Naalu Pennungal (Four Women) by master filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan is a story retold with restraint about the struggles of women within Kerala homes between the 1940s and ’60s. The movie is comprised of four vignettes: of women in different social roles – the prostitute, the virgin, the housewife, and the spinster. A fragmented narrative that allows Adoor a kind of liberating space in terms of story-telling. The movie has no linear plot, and staves off closure in different ways, giving the director freedom to explore women’s differing positions under different times and in different social strata in Kerala society. Quartet of tales, profiling a domestic/sexual dilemma suffered by women in subservient positions, tend toward repetition while stoking similar thematic points, and extending any one of these to feature length, particularly the finale starring Nandita Das, would have been a smarter option.

The first part of the film is sub-titled ‘Oru Niyamalankhanathinte Kadha’ which means ‘Story of a prostitue’. The woman in this part is Kunjipeenu (Padmapriya) who plays the role of a sex worker who later chooses to live by working as a road worker. The storyline later moves on to what happens when Kunjipennu at last finds someone who loves her dearly and who wants to lead a life with her, as her husband.It portrays how the society treats such women even if they have decided to live in good lines in one part of their life. The story predictably has an ironical ending where the couple is separated and punished for aspiring to build their future together without any official sanction. But, the sweet gist of the story lies in the portion that shows the intimate relationship between the couple, where they discuss their wage or their dream of having a roof on their heads.

The heroine in “The Virgin” is a business-savvy young woman whose parents arrange a match with a man whose reputation in business is her equal. The viewer wouldn’t expect how the husband’s business skills affect their marriage (although the title provides a hint). The changing phase of the society is depicted when the friends of the bride-to-be demand that the girl should have a look at the prospective groom before disclosing her decision.

The third part of the film named ‘Chinnu Amma’ is about the life of Chinnu (Manju Pillai) who does not have children in her life. She is a naive yet strong lady trying to protect(or prevent) herself from commiting a sin.

The fourth story Nityakanyaka is about Kamakshi, a girl from an affluent family, who remains a spinster even after her younger sisters and younger brother get married and live with their families. The plight of Kamakshi and the way society sees her and the way she reacts to the responses of those around her forms the plot. The story of this character occupies the longest space, but compared to others, this is the meekest of all. This is also the story that remains fresh in our minds long after we leave the theatre, maybe because it is the last one to roll out in the sequence of stories. It is also the most conventional and stereotypical story of the lot.

The cinematography was by M.J Radhakrishnan and he has succeeded in bringing the raw realities of life on to screen. The director lets the characters play out scenes instead of prodding their movements. The editing, art-work, sound recording, costume-designing and the background score make the film stand out.

The helplessness and vulnerability of the fairer sex, the inherent strength they have, and the vicissitudes of Fate to which women often fall prey in a male dominated society are some of the issues that get discussed in Naalu Pennungal.