Sunday, January 30, 2011

Arjunan Sakshi

Ranjith Sankar’s ‘Passenger’ dealt with a common man’s reaction to a problem and how his ability to react can make a difference; ‘Arjunan Sakshi’ takes off on a similar tangent but Ranjith is slightly more ambitious here. He puts the common man protagonist in a situation where he is forced to react and not remain a mere sakshi to the issues being faced. The canvas is broader but the approach unfortunately skids on a slightly  simplistic and predictable plane, grounding my expectations fuelled by Ranjith’s debut.

'Arjunan Sakshi' starts off with an anonymous letter which arrives at Mathrubhumi office from somebody called Arjunan, who claims that he is witness to the murder of Feroz Mooppan (Mukesh), the former Kochi Collector. Anjali Menon (Ann Augustine), the journalist who publishes the letter is threatened by unknown people to reveal Arjunan's identity while Roy Mathew (Prithviraj), an enterprising architect who lands in Kochi to join a real estate firm, is mistaken for Arjunan and gets sucked into the plot unwittingly.

The conceptual premise is promising – he is a man who is mistaken to be a witness to high profile crime and has to bear the brunt of the antagonists. He lands himself in a piquant situation and is shoved to a corner but instead of being a mere witness, he decides to fight back. The backdrop of an urban congested Kochi plagued by a weak administration, crony capitalism and ‘ready to crawl when asked to bend’ press gives the movie a realistic feel.

Ranjith has the right intentions and the film makes a bright start but is handicapped by the execution not matching the concept. While the story builds up and creates tension with alacrity, it slowly loses its grip on the plot and so situations become convenient to tighten the loose strings in the plot. To give credit to Ranjith, he does not give Roy any heroic aura and allows him to take wrong steps but the path seems simple enough, without too many speed breakers.

The Feroz Mooppan case remains unresolved despite attempts by both the local police and the CBI. The fact that a common man with no connections in a city is able to track and identify the killers makes it such a mundane thing that you’d wonder why the police or even the CBI were unable to crack the case. Let us assume that this is primarily because of the high profile of the people involved in the case but till Roy attempts his own investigation, we have no idea of the suspects in the case.

If there was a governmental culpability in mishandling the case, we are not told about it. And if this was the case, it does not hinder Roy’s investigations in any way and he proceeds with his snooping without facing any trouble from anyone. The cops sympathize with the predicament that Roy finds himself in but are not willing to help without sufficient leads to work on, however is the sympathy genuine? We are not too sure about this; the moral ambiguity in their actions helps in adding greater intrigue but at the same time, it makes one wonder whether the attitude of the cops towards Roy is driven by their exasperation with such fly-by-night TRP-driven stories or their intention to let sleeping dogs lie.

A particular media channel picks up the story of the attack on Roy and the news quickly flashes on the identity of Arjunan. But after the initial hue and cry, the media goes totally silent and despite multiple attacks on his life and the death of the Collector’s father, the media is strangely absent. The Police Commissioner says that since the story is no longer fresh, the media is least bothered about following up on the story but do we sense that sufficient time has progressed for the media to junk the story? No, we don’t; instead it comes across just as a tool that the director uses to hammer the media for what they are worth.

Initially, Roy is hounded by his opponents and attacked on a couple of occasions and he realizes that taking his story to the media could protect him but just as mysteriously as the subsequent lack of media glare, the attacks also cease giving him sufficient breathing space to conduct his investigation independently. The screenplay seems to create these triggers as and when there is a need to build in momentum in the plot than follow a more logical flow of events.

Roy Mathew is a young flashy architect who has studied in Mumbai and worked extensively out of Kerala and his only sojourns to the state are a few weekly trips which are pretty rare. Maybe I am wrong but I strongly suspect that Roy’s language hardly shows him as an expatriate in that sense. He’s blissfully comfortable in the language and the culture of the place, though the director drops in a few hints at his unease. Wouldn’t the character worked equally well if he were a home grown guy who returns to his state after a few years? Maybe an outsider brings in a fresh perspective to things; he does not accept the things they are and questions them.

Thankfully, the director steers himself of any romantic angles in the plot and sticks to the direction of the plot faithfully till the very end. Such an approach works well in case of thrillers which work at break neck speed but to that extent, the movie has a more leisurely pace. Roy is in serious trouble but is he a loner? Do we know anything about his family and friends- wouldn’t either of these two blocks be his main rallying points in such an emergency situation?

We come to know that the Kochi Metro Rail passes through important hubs in the city and the murder of Feroze Moppan is connected to the builders who are unwilling to give up government encroached land. The issue is highly debated in the media, the plan layouts are available in newspapers and it does not require an investigation by Roy to suspect who the conspirators are. It is clear that some of these malls have come up illegally on government land but clearly, they cannot come up one fine day without governmental clearances – but the role of the State is not questioned, except for a couple of token dialogues. It would be interesting to know what would be the government response in case the encroachers were poor people with no housing facilities and not big malls.

‘Arjunan Sakshi’ makes its point about incompetent governments, public apathy and developmental conflicts and does not get too preachy but largely remains a murder plot waiting to be resolved by th hero. Ranjith wants us to break out our comfort zones of family and comfort, look at the real world outside and make a difference but as we leave the theatres, I strongly suspect that it falls short of making us do that.

*** The Kochi Metro Rail forms the crux of the issue here and Ranjith endorses the idea of a metro rail in Kochi whole heartedly but I assume that the Metro Rail here is a mere symbol of the development that the state needs because it is a moot question whether an expensive option like a metro rail is a preferred option to a cheaper and probably better alternative like BRTS in smaller towns that carry a lesser load than the main metros. Our one size fits all solutions for development needs more thinking...