After about 75 days of its release, Ranjith Shankar’s taut thriller Passenger finally made its away to the shores of Mumbai, as it thirsts for the song of monsoon. My friend wanted to go for Shortkut but I convinced him to watch Passenger and in hindsight, he agrees that it is a wise decision.
Ranjith Shankar, an IT professional, finally does justice to a genre hitherto untouched by Malayalam cinema for reasons beyond my comprehension – the thriller genre. This is a slick socio-political thriller, without the silly trappings of either the Amal Neerad School of Technology or the Shaji Kailash School of Dramatics. It is a simple, well-told thriller that brings a set of performers on the platform of the Southern Railways and skillfully weaves a plot, without a second of unnecessary drama.
The film begins on a slow note and runs parallel on 2 tracks – one chronicling Satyanathan’s (Sreenivasan) life as he goes through his daily journey from Nellayi to Ernakulam and back, with his friends while the other takes a peep into the lives of a socially sensitive lawyer-journalist couple as they take on the might of the Home Minister. But this slow note helps in building the momentum as it sets into motion rhythmically the characters of the various individuals in the film – the protagonists as well as the others like Satya’s friends and family.
One eventful day, destiny suddenly conspires to throw the three central characters together and their lives suddenly change. Sathyanathan is a daily train commuter, who having fallen asleep one late night misses his home town station. Waking up, he meets Advocate Nandan Menon (Dileep), who is heading to a hotel room where he would be alone for the night, since his wife Anuradha (Mamta Mohandas) is away on an assignment, covering a news story. This forms the turning point for the story as it suddenly throttles forward, altering forever the path of their lives.
Story wise, what is told is nothing new – corruption in the higher echelons and the hero exposing this malaise has been beaten to pulp by the likes of Ranjith, Shaji Kailash, Madhu and the rest of their ilk. But what differentiates Passenger is the script which sticks to the plot faithfully linearly, hinting at issues like corruption, terrorism and harassment of women . There are no songs and the mandatory sidekicks are thankfully absent, but the movie manages to keep you riveted to the screen and interest never lags. Even the ending is minus any usual pyrotechnics and the ordinary man returns to where it all began - his train journey.
Sreenivasan and Dilip play their characters with restraint, giving them a quite sense of dignity. The Common Man (portrayed in a totally different but equally effective role by Naseruddin Shah in “A Wednesday”) has his moments and it is these moments which carry the movie. Mamta Mohandas is gladly underplayed and she works her way well in the movie. Nedumudi Venu is sufficient as the taxi driver while Satyanathan’s friends do not have much to do but help in propelling the story with their lively banter. The train itself plays an important character in the movie - Bollywood films have paid homage to the local train as the lifeline of the city, but it hasn’t happened in Malayalam.
But my vote for the best performance in the movie is Jagathy, who plays the scheming Thomas Chacko, the corrupt Home Minister. We all know that Jagathy is a brilliant actor but haven’t we lost count of the number of times he has played silly sidekicks in movies and done roles that are best consigned to the dustbin? Here, he emerges tall as a corrupt Minister who talks smoothly – there is a calmness in the way he talks which adds an extra dimension to the role of the villain who has been played to death by Janardhanan, Siddique (with his innumerable make ups), Narendra Prasad etc.
There are many moments in the film which capture the mood of the State and gives that feeling of déjà vu – Sathyanathan’s mother interrupts his daily TV watching in time to watch ‘Devi Mahathmyam’, she keeps sending SMSs to the Idea Star Singer. At regular intervals, his wife reminds to buy a packet of tea and berates him on his inability to go beyond the rigmarole of his normal routine; while he enjoys the quite life around temple festivals and Ulsavams.
While the movie talks to the Common Man, it also rightfully raises questions on the role of the media in the affairs of the State. As Thankamma Rajan points out in the movie, for years there have been agitations against the quarrying and sand mining but the media never bothered but the moment there is a sexual harassment allegation, the story became hot news – so much for the bravery of the New Age Media. Indeed, it reflects poorly on a State where the biggest news stories have been sex scandals like the Suryanelli case, Vithura case and the Kozhikode “ice-cream parlour case”.
There are certain loose ends in the movie but trust me; you’d like to forget them because the movie brings in a whiff of fresh air in an ailing Malayalam film industry that is going through its worst periods of identity crisis. Passenger shows a way out of this rut – bring in a fresh script, inject in credible characters and lo behold, you have a recipe to bring back the bored audience back to the theatres.
I just hope that Ranjith Shankar does not go the K Madhu way (after a CBI Diarykurippu and a Jagratha, he lost his way and become a clone of Shaji and Ranjith) or even the Amal Neerad way if SAJ is any indicator – let us keep our fingers crossed and hope that he continues on this path.