A widow is living in the fond memories of her husband but is very lonely. She sets out to fulfil her sexual needs after consulting a psychiatrist (played by Guru Somasundaram), but struggles as she's supposed to navigate through her own mental trauma and the sensitive male ego. What unfolds through the course of her journey forms the crux of 'Neeraja', the Malayalam remake of 'Nathicharami', the 2018 Kannada film, which won five awards at the 66th National Film Awards.
The film has an interesting premise as it explores the sexual needs of a widow (played by Shruti Ramachandran). Her parents want her to remarry, but she wants to stay faithful to the memory of her husband. However, she is well aware that she has physical needs. “To live happily with a man, do I need to marry?,” she asks her mother, reaffirming that marriage is not all about sex, but emotional needs and trust as well.
While Neeraja tries to navigate her life on one side of town, the makers train their lens on another married couple, who are completely unsatisfied with their life. Arun (Jinu Joseph) works in the construction field and is irritated with his wife Meera (played by Srinda) since he believes she is just a 'village girl' at heart. However, Meera is desperate to make him love her. Throughout the course of the film, Meera is trying her best to win her husband, who often overlooks her sweet gestures.
Neeraja, who is now on a quest to fulfil her sexual needs, meets Arun when he comes to the common park to walk. They forge a friendship till Neeraja approaches him for sex.
It's nice to see the film take a diversion from many Indian stories on infidelity. Here, Neeraja is afraid only of breaking her husband's trust and not societal norms when she decides to ask for what she needs. Also, Arun, who overlooks his wife's tenderness, is not shown as a sexually-deprived man.
'Neeraja', almost stays faithful to the original, in every line and dialogue, but has taken some liberties in the way it has depicted a few characteristics of its lead characters. Director Rajesh K Raman has added more layers to his characters, unlike the original film where Suresh is depicted as an opportunist. Shruthi's Neeraja is a livelier version of the original, though Sruthi Hariharan played Gouri to perfection in 'Nathicharami'. Probably, the makers of the Kannada film wanted to focus on the complexity of a widow's life by setting a sombre tone, throughout the film. In the remake, the statements and actions are more direct. Though it's a good way to approach a film, it's best to leave some things unsaid and undone.
'Neeraja', just like the original, has made a bold attempt to convey that women too have sexual needs. The film lightly touches upon masturbation. Though she is not seen using a vibrator, the director ensures she is seen purchasing one online.
In that way, 'Nathicharami' was bolder. In 'Neeraja', the director played it safe in a few occasions. When Neeraja tries to explore her body in bed, it is more out of her desire to recreate the physical intimacy that she shared with her husband, while in 'Nathicharami', it is portrayed as pure sexual need.
Since 'Neeraja' is a little more emotional than the original, some of the scenes feel stretched. However, given that, all the actors did a fine job of elevating the film.