never get theatrical release. There were films made in the 70s that had sex as their theme, and a lot of stuff, that would never make it to conservative cinema audiences, was incorporated under the label ‘Educational’. Most of these films were even exempted from paying income tax, and some ran for a whole year, with the House-Full sign displayed prominently throughout the 50+ weeks’ run. I see no such phenomenon occurring with Phullu.

A few viewers at the press screening found it in bad taste. I disagree. The reach of cinema in spreading awareness about a health issue should not be underestimated, even if the subject is taboo. There is no nudity, or even a flashing moment of filmed menstruation, depicted, either in images or graphics. Incidentally, the film makes a poignant case for the sale of sanitary napkins at much lower costs, by encouraging local production, and not relying on expensive imports. To reach the hinterland, this is a must. It also aims at removing the tab of disease that menstruation is usually referred to. Laudable objectives, both. Incidentally, one hears that in some western countried, the period is refrred to as 'the curse', while in others, as 'chum'.

Director Abhishek Saxena has some TV work and Punjabi film (Patiala Dreams, 2014) in his CV. Phullu is bound to get mixed responses, but on the whole, I feel Saxena deserves kudos. One particular shot, when Phullu runs across a rivulet, remains embedded in the sub-conscious even a day after the film. Inam-ul-Haq (in Friendly Appearance) as Gyandev, the singer-wanderer, provides welcome comic relief. Sharib Hashmi as Phullu appears stocky on screen but has probably lost a few kilos since, going by what I saw at the preview, in person. He exudes a Nawazuddin Siddique like persona, and goes with the flow, easily.

Nutan Surya as Amma (mother) turns in an award-winning performance. Jyoti Sethi as Bigni, Phullu’s wife, gets into the mould quickly. Shaheen Iqbal as Kamru, the tailor, adds another dimension to his immense contributions to the film, along with penning the lyrics of two songs.

Phullu is not your regular weeekend, chase the blues movie. Think twice before going to watch it. There are films and there films--and they are all not the same.

Rating: ***




About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.

Bandra West, Mumbai


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