Sunday, November 25, 2012

Ayalum Njanum Thammil

Some professions are more equal than the others and medicine is one such field where a doctor is revered and expected to go beyond his line of duty. He stands as a messenger of God and in many cases, his word is the clincher that gives that extra breath to a dying man or pushes a healthier man to the brink. As Dr Samuel (Pratap Pothen) reminds his junior doctors Dr Ravi Tharakan (Prithviraj) and Dr Supriya (Remya Nambeesan), while God is the final decider, sometimes even doctors can do that role and HE speaks through them in those moments.

Ayalum Njanum Thammil(ANT henceforth) chronicles the coming of age of Dr Ravi Tharakan, a care-free medical student who goes on to become a renowned cardiac surgeon. The story moves back and forth in multiple narratives between his casual life filled with fun and frolic on campus and his present life as he fights for survival in a world where ethics comes at a premium. He passes out of medical college in flying colours but is all at sea when it comes to actually putting his education to practical work. He lands himself a compulsory 2-year stint at a remote rural hospital in scenic Munnar, manned by Dr Samuel who gives up a well-paid corporate job to take up medical practice in a small but scenic village, devoid of urban pleasures.

There is a scene in ANT where Dr Samuel says that the difficulty in being a doctor is not in doing a diagnosis or a surgery but the ability to take decisions when it matters.Taking decisions is not something that Ravi Tharakan is used to and he has no aim in life until he meets Dr Samuel and learns a few harsh lessons in life. This journey is not a simple one and with every pitfall, he learns the meaning of life and discovers the doctor or rather the true human being within himself.

I wondered whether there will be a lesson on medical ethics that the movie seeks to impart consciously but thankfully, it does not allow itself to be too pedantic (the Aamir Khan way). Melodrama is muted which is not always a good thing and even when it makes a fleeting appearance, it fails to register (more on that later). While ANT makes the right noises about corruption in the medical profession in the form of usage of sub-standard drugs or medical equipment’s in the hospital, it faithfully clings to Dr Tharakan’s metamorphosis, without delving into the larger issues perse. Now, this is not a failing in the movie but these feelers needed to be expanded a bit more; the initial campus scenes could have been truncated to explore the medical side.

What works for the movie is that has its heart in the right place. It appeals emotionally as we feel Dr Tharakan’s loss when he loses his sweetheart Sainu (Samvrutha Sunil) to her parental coercion or when he faces a medical inquiry for refusing to treat a patient on account of a personal grudge. While the inquiry proceedings and its subsequent result act as the point of inflexion in the film, this is not a one-off moment. The transformation takes place gradually over a period of time and finally converges at the point of time when Tharakan realises how meaningful his life can be. There are no Lakshya like moments and what we witness is a more silent change which is at once believable, when the ultimate moment arrives.

There are scenes that worked for me even though I don’t think the sum total of the scenes add to the whole. Azhalinte Aazhangalil sung by Nikhil Mathew beautifully captures Tharakan’s anguish and Jomon T John’s charming visuals captures that emotional scar that cleaves his heart; the loss of a lonely heart has a raw appeal. When Tharakan gives chocolates and touches the feet of the little girl that he had refused to treat earlier, you can sense the guilt that he goes through. When it is revealed that Dr Samuel has had a failed marital life and his son is in wayward company, there is an acknowledgment that the even his mentor is lonely and has his own troubles.

Among the highlights of the movie (it’s not the script) are performances by the lead cast and Jomon’s splendid cinematography. Pratap Pothen fills in the space with a gentle performance that is at once warm and is devoid of any chest-thumping self-righteousness or irrational exuberance that is exhibited in such characters; whether ANT or 22FK, new age Malayalam cinema has resurrected this actor from wilderness. When he deals with his wayward son’s outbursts or tries to understand Tharakan’s love life, the man carries on with the role with an element of dignity.

Prithviraj as Dr Tharakan finally emerges from his shadows and delivers a performance that silences his critics (and there are many of them, esp those who cannot digest his attack on superstar-driven cinema). Whether it is the scene where he faces his father after the inquiry or even when he confronts the wayward SI or his silent anguish at being deprived of his love (despite it being so underplayed), the machismo is balanced with his sense of emotional turmoil. Jomon’s cinematography is a silent and gentle meditation that helps in accentuating the emotions that the cast goes through. Yes, Munnar is beautiful but the visuals never hide the undercurrents that happen but manage to create the shades of gloom and despair that accompanies many of the moments.

Again, for me, ANT was a potential classic where Lal Jose eventually chickened out allowing himself to be dictated by more conventional norms. The latter part of the 2nd half works in a predictable fashion and scenes are written to allow for co-incidences to happen and that is kind of disappointing because of the way the movie positioned itself for a greater part of its duration.

While Tharakan is committed and can go to any extent to save a patient’s life including do a free surgery even without taking consent from the patient’s family, he does not seem to have done anything about the supply of expired drugs/instruments, other than complaining to the Chairman about it. He is no whistle-blower and remains part of the system that has its hands in deep shit. By no means is the fraud being perpetuated a minor one and the shock that Diya feels when she sees a kid who loses his legs thanks to an expired valve, is shared by us. Wouldn’t pursuing his stand against this also be a part of the doctor’s ethics? Of course, you can argue that this incident is narrated to us through Diya’s perspective, so we do not know the entire truth.

Maybe it was not deliberate but in showcasing the dedicated doctors as members of the bearded gentry and the rest of the doctors as well-dressed or normal, wasn’t there a conscious attempt to stereotype their appearances and play to a gallery so that there is a neat compartmentalization between good and bad? A dedicated doctor like Dr Devi Shetty (of Narayana Hrudayalaya) who carries out free and low care treatment to patients but still is a such a charming personality can also be a prototype. Even when Diya (Rima Kallingal), the private secretary to the Chairman’s hospital, quits the hospital and joins ranks with the good boys, her appearance suddenly undergoes a transformation.

As mentioned earlier, there are no discourses on the Hippocrates’s oath except during the inquiry and the melodrama is muted even in the confrontational scenes with SI Purushothaman. There is just that once scene that has a tinge of melodrama but did not work for me. Dr Samuel slapping Tharakan in public for abdicating his responsibility wins brownie points from the audience but it left me wondering whether the situation could not have been handled more amicably. Maybe the doctor is a man of few words but wouldn't he even ask Tharakan to explain his behaviour, instead of going on the offensive? Even his exoneration of the doctor during the inquiry comes as a surprise (not to the audience) to Tharakan but again, wouldn't there have been a communication between the two before the inquiry? Mind you, he is not a good-for-nothing irresponsible doctor but somebody who in an earlier scene is shown as a man who goes beyond his duty, by working till early in the morning to treat a patient, even on the day he needs to travel to Ernakulam for his marriage on priority. Somewhere, these scenes have been played to the gallery instead of settling for subtler resolution of conflicts.

In medical circles, there has been a lot of debate on the merit of forcing medical doctors to work in rural areas with sparse infrastructure. From the look of it, work in Redemption Hospital in Munnar may not look like a bed of flowers but it is a far cry from the realities of difficult life in remote areas. Maybe if the writers had taken a peep into the difficulties faced by young doctors who have to spend two long years here and the lack of support they receive during this period, they would have been able to inject further reality into the surroundings. For somebody who has lived all his life comfortably, there is nothing to suggest his inability to cope with life in such pastoral surroundings.

But yes, none of these observations take away from the fact that the movie has an overwhelming emotional pull that largely works. It is well-intentioned and believes deep inside in what it wants to convey.For the writers Bobby-Sanjay, the epic blunder called Casanova can now be conveniently forgotten, after the success of ANT and for Lal Jose, ANT, his third movie this year definitely falls short of a Diamond Necklace but is miles ahead of a pedestrian Spanish Masala

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Trivandrum Lodge

With every movie, Anoop Menon pushes the envelope a little higher (or the sheets a little lower) in dealing with immorality in the Malayali’s social life. Kerala is a state with a large independent woman class but revels curiously in its suppressed sexual desires – Malayalam sahityam must have broken many of its taboos long time back but its cinema is still circumspect when dealing with sex (a sensibility that did not exist once upon a time, mind you).

Trivandrum Lodge is a non-descript sea-facing lodge in Kochi whose inmates’ humdrums forms the core of the movie. It has its share of oddball characters like Abdu (Jayasuriya), a sex-starved tramp who does small time jobs for survival, Kora (P Balachandran, the director of Ivan Megharoopan), a retired clerk whose sexual exploits are supposedly just one short of reaching the four digit mark, Shibu Vellayani (Saiju Kurup), a small time cinema reporter who has a weakness for women and Dhwani Nambiar (Honey Rose), whose lusty presence awakens the sexual mood in the lodge. The lodge is owned by Ravisankar (Anoop Menon), a rich real estate developer; he is a widower who lives with his son Arjun. The movie largely probes their lives, from an angle of their sexual desires and lust which sometimes becomes not so-subtle and cringe-worthy.

What works for Trivandrum Lodge is that it is largely uncompromising in what it wants to say and make you feel. It sets out to create an adult comi-drama and succeeds to quite an extent; it is unabashedly immoral and celebrates voyeurism, without a hint of guilt. Just as you’d agree that brain is the main organ of sexual activity, it is the writing that drives the intent of the characters, not the visuals which are fairly more conventional. The camera does not try to tantalizingly linger on the female anatomy at any time but has a more relaxed focus, with more attention on the lodge.

Thankfully, for a movie that is steeped in suppressed desires, the camera does not try to titillate but leaves it to the characters to express their feelings in the form of crass talk, kochu pustakangal and sexual exploits of its characters. When the entire lodge is waiting to see what happens within closed doors as one of them massages the naked nape of an imminently desirable woman, it focusses on the crowd outside it as they prance about in anticipation. The audience becomes just another voyeuristic player in the drama who gorges down the fantasies of the lead cast.

Abdu is honest about what he feels (he likes Dhwani’s kundi the most as he tells her without batting an eyelid) and craves for sex but there is an element of innocence in him unlike the others. He does not have the sophistication of Dhwani’s husband or the smartness of Shibu or the loquaciousness of Kora but he is honest enough for her to spend time with him. He tries to bargain with a prostitute, even offering to pay for her services in installments but backs out when he sees her husband in a pitiable state. It is a fine directorial touch where the protagonist’s lust evaporates suddenly, with minimum usage of space.

There is a chemistry that exists between the mandan Abdu and Dhwani and while this constitutes a bright speck in a movie that treats relationships with butter hands, it is not exploited enough to make us want to see the two together. Dhwani is a newly divorced woman who wants to breathe her independence by fornicating with abandon (mootha kazahappu as her friend says) and live life devoid of rules. She knows she is the object of raw desire in the lodge but is still more than willing to play up her assets just to enjoy it – her encounters with Kora offering herself as his 1000th conquest and with Shibu when he makes his indecent proposal play out entertainingly.

Devi Ajith has a small but interesting role in the form of Zarina, Dhwani’s friend in Kochi. She’s a St. Stephens product who is happily married to a local panachakku whom she refers to as a mandan mappilla – the kind who has money but no class and is happy to act subservient to his more educated wife. It looks like a rather skewed relationship but then the secrets of a successful marriage are far too many for anyone to hazard a guess! Zarina is spot on when she remarks that in a big city like Kochi, you can get away with any level of immorality but if you are a Malayali woman, the moral police will come after you.

Anoop Menon as Ravisankar plays the only white character in the movie – he is a one-woman man who only loves his wife. His wife Malavika (Bhavana) dies in an accident but he’s still happy to stay single in her memory, even though the world offers him enough opportunities to go astray or seek new love. Trivandrum Lodge is just an old unpolished piece of antiquity but it has a special place for him in his heart because he’s promised Malavika that he will take care of it.

Tesni Khan plays Kanyaka (her same name as in Beautiful), a smart prostitute and gets the cockiest lines in the movie – whether it is her complaining of the difficulty in doing business in high-fi places or her wondering on why the act should generate a lot of noise! There is just a glimpse of her husband’s bed-ridden state but that’s skipped immediately because the director doesn’t want us to sympathize with anyone – it is all in free will. There are no half-hearted justifications or apologies for what is seen and what you see is what you get and the old man scene is the nearest that VKP gets to offer some sort of an explanation for the behaviour of any of the characters.

But it is the same writing that lets the movie down when it tries too hard deliberately to tell the audience that this is a different movie and we are trying to be bold. A lot of the dialogues is on the face and the corniness with a capital C makes it a contrived attempt to make it cool and seemingly open-minded (though not as extreme as the offensive Bachelor Party).

The dialogues seem largely driven by the attempt to go along with the atmosphere of the movie than driven by any real need to do so, as demanded by the characters. The plot is over-sexed and everyone in it is on a high driven by the sex hormone than anything else. To that extent, the movie plays out like a fantasy in the libidinous mind of the makers instead of a realistic snap of immoral life in such circles. It could have raised more questions on the newer definitions of morality as modern Kerala changes hesitatingly but it is too self-obsessed to look at a larger picture.

Take the father-son conversation between Ravisankar and his father (singer P. Jayachandran in a small cameo) as they discuss Ravi’s mother’s wayward life. Yes, much water has flown down the bridge and life has moved on but is it so simple to dissect one’s own mother’s life in such unflattering ways – the brilliance of a ‘vaishya’ or female Cassanova whose husband could not satisfy her, possibly in bed? I confess to be intrigued when Ravi asks his father Nammal nammude budhiyum kazhivum vilkkarille, pinne shariram vilkunnathil entha thettu but the conversation seems to be abjectly devoid of any emotional content as if the lady in question was a character in a novel and not one’s own mother.

Ravi as the faithful husband is an oasis in a sea of voyeurism but without enough emotional investment in him, it is difficult for us to appreciate his character. He looks less a business tycoon and more an artist with a relaxed life. I wish the character had been fleshed out more (actually, no character is given enough space to grow, except maybe Kanyaka and Abdu to a certain extent) so that his love, his feelings appear more concrete and we get a peek into this man, whom Dhwani is attracted to for the simple reason that she believes that no man can love a woman so much that he can stay single, even after her death. Even as a father, he treats the incident of the porn book in his son’s bag far too lightly for my comfort.

Ravi’s son Arjun’s romance is more out of a Karan Johar production than VKPs and greatly overdone and could have been avoided. Kid romances may be cute but is jarring in a movie whose style is below the belt variety. There are a couple of scenes at the beauty parlour which also have no connection with the movie and are more there only to make it sound horny – scenes that are reminiscent of any Bhandarkar movie. The plot does meander a bit wondering how to treat its wide assortment of characters (didn't Janardhanan look a bit lost) but it manages to trace an honourable exit route for itself, without creating too much fuss.

Trivandrum Lodge is a bold, unconventional experiment and celebrates voyeurism without guilt. It is funny and blatantly immoral and Anoop Menon enjoys cocking a snook at our hypocritical ways but I think that he just tries too hard to make it a different New Age cinema and so it comes off as partly pretentious and deliberate, unlike the natural flow of Beautiful. Nevertheless, it succeeds in putting across a tacky subject in its own uncompromising way and this in itself is a reason to watch the movie….
The film pays obeisance to Padmarajan’s immortal Thoovanathumbikal by getting Babu Namboodri to reprise his role of Thangal, as the famous strains of the movie’s background music plays out when he enters the frame. Even in the last scene, you see Kanyaka in a second hand Maruti-800 with him; remember Jayakrishnan talking about Maruti-800 being the best vehicle for such girls!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Ustad Hotel

Surprise, surprise, is this an Anwar Rasheed film? So, Bridge in Kerala Cafe is not a fluke after all – the man can make cinema that is both entertaining and artistic, without making too many compromises. With Anjali Menon wielding the pen here, Anwar creates an engaging, though at times uneven (especially in the second half) tale of a young man who discovers his passion and love in life, as he stumbles from the peaks of a cosy life in Europe to a more grounded life in Kozhikode.

Ustad Hotel takes our olfactory nerve to a delicious fusion of Western and Kerala cuisine as it tells the story of young Feyzee (Dulquer Salman) who becomes a chef, much against the wishes of his ambitious father Razzaq (Siddique).  Circumstances force him to reach out to his grandfather Karim (Thilakan) who runs a small but renowned restaurant called Ustad Hotel along Kozhikode beach. Under the tutelage of the old man, the grandson and grandfather form a bond that teaches him valuable lessons in life. Just like the waves lashing along the beach, the movie has a fluidity that keeps you engrossed to its narrative as it sets about to give a meaning to young Feyzee’s life. It is a three-generational story and as it happens, the first and third generation find a stronger bond between themselves than the in-between one.

Feyzee is a bright, young man who is not sure where his heart lies. Being brought up with no elderly guidance around him, except his four elder sisters (fondly referred to as Ithatha Company), he is confused and takes steps hesitatingly in life, without being sure of what the future holds for him. The presence of Karim in his life at a critical time helps him to take stock of what he needs in his life and what are his true valuables. He is a chef who has graduated from Lausanne but he has to learn the basics that go into the business and profession before he can enter the kitchen.

Cinematically, Feyzee learns the trade from his grandpa but I suppose even outside the canvas of the film, young Dulquer will find himself in the same situation when in the company of an acting powerhouse like Thilakan.  Didn’t Thilakan also act like a godfather to Prithviraj in Indian Rupee? And the camaraderie between the two generations, when they talk about his grandpa’s love story and the failed father-son relationship,is very appealing. Keep in mind that it does not go overboard; when Karim is admitted to hospital, the first thing that strikes Feyzee is whether his grandpa will emotionally blackmail him to stay back!

Just as in Salt N’Pepper, food has a special relevance in the movie but here it goes beyond being just a metaphor and makes its presence practically everywhere – to that extent, it must be truly called India’s finest food film. It is omnipresent – In the Five Star Hotel which buys the Ustad Hotel Biryani at 35 Rs and sells it at Rs 350, the sulaimani whose secret ingredient is Mohabbat, the Fusion Food Festival where Feyzee makes a mark but is also insulted by a haughty customer, the parothas that are intricately shaped in Ustad Hotel, the biryani served at a Hellen Keller Institute in Madurai, a rock band named Kallumakayi (inspired by Avial?) – it is a film that has its eyes firmly fixed on one’s taste buds. Anjali Menon, in a recent interview, mentioned that most of the story was written when she was pregnant and the conspicuous presence of food in the movie maybe partly due to that!

Anwar is at ease when he takes a dig at the orthodox Muslim families in vadakkan Kerala, referring to their dressing, large family size and polygamy but it is all in good taste. Two scenes stand out here – a glimpse of the family photograph with Razaq and his burkha-clad wife (in contrast to a similar shot of his grandparents) and another a long shot which shows the fours sisters fully clad in burkha standing on the beach while everyone else around there else is present in beach attire! There are no stereotypes here in the movie's representation of Muslim characters; it eschews any such nonsense and becomes a rare instance, where the religious identity of the Muslim community is never brought to the forefront. Anjali and Anwar are on home turf and know Kozhikode and their cuisine well; when did a Malayalam film associate a city other than Kochi with rock music and a night life and create a foot-tapping rock number like Appangal Embadum Ottakku Chuttamayi?  Here, a girl like Shahana can be part of a rock band outside, travel with a stranger at night but be mostly burkha-clad and agree to an arranged marriage in keeping with the family conventions.

Both Diamond Necklace and Ustad Hotel struck me as movies which have a more literary feel, with the movies like screen adaptations of books. Possibly because they drew larger canvases around them and are structured very well in an unhurried, uncomplicated manner. But where Ustad Hotel wavers a bit is in its attempt to draw a finale or closing loose ends in a very convenient but not so satisfying manner – like the father-son strained relationship, the repayment of the bank loan, the seemingly scheming Big Hotel guys vs the poor restaurant folks, Fayzee’s foreign girlfriend’s character or Shahana’s (Nithya Menon) fiancée – some of these aspects seemed written only to close specific chapters in the plot. You don’t need to make one character bad only so that the main character emerges as the sympathetic one or audience favourite, right? Maybe it is an odd observation but a story penned by a lady does not have sufficiently strong lady characters!!!

It has everything going for it in the first half and as much as I wished that this growing of age film of a young man becomes a classic, the sudden pedantic shift to a convenient ending and the Swades touch, (including scenes that remind you of Ashutosh Gowarikar’s film) was a tad disappointing. It is like the director suddenly realized that there are loose ends to be tied and so opts for an easy out but I am not entirely convinced by that sudden diversion. It has been widely reported that the Madurai episode was inspired by Narayanan Krishnan who runs Akshaya Trust but while that makes it very heartening, I’m not entirely at ease with its absolute relevance in the plot. Did his trip to Madurai make him change his mind not to leave – I don’t buy that point entirely, though it did get a few moist eyes in the audience.

I must say that it is a very well-made film and that is where it soars beyond Anjali’s script alone. Lokanathan’s camera gives the Kozhikode beach a surrealistic feel and makes you feel a part of that silent ambience that pervades its environs as Sufi Dervishes whirl in meditation. Gopi Sundar adds to that aura, capturing the vibrations of the city and the aroma of the various dishes that permeate at many intervals in the movie.

Specially glad that Mammootty’s son has avoided big-bash superstar movies and both his forays have so far been attempts at intelligent cinema. He brings a certain earnestness to the character and is believable as a foreign-educated confused young man who traces his roots (inadvertently, ofcourse) with the eminently-likeable Nithya Menon for company while the colossus Thilakan effortlessly brings home the convictions of an old man who sticks by his principles and lives without any regrets.

It is significant that for a movie that deals almost entirely with Muslim characters, religion hardly makes a presence here (the presence of a moderate Sufi-stance may explain this). This by itself itself may not be an achievement but it is pretty rare for a movie to divorce the script from religion, especially when it deals with a Muslim milieu. Anjali and Anwar, coming together to craft a movie is indeed a rather unusual combination, especially if you look at their career graphs but then maybe, we have been underestimating Anwar and if Bridge and Ustad Hotel is any evidence to go by, we Malayalees can smile as more and more directors join the bandwagon of good cinema. What makes it more heartening is the tremendous response that the movie has received amongst audience, making it an overwhelming success.  Serious cine-goers may also want to keep an eye on producer Listin Stephen – with a track record like Traffic, Chaappa Kurish and now Ustad Hotel, you know he’s a name to be followed…

Monday, May 21, 2012

Diamond Necklace

Watching the trailer of Diamond Necklace, I was worried that this would be Lal Jose’s Dubai Masala, embellished with crowning diamonds from Joy Alukkas. As the credits begun rolling and actor Fahad Fazil and friends break into a fast paced number with a sizzling Dubai and babes around him, this impression was further strengthened. A few minutes into the movie as Dr Arun and Nurse Lakshmi indulge in cute-talk, I decided maybe it was a rom-com. Finally, two and half hours later, it emerges as an illuminating treatise on love and relationships.

Dr Arun (Fahad Fazil) is a young oncologist in Dubai who is out to enjoy life to the fullest, even if it means emptying his pockets to pay over-eager banks in order to finance a lavish trendy lifestyle. He shares an apartment with his friend in Burj Khalifa, regularly changes his cars and lives on the numerous credit cards that adorn his wallet. But he is a positive infectious personality who has a way with women and three different women tag along with him in different stages of his life as they explore the meaning of love. While all three women fall in love with him, they represent the lover, the friend and wife relationships at close range.

The lover Lakshmi (Gautami Nair seen earlier in Second Show) is a charming coquettish personality who gets the best lines in the movie that make you laugh, whether it is her Tamil puzzles (Urumbu Vaayuvida sinnatha athu yennathu? Athu Thinnathu!) or her proclamation of love as she says discerningly in her Tamil accent Dubai is just a desert without you, my playboy. Their screen time together is relatively brief but they make for a lovely couple as they joke and prance about with gay abandon. When she finally leaves, there is a sense of loss but no spite in her mind, instead a quiet acceptance of the situation – she’s a small town girl who’s seen disappointments (Lakshmikum Saraswatikum tally aavathu referrring to her becoming a nurse instead of a doctor) and takes it in her stride.

The friend Maya (Samvrutha Sunil) is the mature woman who gets to speak the more philosophic lines about loneliness and isolation. Just as her name suggests, her life is an illusion – beneath the smile is the grief of a loner. Maya and Arun share a camaraderie that does not qualify as love but is a warm bonding that gives her-a cancer survivor – the courage to overcome her misery. She’s always shown decked in designer wear and fine jewellery and lives in a large spacious apartment that accentuates her sense of solitude. She has all the money in the world that her parents have bestowed her with but lacks a companion with whom she can share her life. She finally embraces Arun’s philosophy – I do not regret my past, I have no anxieties about my future and I live only in the present.

The wife ‘Kalamandalam’ Rajashree (debutante Anusree who was the winner of a reality show on Surya TV called Vivel Active Fair Big Break) is the antham kuntham illatha paavam penkutti. Born in a traditional tharavadu in Palakkad, her life does not exist beyond her multitude of Ammais and Ammavans who are all well-off in life but want to get her married-off so that they can sell off the tharavadu. She tries to make a place for herself in their Dubai house but is a misfit as she struggles to match his personality in an arranged marriage that has purely 'economic' value. They share very few tender moments but at the end, in a single (too flamboyant for my liking) gesture, she wins him over. It is a choice that she makes but if Arun finds himself in such a situation, would he done the same thing?

While we cheer and laugh with Lakshmi, empathize and admire Maya, Rajashree is given a raw deal by Lal Jose. All three ladies go through suffering but it’s hard to feel for the wife whose every action or word is subject to ridicule. Is it a man’s perspective of how he sees his wife? There are a few genuine moments like when he apologies for screaming at her or is sorry for disappearing for a day without telling her, but these are insufficient for us to be touched by the helplessness of her character, who has been married off by her family to a stranger who has no interest in her. Wish Lal Jose had put more spunk in Rajashree's character and forced Arun to re-assess his marriage than putting it down to a default choice that they accept - a nadan penkutti can think independently also, right?

Diamond Necklace is about love but also about loss of trust and betrayal by a man, driven by helplessness. He is a pawn to his past indiscretions and slides into a quagmire that he cannot extricate himself in. He cannot justify his actions but is unwilling to accept the fact that his life is built on a false sense of security, constructed on a mounting pile of debts that need to be paid. His carelessness towards wealth is akin to the way he handles his emotions in life – when he spends the night with Maya or gets married to Rajashree, he plays to his emotions which he has no control on. When Dr Savitri finds him in Maya’s house and asks why he’s not told Maya that he’s married, he says that she never asked him!

Fahad Fazil is an intelligent actor who has associated himself with central grey roles in all his recent movies. Even though he is a man who self-destructs, he is imminently likeable in the movie (watch his chammal as he realizes what his stree dhanam is worth or his instant yes to live in Maya’s house or his interaction with Lakshmi) and it helps that his character is written as a man who is basically good-natured but whose indiscretions cost him a great deal. It’s not that we suddenly discover shades of grey in Arun or he turns over a new leaf in a instant; there is an ambivalence in his character as his mind oscillates between his temptations and the fear of the consequence of his actions.

There are times when you think Lal Jose may sound pedantic in his approach especially when focusing on the patient George who’s a cancer patient or showcasing the lives of people like Venu Ettan (Sreenivasan) who have been suffering for years in labour camps to take care of their families back home but he does not push the sympathy button hard enough for us to complain. The contrast between the house at Burj Khalifa and the labour camp, his rich friends vis-à-vis that of the poor workers are deliberate but these are minor issues. There was a temptation to inject a twist in the tail (like a sudden cancer when Arun vomits after drinking or getting Maya killed in the hospital) or come up with simple solutions to problems the way Lal did in Arabikkatha but there are no short-cuts here. Life needs to be lived as and how it happens to us and the director pushes us forward to accept the reality of the situation.

You must thank writer Dr Iqbal Kuttipuram for keeping a sense of humour throughout the movie as Arun juggles his misfortunes with his actions that compound his problems. There is an almost VKN sense of humour as he makes fun of the Palakkad household with its plethora of uncles (bandhu balam), Mutashi’s idle talk and the stree dhanam scene which takes the cake. His acute embarrassment at being sold a turkey is evident but he he has ti hide his disappointment. Even when he is sarcastic (stree dhanam kondu kappalandi kazhikkan or Dubaiyil car padikkan cycle balance mathi), Rajashree is unable to comprehend it. The friendly Tamil banter with Lakshmi is refreshingly funny and sets up the initial tempo of a gentle rom-com (though her mother’s scenes can be done away with).

There is a lot of scope for melodrama but the direct eschews loud moments in favour of more sober moments of reflection. Recollect the scene when Arun realises that Maya was sporting a wig; she laughs it off while he remarks that philosophy is only between a doctor a patient. Or when Lakshmi comes to know that her lover is married – there is a silence as the camera takes a long distressed shot of the two facing each other only to be suddenly disturbed by the call for an emergency in the hospital to attend to Maya. Or finally, when there is a good bye scene, there is no rancour just a nod of sadness and an acceptance of fate. 

Structurally, the movie starts off on a simple note but as it progresses, multiple threads intertwine and the final product is a satisfying experience. While many may baulk towards the end when the director tries to clearly spell out the directions that each of his characters takes, I think the director conceptualized the final three scenes in a beautiful way bringing together the various elements in the universe – air, earth and water – to close the final shot. The first frame takes us to an airport as one of the protagonists bids adieu, the camera then moves to high up in the mountains in search of redemption and finally culminates with the sea as the backdrop witnessing the characters accepting each other.

What is most satisfying is that after a few duds, Lal Jose is back with what he does best – tell us a story first.  Diamond Necklace is a compelling human drama that brings a smile to your face as you go through Arun’s roller-coaster of emotion and financial troubles. As the closing credits rolled in PVR Goregaon, there was a spontaneous applause from the audience – what more can a director ask from his audience?

The movie gives credit to Bengali Director Indranil Roychowdhury’s short film Tapan Babu (a story in the 2005 movie Ek Mutho Chobi) as one of the inspirations of the film – story-wise, it is a small portion that has been inspired but it is good to see this acknowledgement.

Originally published in MadAboutMoviez -

Tuesday, May 08, 2012


With a filmography that boasts of forgettable stuff like Pramani, Madambi and The Thriller, it is difficult to approach B Unnikrishnan’s Grandmaster, with a sense of expectation, despite its impressive trailer. But then these are better times that mainstream Malayalam cinema finds itself in and so you are unexpectedly served an engaging investigation drama, without the usual humdrum and noise that comes associated with these movies. UTV’s maiden Malayalam venture is a slick non-melodramatic thriller that will gladden the hearts of Mohanlal’s genuine fans who have been cheated by his superstar persona movies in these last few years.

Chandrasekhar (Mohanlal) is a washed out senior cop who after years of honorary postings in the department is made the head of Metro Crime Stopper Cell in Kochi, a cell created so that the public can alert the police if they sense the possibility of a crime happening. Once a highly regarded cop, he is now listless as he takes part in office proceedings wallowing in the separation from his wife, a criminal lawyer, Deepthi (Priyamani), supposedly due to professional rivalry and an ego clash. His only ray of hope is their daughter Dakshayini whom he meets twice in a month while the rest of the days are spent in solitude.

You know he is a loner – the camera follows him as he cooks and eats alone or sits alone in the dark looking blankly at the rain. At work, when a crime is reported by an eye-witness, he’s glad to push the case to the Commissioner’s office than work on it himself and is more concerned that he is not able to find a maid to take care of his house. Eventually, he’s forced to shed his indifference and investigate a serial murder mystery that is closely linked to his life. Even then, Chandrasekhar is initially more than happy to opt out of the game and let the antagonist backtrack from the conflict but there is no alternative and he has to tackle the situation head-on.

Grandmaster follows a more traditional narrative by eschewing technical gimmickry and sticking to essential police investigation. There are no hi-fi gadgets, DNA, fingerprints or any scientific jargon thrown to us and is pure old-fashioned analytical investigation at work. This suits the feel of the movie which is rolled out to the viewers in the form of an intense chess game, where the action is all in the mind, with minimal action. There is no verbal or physical bravado involved as the cops go about their job clinically. The momentum builds up slowly till the end game is reached and a final Gambit is needed to seal the match fair and square.

It would be safe to assume that Unnikrishnan may have been inspired by English movies in the way Lal’s character is written and the central theme is explored but they don’t look out of place even in a more lethargic Kerala setting. Grandmaster is a quiet thriller in which the cops try to link all the threads together to unravel a bizarre murderer and it shows them on equal footing with Chandrasekhar as the team leader. It is largely a team effort and Lal’s character does not overwhelm the script with any over the top moments of brilliance. The presence of an ungainly lady Commissioner and her antics make for a few weak moments but the director does not allow their conflict to boil over and keeps the professional rivalry dignified.

Several ideas are explored as part of the investigation – a killer psychopath on the prowl driven by religious ideas, a stalker of women or personal vendettas playing themselves out but none of the ideas are monopolized by an ultra-smart Chandrasekhar. Most of the action happens in the police control rooms as they try to figure out what the supposedly Alphabetic Murderer has in his mind.

For a murder drama, I think that the director may have missed a trick or two in making it an edgy, dark thriller and that is what stops the movie from achieving a higher pedigree. The proceedings have a slightly laid-back feel to it, thereby reducing the overall impact of a taut script but maybe this was a deliberate attempt to go along with the mood of the characters. I am a little perplexed by the rather frequent usage of English in many of the dialogues - was it a suggestion of bring cool and trendy because I think that it looked out of place.

While Grandmaster is primarily a crime thriller, it does not distance itself from the relationship dynamics of the central characters. Chandrasekhar and his wife have a not so amicable split but there is a hint of underlying affection between them. When Dakshayini plans to refuse the money given by her mother for her drama training, he stops her from doing so, so that her mother’s feelings are not hurt. He remains in the background trying to protect his family without informing them; when the time comes to confront Deepthi to know more about the background story of the crime, they co-operate with each other with no hint of any rancour.

Deepthi takes pride in their daughter’s abilities inherited from her father and refuses Dr Jacob’s marriage proposal stating her inability to justify the marital discord. There is a palpable tension between the two men in her life but they do not allow the discomfort to mar their interactions. When the eventual inevitable patch up happens, there are no scenes of regret; just a continuation of life. The father-daughter relationship is warm and brings out the only time that Chandrasekhar is in his elements as he jokes and spends time with her. Being an endearing father and a distant husband adds layers to the man in uniform. 

Mohanlal was always expected to get the top billing for the role and he carries himself with utmost dignity, coupled with a dashing look (yes, surprisingly) in the movie. He is a thinking cop who is interested in books and chess and likes to play the waiting game patiently. You know that his physique and age does not suggest that he can bash up villains but even when he takes on a kidnapper initially, it lends itself to be believable. There is no put on accent or makeup or an exaggerated swagger with an I-know-it-all look but he still demands your attention. It begs belief why directors hesitate to give him roles that go along with his age, when he looks absolutely untroubled in his current form. 

While the character is rather restrained and not gifted with a Raghavan instinct, Unnikrishnan still drops a couple of hints of the ‘superstar’ actor when Chandrasekhar remarks that only he can do properly what he does or when he asks his daughter to ask her dramatics teacher to ask him in case of any doubts. Lot of superstar movies have very little space for the remaining actors, especially the female leads, but Priyamani, Narain and Jagathy have concrete presences in the plot.

Directors of mystery movies are obsessed with the idea of spreading their net of suspicion far and wide in the plot and then suddenly pulling the rug from our feet and casting an unexpected character as the villain. When there is a deliberate attempt to plant the seed of suspicion randomly on characters, it becomes a contrived and dishonest attempt to mislead the audience and such an approach fails if the final twist is pretty incongruous, which is fortunately not the case here, even though the climax scene gets stretched a little more than needed.

In Grandmaster, there is a hint of doubt that is cast on Kishore’s (Narain) girl friend Bindiya (Mithra Kurian), the psycho Victor (Babu Antony), the Police Commissioner and even the psychiatrist Dr Jacob Varghese (Anoop Menon) but the fears are not exaggerated. We know that Victor is just a ruse for a more shady character lurking in the background but it still does not make his character redundant. The logic may have been a little over the top and unexplainable on certain occasions (recollect the scene regarding the change of lyrics in Beena’s song and its linking to Alice in Wonderland) but it is mostly well grounded. However, I strongly think that directors must avoid scenes when the hero or for that matter, the villain explains the entire sequence of events in the form of soliloquy with the rest of the crew and the audience watching – these look too dramatic in any movie.

In recent times, young urban film makers have been successful in creating a new cinematic grammar in Malayalam but the evidence has been fairly limited. However, the fact that second rung directors like Johnny Antony (in Masters) and Unnikrishnan are also re-modelling their style in a trickle-down effect of the changes at the top is a welcome sign. Masters showed a bit of promise but faltered big time mid-way; Grandmaster may not be a classic but it delivers more than expected and is arguably among the better investigative thrillers that Malayalam has seen.

Originally published in MadAboutMoviez -

Tuesday, April 10, 2012


The condemned cell is a small enclosed isolated space in jail where the lights never go off and the sentry does not go to sleep. It is a place where even hardened criminals breakdown as they wait for the eventual black warrant to be issued which will sentence them to the gallows forever. The slow wait for Death’s embrace is more painful than the actual swift action that leads to the final emancipation.

A sturdy man in his early 30s, who betrays no sign of his impending fate, walks into this condemned cell calmly with no sense of fear. Can a man be so devoid of conscience that even after committing multiple murders and standing on the threshold of the Hangman’s noose, he smiles to himself in a self-serving sense of martyrdom?

Sathyanathan (Mohan Lal) is condemned to death for brutally murdering four persons – two adults and two young girls – and is awaiting his final call. He shows no remorse and is just as cheerful as a man who knows he has done no wrong. The prison doctor Dr Nambiar’s (Thilakan) son Vijayan is one of Sathyan’s victims; he wants to sign his death certificate and see the fear in his eyes as he is led up the gallows but the doctor is just as puzzled as to why the crime was committed.

There are appeals in lower courts and petitions for pardons by the cops as a matter of routine but Sathyan has no great interest in living. Eventually, when he wishes to start life again on a fresh slate because he now wants to live, in an O Henry-sque moment, he’s denied a pardon and on Sept 29th, 1991, two years after he is originally convicted of the multiple murders, he is hanged to death. In a series of flashbacks, the story unfolds focussing on Sathyan’s past and recreates the chilling crime scene, explaining his actions.

Sathyan is a ‘bastard’ who is bullied and abused in his childhood by the people around him until he is rescued by a priest (Nedumudi Venu) who realises that the kid is a talented artist. Under the aegis of Father, Sathyan becomes a painter who makes a living by painting sign boards and hoardings. As part of one of his assignments, he takes a rented house in Kozhikode next to a house of ill-virtue where Jaya (Mathu) and her two young sisters live with their aunts. They have no future to look forward to and it is only a matter of time when the aunts get them to carry out the kutumba thozhil.

He helps the kids in their education and gets Jaya a job in the company in which he’s working. Sathyan likes Jaya and wishes to marry her but destiny has other ideas; circumstances force her to end up as a prostitute and there are signs that her sisters will sink in the same quagmire later. In a moment of extreme paranoia, Sathyan kills the two girls in a bid to save them from prostitution and eventually both the guys responsible for her state.

As a product of a broken household, Sathyan is immensely disturbed when he sees the girls headed into a bottomless pit where there is no escape. There is a sense of extreme helplessness and resignation of the fact that despite his efforts to rescue Jaya, he is unable to do so. He seeks his redemption through an act which represents an angst against society for its attitudes towards human trafficking. He does not regret his actions but later on as the movie progresses to a juncture when there are moments of contemplation and solitude, he is unsure of his act.

The multiple-murder scene is a slightly elaborate but extremely chilling piece that shakes you. You know that it will culminate in a murder but the thought still does not prepare you for what you see. It is largely shot in close-up and seeks to transform his character into a wild demonic one, as indicated in his painting. The atmosphere is built gradually with tense background music and the usage of dim lights with a red tinge, magnifying the impact of the gruesomeness of the scene. When Minikutty comes running to him escaping from the broker Chandran, it is a moment of déjà vu for Sathyan. He believes that his actions can only delay the inevitable and there is no escape for the kids and that one day or the other, they will be forced into the flesh trade.

It is not a planned murder but is also not something that happens in the heat of the moment. Eliminating just the perpetrators will not help, he reckons, because in some form of the other, they will eventually make their appearance and destroy the lives of the hitherto innocent kids; the society will never allow them to survive with dignity. A sense of moral uprightness coupled with desperation and extreme paranoia drives him to stab them to death.

Pedikka entha niram? Chuvappo atho karuppo? Krithyam niram illa – niram maari kondu irikkum. Pedi kore kazhiyumbol thamasha aavum, thamasha pinne pottichiri, pinne paatu, pinne karchil….

Is a normal human being capable of such an extreme act of violence? There are a couple of scenes that depict Sathyan’s sudden sense of unexplained anger and a scene where Father warns him to stay out of trouble, especially physically – these were possibly written to make us accept such extreme violence from an otherwise soft-spoken man like Sathyan who normally does not wear his emotions on his sleeve. A part of the tragedy is that we also accept that there is no way out of this repulsive future and go along with his actions.

Most of the film is shot in Kannur Central Jail and there is a general bleakness to the proceedings and MT redeems the atmosphere by bringing a dark sense of humour to the proceedings. There is a detailed discussion on the setup used for the final act, including a demonstration of how it is done – it may have been funny if not for the cruel irony behind it. Recollect the scenes where the cops talk about the quality of rope used for hanging and mentions that it is supplied by a Government company now unlike earlier (nationalisation of the Rope of Death!) or when he says that the lever for hanging needs further oiling to facilitate the hanging smoothly or the police superintendent’s suggestion to take bath in hot water on the day before the hanging because it’s cold early in the morning.

During his last days, the warders ask him to exercise so that he can be in proper shape before the hanging, the jail barber tends to his needs and he is offered proper food and Sathyan remarks how a goat is fattened before it is finally executed. Thankfully, it shies away from creating any unnecessary villainous characters in the jail but we are privy to their state of mind as they ponder on the eventual fate that awaits Sathyan on the fateful day. The prisoner scenes with TG Ravi and Sreenivasan tend to border on a sense of pushing the audience towards empathy but that’s just a minor blip.

On another level, the movie also raises questions on the appropriateness of capital punishment and also asks if there is a better way to carry it out (however academic this thought maybe). Waiting everyday with the sword of Damocles hanging around one's neck is a painful way to live. It is quite apt in a country like ours where Governments and courts sit for years on judgements and increase the agony of everyone involved in the case.

Sibi Malayil made a name for himself as a director primarily in combination with scenarist A K Lohithadas but Sadayam is penned by MT Vasudevan Nair, who won the National Award for Best Screenplay in 1993 for the movie. It’s a pity that the two worked together only once just as MT and Bharathan had come together for the magnificent Thazhvaram. MTs script is a disturbing exploration of human angst which we experience along with Sathyan and he is ably supported by Johnson’s edgy background music but what elevates the movie to a higher cinematic experience is Mohan Lal's magnificent emotionally charged intense performance.

For the first few minutes of the movie, he speaks very little but the eyes and body language speak a thousand words. Does his smile capture the quiet delight of a man who has committed such a heinous act or is there a repentance of having committed a crime? He largely stays stoic to the events around him and smiles away all attempts by Murali to save him but gradually, there is a desire to live and the first time he betrays his expression is when he breaks down crying hearing of a stay order against his execution.

The anger and frustration that he experiences as he realizes the fate of the girls erupts itself in a horrifying multiple murder scene. It is a 10 minute sequence and it showcases a man whose mental faculties have broken down and is in a sense of insane outrage. As the stabs pierce through the children, there is a wry smile followed by an intense laughter at having saved the kids. He repaints his canvas with the knife smeared with their blood and achieves his redemption – was it for his inability to stop the inevitability or against the society for allowing it to happen? It is a performance that has a stomach churning effect which leaves you shell-shocked and disturbingly accept that this was the only way out….

Sadayam isn’t a movie that you can forget quickly. It has a haunting and almost depressing quality that keeps coming back at you again and again…

Originally published in MadAboutMoviez -

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Ee Adutha Kaalathu

Arun Kumar Aravind was successful in remaking Pierce Brosnan starrer Butterfly on a Wheel into a stimulating Cocktail but it carried the tag of an ‘inspired’ uncredited movie. Murali Gopy, journalist and thespian Bharath Gopi’s son who was last seen in Bharamaram, had earlier penned Dileep’s Rasikan but there are not too many people who can recall the movie. In a sort of redemption movie, the two come together in Ee Adutha Kaalathu, a movie that gives Trivandrum an identity beyond its lingua franca, made infamous by Suraj Venjaramoodu.

Ee Adutha Kaalathu does not make Trivandrum a full-fledged character in itself like Kahaani or Shor in the City but it gives the city its due by imparting its precincts with a life of its own, whether it is the wastage grounds of Thopilashala where protestors demand a stop to the dumping of garbage (but ironically dump their waste in the same pandal), the town side where people survive doing odd jobs or the urban centres where marital discords and sensational stories are not easily hidden from the eyes of yellow journalistic papers like Thee. It starts with the wastage of Thopilashala and eventually comes to a close at the same place (You were made from the dust and into the dust, you shall return).

Ee Adutha Kaalathu (EAK henceforth) is a fascinating hyperlink movie (movie with multiple narratives and storylines) brought together by an extremely clever screenplay and engaging set of characters which keeps you to the edge of your seat till the very end. It is not a conventional thriller – a major crime goes on at the background with very little notice while a minor crime sets off a wild chain of events that changes the lives of the people involved. It is almost impossible to discuss this movie without spending a lot of the time talking how the script evolves.

In most hyperlink movies, there are a set of characters who go about their lives till one incident brings all of them together but in EAK, there is no one major point of inflexion. There is a reason for the scenes to exist in a manner that they come across and eventually, each of them has a link to a larger context in the movie. Murali Gopy’s script is the hero of the story and I have not come across a more seamless and effortless flow of scenes and characters in a Malayalam movie in recent times.

In the heart of the city, Ajay and Madhuri Kurien (Murali Gopy and Tanushree Ghosh) are in a marriage that is under siege due to Ajay’s weird and abusive behaviour and the only saving grace is the presence of their cricket-crazed son Ayush. At the other end, in an Agraharam, are Vishnu and Ramani (Indrajith and Mythili) who are deep in debt but survive on the odd jobs that they manage to find in the city. Ramani is a rag picker wile Vishnu creates objects from the waste (the one who does the actual job of recycling here as the voiceover says) and sells them to make a living.

Tom Cherian (Anoop Menon) is an IPS police officer who has returned from a brief training at Scotland Yard but is clearly out of depth in the hard-nosed job of police investigation and is looking for short cuts to achieve success on his job. Roopa Vasudevan (Lena), Madhuri’s friend, is an investigative journalist and feminist who eventually falls for Tom, in a convenient law-meets-media marriage. Rustam (Nishan) is a North Indian construction worker who makes money by making porn videos and is out to entice an extremely frustrated Madhuri. Somewhere in the background, there also lurks a serial killer who hacks old people to death and flees with their valuables and cash. An attempted heist goes wrong one day and then….

There are no black-and-white characters (even the city is tarnished by its overflowing garbage dumping ground) and each has a background that lowers their sheen. Ajay Kurien’s past holds a key to his absurd sexual behaviour now, Madhuri has had a not so memorable life behind the arc lights, Tom Cherian’s training at Scotland Yard makes him a butt of jokes, Roopa Vasudevan’s promiscuous and ‘liberal’ views serve as a mask for her insecurity that Thee paper exposes and even Vishnu has a past filled with misadventures and failed attempts to make a secure life for himself in the city.

Life is full of surprises that cannot be explained but care has been taken to get the script to go beyond these co-incidences and crank visuals into the plot that explain a lot of what happens in the future – it’s almost like there is no co-incidence and every scene exists for some specific reason. Even before the Laughing Buddha creates havoc, we get a glimpse of it standing unsteadily on top of the shelf. We see the broken kitchen handle in an earlier scene to justify the house break-in, Vishnu’s arrival in Doctor’s Colony is preceded by his role as a sub-broker for a house deal there, Ajay’s aversion towards Hindi and his long sight by itself is trivial but they have a relevance towards the end of the movie when Ajay almost discovers Madhuri’s secret.

In terms of its form, EAK uses visual echoes to set the mood and tone of the movie at regular intervals. The reading on the parish wall, the presence of the Lord and the Father and even the RSS fleetingly suggests a helping hand from the top (literally you’d realize when you watch the movie), life’s complexities (and maybe the director’s!) as symbolized by the Rubik’s cube which Ayush finally solves at the end, the car accident that begins and closes the movie, the mirror which hides more than it reveals is used many times and the hacking of the neck finds its resonance on more than one occasion (including Vishnu’s name as Vettu ‘Vishnu’).

EAK starts on a bit of a sluggish note with and takes quite some time to establish the basic fault lines in the plot. It finally takes off with full ignition almost 90 mins into the 1st half when Vishnu realises that something needs to be done fast to get his life back on track. On a minor quibbling note, the scriptwriter Murali Gopy does not full justice to his own story. He is sexually frustrated due to some untoward incidents in his life and takes it out on his wife but when Bonakkad Ramachandran (Jagathy) threatens to expose him and is warned by Roopa, he makes a retreat. But does it affect his relationship with his wife? Wonder why this side of the story was not taken to a more logical conclusion.

It also makes an attempt to stay away from stereotypes and so there are no permanent heroes and villains in the piece. The only person who ends with a more redeemed character at the end is the man with the lowest moral angle in the beginning. Roopa and Madhuri share a close friendship but even when Madhuri says she knows that Roopa will die but not reveal her secret, there is a veiled threat behind it or when Madhuri talks about her disastrous fling, the first thing that Roopa asks is Did you have sex?

As the title suggests, EAK is a very contemporary movie peppered with a lot of references to real life incidents but except for a couple of instances, the rest of them form a part of the narrative. So, you have Padmanabha Swamy Temple's overwhelming presence at the background, problems with the Nano car’s performance, concerns on the rising North Indian population among workers, sanitation problems in the city, changing attitudes to sex, yellow gossip journalism and tax raids on the two superstars (the only reference that is at once forced into the narrative).

Indrajith plays with aplomb the central role linking most of the narratives and his choice of characters have ensured that he always has a few interesting movies up his sleeve. Anoop Menon is a personal favourite now (had a hearty laugh when he says I suspect a terror link at the scene of the murder or gives a detailed ppt sketch of the suspected killer) while Jagathy continues to make cameos count big with his stellar show (it's a tragedy that we may not see him for quite some time now; hope he bounces back after his accident). Tanushree Ghosh as Madhuri suffers a wee bit with the dubbing at times but makes her presence felt otherwise. But the biggest stars  in the movie have to be Murali Gopy, Arun and Gopi Sundar in their roles as the scenarist, editor and music director.

All so casually, many of us talk about fantastic scripts but you must watch EAK to understand how the writing literally drives the plot. Every small bend or curve is negotiated with finesse and is well-oiled; the dialogues are smart and funny and for most part, fit in with the natural scheme of things without forced humour (witness the police questioning when they stop Madhuri’s car or Duckworth-Lewis method in Ayush’s match or Tom’s serious observations on the crime). It is easy to get carried away by the premise of talking of too many things at the same time or going too glitzy and snappy while executing the movie (the Kaminey types) but EAK does not get carried away.

With a movie that works like a Rubik’s cube, the editor has a critical role in playing it just at the right pace so that all the clues and links fit in smoothly, without any hurdles and the editor-director translates the directorial vision into clear cinematic space. Gopi Sundar’s brilliant BGM acts as a glue in fusing all these aspects together (of course, I was told later that the main theme music is rip-off from the soundtrack of a 1998 English movie Next StopWonderland) and you have a winner in your hands.

Multi-starrers remind me of a strategy that Brad Pitt explains in Moneyball – if you can’t replace a top player with another with the resources in one’s hand, get an equivalent number of players who can create the same impact. It makes imminent sense in Malayalam where resources are scarce but expectations continue to be high (see how we react every time the National Awards are announced). I’d like to think that the success of Traffic has put the spotlight on low and mid-budget movies, starring multiple actors ‘decent’ screenplays and innovative trailers and EAK is an off-spring of this new development…

P.S Wonder why this movie has not been released outside Kerala? EAK has completed more than a 30 day run in Palakkad, so should be considered as doing pretty well but very few people I know seem to have seen it...Surprisingly!!!

Originally published in MadAboutMoviez -

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Let me start with a confession – I walked out of the theatre in quite an ambivalent state of mind after watching Siddharth Bharathan’s Nidra. I suppose I was kind of upset and angry but still unclear whether the anger was with the movie or with what the movie told me. Some movies talk to you consciously – they tell you things on the face and make you react instantly while some others work at a sub-conscious level – you don’t necessarily know what the movie meant to you, atleast initially. Probably Nidra has such an impact…

I haven’t watched Bharathan’s original Nidra; in fact, not even heard of the movie, so there are no comparisons that I can make. On second thoughts, it is not even needed – every movie has to talk for itself and not for it is supposed to stand for. Nidra is about a man’s descent into a world of insanity, watched helplessly by his wife and the society as it looks at him half in jest and half in bewilderment at a condition that they don’t understand or even don’t want to understand. It isn't an exploration of what drives him into this quagmire but an observation of how he sinks continuously into it with no support.

In the initial scenes, we are told that Raju (Siddharth) has had a past where he suffered from a mental illness after the death of his mother. The doctor Vijay Menon (who played Raju in Bharathan’s original movie) explains it as a feeling of extreme paranoia where the character is extremely fearful of everything around him and cannot trust anyone. He sees his brother and friends as aggressors who interfere in his activities and don’t allow him to live life the way he wants to. He is intelligent and talented but there is no one who understands or appreciates him; his scholarship abroad or money spent on projects are only to ensure that he does not go berserk.

Aswathy (Rima Kallingal) enters into this world - maybe as a substitute for his mother – and is at once sucked into the vortex of this issue. Now, I did wish that the movie explored the mother-son relationship more so that we can try to understand his anxieties more but it leaves that idea to our imagination. Raju needs love to protect him from the outside world that his mother may have provided for earlier and now his wife hoped to do but she’s alone in shielding him from emotional taunts of the society. They share a passionate and sensuous relationship and her support helps him to sail in the boat of normalcy for some time. She throws in a cloak of protection on a couple of occasions and hopes against hope that things would change, but they go worse till it hits rock bottom.

She realizes that Raju lives in a different world in the bed of Nature, away from the human population. Raju’s idyllic land is an allegory for a place where Man and animals live together and there is no fear of each other (even a snake is seen as harmless in his eyes) unlike the real world where he faces being hounded by hundreds of eyes all gunning from him. It’s probably true that there is more to be afraid of the human world with all its avarice and terror than the rest of the universe which goes about its life obeying the laws of Nature.

Raju is ultra-sensitive, which is a disqualification in a world that puts a premium on being tough and street smart (killer instinct as we take pride in saying). Every glance or remark is interpreted by his muddled mind as an attempt to chain him down and push him further into a state of madness. But there is a thin line between sanity and insanity and at times, it is difficult to separate the two and then the mind asks the question who is truly insane – someone who seeks to destroy the tranquility of Nature forest or somebody who protects it and finds peace within it. In one of the scenes, when his anger reaches a crescendo, he is even willing to kill but even then a part of his sub-conscious mind prevents him from doing so.

The movie largely operates from his view point and so everything is mostly seen as a violation of his freedom. His piece of land which is decorated with books and his inventions is far away from human existence and the only place where he can find his peace of mind. Through Sameer Thahir’s lens and Prashant Pillai's BGM, Chalakudy is exotic but there is a deliberate attempt to shoot Raju’s world in all its romantic colours to magnify the rift between his house and the world that he seeks refuge in and also raise a concern towards environmental degradation.

There are two worlds in the movie and in Raju’s mind – his sane secure free world and the insane greedy world inhabited by the rest of the populace. There is a stretch of water that separates the two worlds and the twain can never meet; eventually, when his place is being ripped apart, the dam of emotions breaks loose and it comes to a point of no return. There is bound to be an element of ambiguity and lack of clarity when a movie deals with a subject that it cannot totally explain and I'm willing to give benefit of doubt to Siddharth when we find ourselves lost at times in the movie.

Siddharth looks and plays his part as the mentally-disturbed Raju but I think he has the makings of a better director than an actor and the audience may connect to the character with a better performer. He is raw and angry inside but I was searching for a sense of fear and insecurity that I did not find in him. I wanted to empathize with Raju but could not get myself to do that – the repeated bouts of insanity and our necessity to rationalize every act makes it difficult to take that extra leap of faith, I suppose. Rima shakes off her normal urban sophistication and gets down to playing an anxious wife, unable to handle her husband’s frequent outbursts. She pleads, cajoles and compels him to listen to her and make him understand his follies but the panacea is not so simple.

Even though the film plays out through Raju’s viewpoint largely, it does not isolate the rest of the cast as negative. His brother and relatives do not get along with him well but there is a concern that is shown between them and we are not looking at a black-and-white divide between a man and his greedy family. They try to help him out at times and are tolerant of his unusual behaviour but are equally weary about it. The family is helpless and after a point of time desperate to turn its back towards him but this is also due to their inability to handle the situation – after all, it is not just the patient who struggles but also his near and dear ones in these circumstances.

Mental illness is a theme that people are not very uncomfortable talking about – maybe if you paint it as a melodramatic piece as Blessy's Thanmatra did, they find it easier to handle. If you can manipulate the audience and get them to sympathize with the character and get a good actor to play the part, most of the work is done. But if it is raw, disturbing and inexplicable, we don’t want to face it; we want to rationalize it but putting on a logical cap in a world where logic has no role to play makes it difficult to appreciate the problem. No one really knows for sure what causes mental illness, and why it happens or what is its cure. Is it genetic, social, circumstantial, sheer grit or something else?

From an audience perspective, the deal breaker is their lack of emotional investment in Raju's character. In Thanmatra, we are exposed to Ramesan Nair's aspirations and are involved at multiple levels with his family, his work and his attempts to get his son to fulfill his dreams. In Sibi Malayil's gut wrenching Thaniyavarthanam, we relate to Balan Mash's victimization as he is pushed to the edge of his sane self (remember the poignant scene where the students are scared of him in the school) and we root for him in all his suffering.

Or think of Lohithadas' brilliant debut Bhoothakannadi where Vidyadharan's mind, within the
claustrophobic walls of the prison, is unable to differentiate between the real world and an external fantasy. We know his fears are exaggerated and irrational but the tragedy plays in our minds too as we sense the wilderness of his mind. There are defining moments in these movies that we hold close to our heart, enabling us to transcend their state of mind. But to many of us watching Raju's agony, he comes across as a remote figure with little sense of his emotional upheaval and the trials and tribulations in his mind - maybe it is deliberately done but I think you can only empathize with the character when you know him sufficiently enough.

As someone who has seen mental illness from a very close range, it is difficult for me to look at the issue in its entire sense of objectivity. There are memories that play back to and froth and it is difficult to express that anguish on the wider lens and it is understandable why people find it difficult to sit through a movie like Nidra. There is no redeeming factor and no prescription for the issue and you could argue that it is pointless to indulge in self-flagellation. It’s difficult to say what I felt about the movie even now – maybe it was disturbing is a good enough thought - and I don't expect too many people to warm themselves to it….

PS: Also sharing a few thoughts here on mental illness that I had written a few years back as I observed it from close quarters….

Originally published in MadAboutMoviez -

Tuesday, March 06, 2012


Ranjith was a name synonymous with larger than life super star personas and macho characters until a low budget film named Kaiyoppu came by. Yes, Nandhanam and Mizhi Randilum were soft romantic movies which went against the audience perception of the man but these were largely conventional works rooted in a familiar Kerala cinema milieu. It was Kaiyoppu that broke away from the Ranjith school of film making and made him a director whose craft begged to be taken seriously.

Kaiyoppu positions itself primarily as a creative struggle engulfing the protagonist Balachandran’s life as he overcomes his writer’s block. He is on the threshold of completing a novel that is expected to change the face of Malayalam literature but his mind goes blank and he is unable to complete the novel.

As his mind wavers in a sense of restlessness and frustration, he meets Sivadasan (Mukesh), a struggling publisher who is in search of a novel that can help his company to stay afloat. His book house Kilippattu Books survives primarily on school children guide books, cookery and environment books but his love for literature leads him to Balan. Sivadasan realizes the potential of the novel and nudges him to complete it with the help of Balan’s erstwhile lover, Padma (Khushboo).

The writer’s block serves as a stumbling block for the emotions that are embedded deep inside him; the words that have deserted him slowly return to his grasp as the tender relationship between two very lonely individuals, connected by the world of books, warms up. Padma, his college sweetheart, has gone through a divorce after an unhappy marriage but philosophically accepts the failure (Manassu ozhinju veedu pole shantham she says after the divorce) while Balan has never got around to get married in his struggle for livelihood. This is in sharp contrast to the viplava dampathi kilikal Sivadasan and Lalitha (Neena Kurup) who elope and get married and start a publishing house with the gold that Lalitha steals from her home while running away.

Balan is a loner who owns neither a mobile nor a clock and lives in a sense of timelessness with only his books for company. He lives in a small lodge surrounding himself with the sweet smell of books but works as an accountant in a fertilizer factory amidst the stench of heaps of filth and garbage. He has no great notions about his literary ability; in a nice little scene, Sivadasan wakes him up late at night to praise him for his brilliant work but realizes that Balan has scarcely registered the approbation and has gone to sleep again. Even when writer CP Vasudevan gushes about his work, he is reluctant to bask under the accolades.

When Balan and Padma bond again after many years through a series of phone conversations, they realise that the fires of the past may have been extinguished but the smoke that emanates from it has not yet died. A romance that was quietly shelved away due to class differences about two decades back remains just as fresh, without a hint of remorse from the past. As they open up to each other, the initial doubts vanish (Balachandran becomes Balettan within minutes) and they realize that they have a second chance to fill their moments of solitude with love.

The romance is delicate and mature befitting the age of the protagonists and the soft music that plays whenever they converse tugs at our heart strings gently. The silent, introvert Balan jokes and laughs in her presence while she opens herself to him about her failed marriage without a trace of uneasiness; no great words are exchanged but the glow on their faces says it all. In a delightfully composed song sequence, Ranjith pays a tribute to Talat Mehmood's haunting melody Jalte Hain Jiske Liye by getting Padma to sing the same song on phone just as Sunil Dutt had sung the original song to Nutan in Sujata; the voice that sings has aged but so have the ears that hear the song.

Towards the end when he plays a Good Samaritan and sells his land to fund a poor Muslim girl’s operation, Balan refers to this act as a proclamation of his new-found independence. He has found his Muse and is no longer constrained by geographical boundaries because his mind is now free. He has Padma by his side and the world looks differently through this perspective. It is to Ranjith’s credit that he re-discovers Khushboo who has a quiet elegance and dignity that ensures that both the characters are evenly matched. (I can only think of Urvashi and Khushboo who can still hold their own against the 'aging' superstars and appear convincing for that age.)  

While the writer’s block forms the crux of the movie, Kaiyoppu also strives to be a gentle critique on Kerala society and the social and culture norms that have made us what we are. Without being preachy, the movie sets an ambitious social agenda for itself, hinting quietly at the Malayali’s attitudes towards literature, marriage, roots and the terror around him. It takes potshots at the Kerala society with its skimming observations on politics, suicide and alcoholism. We have given up our literary moorings and embraced technology (Mobile phone illatha Malayali parayunna pole rare aayi pustakam vayikkuna Malayali) and have no time to indulge in the world of books. All that matters is money and even if sleaze makes money, then we are glad to embrace it (Aminnu paal kondu paysam vere undakki vilkunna bheekara Malayaliyude specimen).

Ranjith’s scenarist roots are the foundations of his work and so Kaiyoppu is largely a literary film with the writing leaning on to the world of literature for support, which is probably the reason why the movie is not scripted by him but by a writer like Ambikasuthan Mangad (in fact this is the only movie which he has directed but not scripted). 'Writer's block' is a term bandied about frequently but it must have been a challenge for a writer to sense of vacuum that he finds himself in. It is very easy for a movie that is set in a literary atmosphere to walk into a trap of self-importance and masquerade as serious cinema where characters start speaking in a verbose and complicated manner, filled with 'meaningless' pauses.The initial scenes involving CP and Balan discussing Pamuk or people in a road stall discussing Israel-US relations makes you wonder whether the movie is trying too hard take itself very seriously, but thankfully Ranjith is aware that he has a story to tell us.

Nevertheless, the essence of literature remains in the dialogues; sample the scene when Balan tells Padma that his dedication to her is not a A Hundred Years of Solitude or when Sivadasan compares their destiny to Shelley's or when even the caretaker Babu talks about Jameela’s autobiography – the references are not forced but flow along with the overall theme. But I find it curious that most of the literary references are to foreign writers only and the Malayalam sahitya world is given a miss. Maybe the idea was not restrict the concept to a local milieu but give it a more universal feel.

The movie falters in the last 15 or so minutes when it tries to cleave in a terror angle into the plot. On paper, the twist in the plot is possibly appealing but when translated onto the big screen, it finds itself on a slippery ground. The tone of the movie changes abruptly to a harsher one but I don’t think that the transition comes through as smoothly on screen. Wasn't there an attempt to thrust in a moral in a plot that did not need one?

Mammooty is impressive as the struggling writer but looks out of place and almost unsure on how to pull off this last moment twist by Ranjith and it spoils the texture of a carefully crafted movie that was walking unhurriedly towards its destination. When Balan is manhandled by the cops and he breaks into some sort of a soliloquy, it looks like a contrived attempt to reach out to the audience and gain their sympathy. For somebody who’s written a novel that Sivadasan describes as karutha haasyathinte itihaasam (a nod to O V Vijayan’s Dharmapuranam?), Balan comes across as a rather naive character who’s not at ease with the ways of the world, especially in the final scenes.

These are probably minor quibbles in a movie which was a landmark movie for Ranjith and his first step in his journey to re-invent himself. When Balan quotes Pamuk and says I read a book one day and my whole life was changed, was it Ranjith speaking to us explaining what prompted him to alter his cinematic style?

Originally published in MadAboutMoviez-