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-