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IV Sasi’s ‘Her Nights’ was a bold take on sex work that was unfairly dismissed as porn

The 1978 movie, first made in Malayalam as ‘Avalude Ravukal’, had feminist overtones that make it relevant even today.

No obituary for the veteran Malayalam director IV Sasi, who passed away on October 24 at the age of 69, is complete without a reference to his 1978 hit Avalude Ravukal (Her Nights), the first Malayalam film to get an “A” certification, classifying it as fit for adults only.

Sasi’s directorial debut was Utsavam in 1975, and he had made nearly 20 movies before Avalude Ravukal. The racy movie about an adolescent sex worker signalled Sasi’s arrival as a bold director, someone who was willing to experiment with plots that many of his contemporaries considered loathsome. Avalude Ravukal went on to become one of his most popular works, and was also highly successful in its dubbed versions in Tamil and Hindi.

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During his remarkable career as a filmmaker spanning over many decades, Sasi made more than 170 films, including a few titles in Tamil and Hindi, and some of Malayalam cinema’s biggest hits like Devasuram and Adimakal Udamakal. He is also credited with bringing actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal to the limelight. His craft as a filmmaker ensured commercial success and critical acclaim for his movies despite the unusual subjects of the movies.

Avalude Ravukal grabbed eyeballs for its bold treatment but also received rave reviews for taking on an unusual subject and giving it feminist overtones. Sasi showed maturity and nuance in portraying the life of a sex worker without resorting to sleaze and titillation.

The film is about Raji, a sex worker in her teens who is fighting a lone battle to raise her little brother. Out on the streets after their parents’ deaths, Raji turns to sex work to make money. Scores of men come and go from her lives, leaving little impact, until she meets college student Babu/ She falls in love with Babu and relentlessly pursues him. Her ardour remains undiminished even though his actions frequently hurt her.

The relationship between Raji and Babu remains platonic, though Babu is shown as making sexual advances towards her, only to retreat when he realises the nature of her love for him. Raji attaches little significance to her body – for her, it is a tool to sustain herself and realise her dreams. “Though I have given this body to many, my mind is still not corrupt,” she tells Babu. Raji does not want to appear as a victim and possesses enough self-determination and dignity to stand on her own and withstand setbacks.

In one scene, she wears the saree that Chandran had gifted her, cooks and serves him food as his wife would do, just to live that experience.

In a telling sequence, Raji forms an emotional bond with one of her regular visitors, Jayan, who happens to be Babu’s friend, after he bails her out from jail when she is arrested during a police crackdown. When all his friends abandoned Jayan, known for his alcoholic and womanising ways, on his deathbed, it is Raji who stands by him. Jayan apologises to her for not having treated her with dignity.

Another man that plays an important role in Raji’s life is Chandran, a schoolteacher, who becomes her close companion towards the end of the movie. He tells her that he wanted to marry her, but cannot overlook the fact that she was a sex worker. But even as he continues to care for her, she refuses to marry him because she blames him for her brother’s death. Apart from this clear example of Raji asserting herself to reject Chandra, their relationship is also significant in that it is compassion and forgiveness that mark their association, and not sex.

Avalude Ravukal’s ensemble cast boasted some of the biggest names in the industry at the time, including MG Soman as Chandran, Sukumaran as Jayan and H Ravi Kumar, who plays Babu. It also introduced Seema, who played Raji, to Malayalam cinema. Sasi and Seema married two years after the release of the film and they remained companions until the legendary director’s death.

What makes Avalude Ravukal a winner is also scriptwriter Alleppey Sheriff’s depiction of Raji, whom he fleshes out excellently as a well-rounded character. The barely educated Raji is an avid reader. The dialogue between Babu and Raji is laced with literary references to the legendary Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammad Basheer. Babu, a literature student, is in awe of Raji’s ability to connect her experiences to literature.

Sheriff, who also collaborated with Sasi for many notable films including Utsavam, first wrote the story of Avalude Ravukal as a novel, largely based on the interesting characters that he had met in a toddy shop that he used to frequent. He narrated the screenplay to many producers and directors who he thought would be willing to break the rules and conventions of Malayalam cinema. After a long list of rejections, Sheriff found an enthusiastic producer in his friend Ramachandran and a director in Sasi, who jumped at the opportunity to become a trendsetter.

The dignified portrayal of a sex worker – one that was not judgmental or preachy and showed her asserting herself – in Avalude Ravukal tested and eventually broadened the horizons of Malayalam cinema that had so far stuck to gender binaries in its portrayal of men and women. The characters of Avalude Ravukal inhabited shades of grey and spoke their minds in ways that resonated with audiences. Sasi’s experience as an art director (which is how he started out in the film industry) also lent an element of realism to the production design, making the settings familiar and relatable.

Sasi neither glorified the female protagonist by vilifying the male characters, nor did he resort to intellectual pretentiousness in his treatment. The inherent earnestness in the narration is what endeared viewers to Raji and made them empathise with her. It is unfortunate that many consider Sasi only as a mainstream hitmaker even though he had reshaped the sensibilities of Malayalam audience and heralded a new wave.

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