Wednesday, May 21, 2014

How Old Are You

Manju Warrier is back and how! Rosshan Andrrews' How Old Are You brings back Manju to the silver screen after a decade and half and one of Malayalam cinema’s most-loved actresses makes a spirited return as a middle-aged woman restoring her identity and finding new direction in life. This easily is one of the more anticipated movies this year and to that extent, there is a sense of mild nostalgia, coupled with a sense of satisfaction that her re-launch vehicle is the perfect one for the occasion.

How Old Are You (HOAY), follows the ‘boring’ middle-class life of Nirupama Rajeev (Manju Warrier), a 36-year old UD clerk in the revenue department. Her life comprises a run-of-the-mill government job which she has been doing for the past 15 years, her family and colleagues, after she settles down and adjusts herself to the reality of a post-marital life. Her husband Rajeev (Kunchacko Boban) who works with All India Radio, and her high school daughter Lakshmi (Amritha Anil), have big dreams in life and want to migrate to Ireland to carve a new life for them.

Like most women who have sacrificed a lot of their dreams for their family, Nirupama has also undergone a transformation. From Susan (Kaniha), Nirupama’s one-time friend and now a high flying private employee, we know that she was a fiery young woman during her college days, who invited the wrath of the college authorities and even police during her protests but never backed down. Her old teacher recollects that she had expected her to scale new heights and her college autograph book which she often reads out to her daughter is testimony to the accolades and expectations of her friends.

Again, like most women, while she may have sacrificed her dreams, it isn't something that her husband or daughter really appreciate. It is treated as a matter-of-fact thing that all women have to do and so she finds herself reduced to an embarrassment for them, who can be dispensed with– Rajeev feels that his wife is too intellectually-challenged to contribute or appreciate his work while Lakshmi doesn't think too highly of her mother’s caliber either.

It doesn't help that when situations arise where she can contribute, she panics and allows herself to be made an object of ridicule. She collapses when she plays badminton at her daughter’s school due to high BP or  faints when she goes to meet the President of India (Quiz Master Siddhartha Basu in a cameo), who sends her an invitation to have breakfast with, after he is impressed with one of questions asked by her daughter in school.

Bobby-Sanjay’s script hits a lot of right notes in observing and highlighting Nirupama’s dilemmas, even though they rush it up a bit in completing the orchestra. Nirupama’s boredom is not conveyed in her words – she troops in late to office or is untouched when she sends away a pensioner without getting his work resolved. A stand-out scene is where Nirupama visits an old woman (Sethulakshmi) whom she meets every day in bus. They don't even know each other’s names but one day Nirupama turns up at her house when she knows she is sick. When the old woman talks of her loneliness, she probably imagines sees herself in that situation years later. Another that comes to the mind is the sharp exchange between the couple when Rajeev returns to take her to Ireland because they are unable to manage without her– she tells him to expect from her only what was given to her and she cannot be a free backup for a maid.

What works for HOAY primarily is the fact that as an audience, we can easily relate to the happenings on the screen. Nirupama’s travails in life are not just hers but also that of many women who have given up a lot of their dreams, to build a safe nest for their family. It is a grossly under-appreciated role that she plays in our lives but which we take for granted. She may not be the principal bread-winner but hers is a silent invisible presence that ensures that we can go about in our lives, without being too concerned of what happens at home. As Nirupama says, the price of vegetables may be an irrelevant topic of discussion but it is important to her; if one day, there is extra spice in her husband’s food, the same innocuous food would become a matter of concern.

While the first half underscores her issues in life, there is an entertaining but ambling flow in these trivialities. The entire Meet-the-President routine is genuinely funny, especially her mother-in-law’s innocent queries on the nature of the meeting, her attempts to cash-in on her new-found celebrity status to make others’ jealous, her dazed sojourn into the Presidential suite and finally her collapse after the President greets her.  Amidst all these funny moments, there is also the heartburn of realizing how little respect she commands in the eyes of her father and teenage daughter.

The second half, however, goes a bit more pedantic and eventually HOAY becomes a nice feel-good film, with a liberal dosage of cinematic moments that are not very convincing. The transformation into a more confident women is fine but the events around her gallop more briskly than you’d accept and while this ensures that the scripts keeps a fast pace, it does leave one asking for more credibility in the rapid turn of events.  While she makes a spirited speech for organic vegetables in an Architects’ conference and the Minister is more than impressed to offer her the stewardship to run such a campaign across the state, there isn't anything shown to convey her ability to manage any of this.  Also, it isn't as if Kerala hasn't really heard of either organic vegetables or terrace farming, so the reaction of the people around her goes rather overboard.

Manju Warrier easily seeps into the character of Nirupama who has lost her individuality and self-confidence as she struggles to juggle between a teenage daughter and a husband who takes her for granted. Her makeup however is a bit more conspicuous and never for a moment, do you actually see a freckled or worn-out Nirupama – would appear that Manju was peeping out of the screen sometimes, instead of Nirupama.

Manju retains a lot of her impish charm that won over many hearts in Kerala and she is the heart and soul of the movie. She remains Malayalam cinema’s favourite actress and the audience is sure to warm up to her performance as she tugs at our heart strings. Her moments of despair, her meekness and self-doubt are all experienced by us too but it begs a question as to whether parts of this film actually mirror her real life! When Susan asks her where her confident old self has gone, it does appear that this is a question that is being asked to the real and not reel Manju Warrier.

It is a pleasant surprise to see Kunchacko Boban appearing as a proper MCP husband who is over-shadowed entirely by the charming Manju.  There might be a few who might think that Rosshan should have cast someone who looks a bit more elder to her but that looks like a conditioned response by the audience (would appear that the dialogue where an elder woman in the bus asks her if Rajeev is her brother was inserted in anticipation of such an observation). Eventually, there is a bit of a cop out because while he uses her at every juncture (when his car meets with an accident or when he emotionally blackmails her to come to Ireland), there is no scene indicating his final acceptance or understanding of her position in the family. I would have been happy to see the writers give enough space where she is able to communicate her dreams to both her husband and her daughter and they are able to see it.

Thematically, HOAY bears a strong resemblance to Sridevi’s English Vinglish, in terms of a woman’s struggle to assert her identity, amidst a family that under-values her.  But that’s where the similarity ends and this is by no means an ‘inspired’ work – each woman brings to the fore her own efforts to recognize and make her own way through her inner conflicts. You could call it a women-centric film but then the thought pre-supposes that gender rights and equality are topics relevant only to one gender. Yes, the thrust is on women but the rights of both partners matter and her final decision to stay back and work is a courageous decision that is conveyed with brevity. Personally, I think this is a movie you must go along with your wife and not just alone; there are a few moments that every family will relate to.

As a woman, she has never questioned the status-quo and her position in the family but when faced with a real opportunity to come out of her cocoon and excel, she fumbles initially but recovers thanks to the support from multiple quarters and emerges a stronger woman. The question How Old Are You is no longer relevant now…

Thursday, May 15, 2014

God's Own Country

The phrase God's Own Country is probably Kerala’s most successful tagline. Our chests swell in pride (not the 56’ one) at the successful marketing of the state’s natural beauty but privately many smirk at how a naturally endowed state has become a laggard, especially when compared to our immediate hard working neighbour. As a protagonist remarks in the movie which goes by the same name, Kerala was not coined as God's Own Country by the Gods but by fellow humans!

Considering that hyperlink movies have made a splash in new generation Malayalam cinema, it isn't surprising that many directors are attracted to this kind of story- telling. Here the focus is inevitably more on the narrative devices instead of say the emotional or melodrama moments that drives the plot in most movies. The obsession for the narrative obfuscates the real plot many a times but thankfully, Vasudev Sanal’s God's Own Country manages a fine balance because it has fairly well-defined plot lines that intersect at times but are very capable of standing as independent credible tales that take their own routes.

Fahadh Faasil is Manu Krishna, a Dubai-based NRI. He lands in Kochi with his baby daughter to pay the blood money that would rescue his wife Asha (Isha Talwar), who is in a Dubai prison after a car accident. Manu is supported by his writer-friend Abhirami (Mythili) to get the deal done but it all goes topsy-turvy when the money goes missing. The hapless husband with his crying baby and his friend spend the entire day attempting to recover this money.

Sreenivasan is Public Prosecutor Mathen Tharakan who is in charge of a sensational rape case of a minor (whose name is used freely in all public utterances despite the obvious fact this is not allowed in India) that has shaken the conscience of the State. Nandu as Ettumanoor MLA Vakkachan is one of the prime accused and Mathen enlists the support of Vakkachan’s wife Serena (Lena) to give crucial evidence that will nail her husband. It isn’t the easiest of things to do and the plot focuses on the day when Mathen smartly smuggles Serena out of her house and take her to court.

Lal appears as a taxi driver Mohammed who desperately needs six lakhs for the operation of his daughter. The surgery needs to be arranged the same day otherwise the hospital would discharge her; with no help in hand, he looks at the fastest way to raise money for the treatment, in this eventful day in all their lives.

Despite the presence of multiple threads in GOC, the script does not waver and sticks to its course, with very few roadblocks. The script is backed by solid performances, extending to the large supporting cast who have minor but important roles to play, whether it is the Tamilian lottery seller, the honest auto-driver and his partner, the gangster duo of Arjun and Zakeer or the cops.

GOC traces its DNA to Passenger and Traffic in the way the movie is shot and its attempt to weave a larger social picture to the happenings. At times, the attempt to provide social commentary is all too evident but thankfully, it doesn't act as a party pooper on too many occasions (except like when it brings in the licentious book publisher). Like most ‘social-cinema’, the screenplay has a soft corner for the under-privileged who comes off with much more credibility than the high and the mighty. The Tamilian lottery seller is looked down with contempt and suspicion but he turns out to be the most trustworthy and helpful man in the situation. The prostitute and auto-driver are traditionally the characters with golden hearts and they are no exception here but they manage to pull off their parts well, without necessarily fitting into this stereotype.

I am not too sure whether the idea of three protagonists, all of different religions was done deliberate but maybe it fits along with the overall social image of the film (Also interesting is that the actors who played these three roles are also of different religions themselves). Some of the social communication is deftly conveyed with brevity like the absence of family support for Manu/Asha because of their inter-religious marriage (Ummachi kuttiye  Nair kettiyathu cinemayil kandappol ellavarum kayiadichu pakshe jeevithathil aayappol... – a nod to the presence of Isha Talwar in the movie), spending patterns of the average Keralite and the growing mistrust towards migrant workers while some messages are packaged more explicitly (even if less effective) like land re-settlement issues or the road accident menace in the state.

What unsettled me at a few points in the movie was the refusal of the director to underplay any of the scenes in the film. Take Abhirami’s accident scene which in her elaborate slow-motion tumble appeared rather grotesque – the impact of the scene is a lot bloodier than I think the director must have wanted to show. Or say when Mathen talks of the rape of the minor girl; there isn't really a need to show that the crime was done by focussing on her expressions and the bare backs of the men repeatedly coming in (though the scene was pretty brief). The point is that the rape is not the main theme of the movie and showing its cruelty is not relevant to the movie then the why the need to shoot the scene in that fashion.

Yes, this is a multi-narrative thriller and so all the links are not clear at the very beginning but over a period of time, as the story slowly unravels, the dots are all joined. But the director wants to be doubly sure that the audience doesn't really miss out on the connections and so there are deliberate explanations done – almost a kind of baby feeding that isn't really needed. Like when Mathen escapes by driving the car along the police station; the next shot of a muddy road behind the station clearly suggests how they escaped, then why the need for a slow motion explicitly showing the escape. Similarly, slow motion frames which show how the bag is stolen from Abhirami’s car or eventually returns to Manu’s hands could have been avoided.

For a film that did not intend to showcase Fahadh Faasil’s macho-presence on the screen, I was a little puzzled when the director filmed elaborate action sequences instead of quick encounters that would have produced the same effect. His fights with the money carriers and agents walking straight into their den was out of place while the final sequence with one of the henchmen (with a poor baby in hand) was way over the top. After all this, when Manu showers currency notes from the top of the building for the agitators below, I wasn't quite able to fathom the reason for this action.

GOC has 2-3 songs which do not distract from the flow, but the BGM disappoints and it is pretty loud at times. It scores in its well-orchestrated action scenes like Zakir’s chase scene and subsequent fight with the other goons but the same thing comes unstuck when it is done by Manu. The ending struck a mild false note, in my opinion. Considering that their family and friends had abandoned them after the accident that happened with the friends around after a New Year cocktail party, the final shot of them celebrating in another party did give a sense of déjà vu – a quieter gathering would have been more reassuring.

In all fairness, most of this criticism is not a deal breaker but what could have taken the movie a notch higher. The debutante scriptwriters Arun Gopinath, Anish Francis and Praveen have succeeded in making the movie a workable, edge of the seat thriller with the right dosage of social messaging that helps its cause. It might be overdone slightly at times but at the end of the day if the movie is trimmed by around say 15 mins, it is a fine effort alright…