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 -