The plot revolves around a girl, Cheluvi, who has mystical powers. Her family is surviving in abject poverty in a village. Besides Cheluvi there is her sister and old mother in her family. As they grow up Cheluvi tells her sister that she has magical power through which she can turn into a flowering tree. The sisters go deep inside the forest and as Cheluvi concentrates on the spell he sister brings two pitchers of water. She pours one of them over Cheluvi. Miraculously the younger sister is turned into a flowering tree that yields exotic flowers with bewitching fragrance. Cheluvi asks her to gather as many flowers as possible without breaking any part of the fragile tree. After plucking sufficient flowers Cheluvi's sister pours water from the second pitcher on her and Cheluvi regains her human form.
During such visits to the forest one day they are followed by Kumar (Prakash Rao), the son of the village headman. He has been already mesmerised by the sweet fragrance of the flowers and comes to know about the secret. Obsessed with the flowers he marries Cheluvi and they often enjoy her flowering while they are alone. Kumar takes her to a private pool and coaxes her to become the tree. But Cheluvi's flowers fall into the flowing water and the children in the house also witness the incident. However the fact that he remains aloof from her is also apparent in the movie. During Kumar's absence the village chieftain's younger sister persuades Cheluvi to share her secret and she forces her to come to the woods and turn into the tree. Being insensitive, she and other children callously break the branches of the tree while collecting the scented flowers, thus permanently damaging both the woman and the tree.
A woodcutter takes pity on the plight of poor Cheluvi and brings her home. On his return Kumar is dejected as he misses Cheluvi. On the other hand Cheluvi requests the woodcutter to place her in front of her husband's house. Towards the end of the film Kumar recognises Cheluvi in the tree form and both of them go to the forest. Cheluvi tells him that if they can find her missing branches she can regain her human form. In the last scene two dejected souls are seen in the woods when they witness that several trees have been felled and it is impossible to find her branches any more. Cheluvi ends at this point.
Cheluvi bagged the National Award for the best film on environment. It is true that Cheluvi does raise the issue of deforestation but behind that simple plot several vital issues are dealt with. Girirsh Karnad through the film portrays the essential nature of a woman. Like the delicate flowering tree a woman to keeps on serving her loved ones throughout her life and that too without any expectations. She fills the life of others with her sweet fragrance while she herself undergoes a lot of pain. In the film too Cheluvi (Sonali Kulkarni) lends her flowers to her sister so that her family could eke out a living by selling these flowers. After her marriage she uses her mystical powers to please her husband who is completely enamoured by the delicate scent. Cheluvi even goes to the extent of sharing her deepest secret with the children who leave her mutilated. The film raises one of the most pertinent questions: the role of the women in the Indian society. She is always blossoming for others but will she ever blossom (live) for herself!
As far as the performances are concerned this is the first movie of Sonali Kulkarni and the Indian actress is awe inspiring in her role of a docile, kind hearted woman empowered with mystical powers. Girish Karnad's histrionic skills are unquestionable and Prakash Rao does justice to Prakash. Cheluvi is one of the humanistic films that has been ever made in India. The way the director plays with symbols and images are definitely impressive. The lucid narrative helped Cheluvi to reach out to all sections of the society.
Cheluvi was screened at the Cannes Film Festival.