Orange Mittai

Essentially Orange Mittai is a road movie, but this isn’t a typical journey. Here, the vehicle is an ambulance and the trip one to a hospital taken by a cantankerous patient with heart problems who enjoys riling the ambulance driver and EMT. And while the story is about the journey both physically and metaphorically, it’s also a story about fathers and sons, about loneliness and even to some extent about failings within the health system in rural India. Biju Viswanath gently infuses comedy throughout the tale and allows the story to focus on the developing relationship between the EMT Sathya (Ramesh Thilak) and patient Kailasam (Vijay Sethupathi). Along with the gorgeous cinematography, it’s the simplicity of the story and the genuine view of isolation portrayed that make this such a great watch.

The film starts with EMT Sathya and his ambulance driver Arumugam (Arumughan Bala) attending the scene of a car accident. The driver is drunk, and after delivering him to the hospital, the dialogue between Sathya and Arumugam quickly establishes their individual characters and the ongoing tone of the film. Sathya is concerned about the driver and lets us know by a quick conversation with the nurse that he has informed the patient’s family, who are on their way. He also stops Arumugam thieving money and other valuables from their hapless patient in a scene that demonstrates his innate honesty and compassion, but Biju Viswanath also uses this to illustrate the friendship between the two men, despite their widely differing morals and work ethic. It’s a lovely beginning that quickly sets up their relationship, followed by similar brief conversations that give more background to Sathya. His father died a year ago, and when Sathya is praying, Arumugam comments that he could have shown his father this sort of respect when he was alive. It’s a throwaway line in an early scene but it resonates throughout the film, as Sathya ends up dealing with another older man who has issues with his own son.

Keeping to the theme of fathers, early on there is meeting between Sathya and his potential father-in-law (Trichy Manivannan) to begin discussing marriage with Kavya (Aashritha). Initially it appears as if Kavya’s father disapproves of Sathya, but despite misgivings he gives his permission to the marriage, as long as Sathya gives up working as an EMT and comes to work in his business instead. But that’s not what Sathya wants. He’s happy enough with Kavya, but his job means more to him than just his salary, and he’s not prepared to give it up just to appease his father-in-law. He doesn’t argue or explain his motivations, just simply asks for a day to think about it, which exemplifies his conciliatory approach to conflict seen throughout the rest of the film.

Sathya is given the job of collecting a heart attack patient from a remote location and taking him to the hospital. When Arumugam and Sathya finally make their way to the house (it’s inaccessible by ambulance) there is tense music and tilted camera shots through the gate railings and underside of a cart. It all seems to be pointing towards some supernatural event or violent shock, but the reality is rather less dramatic. The house is big, and there are faded pictures on the walls hinting at a past glory, while the rest of the house seems to be slowly decaying. When they finally find him, the man they have come to help is alone and has a grumpy and unconciliatory attitude making him prickly and difficult to deal with. He expects much but is not at all grateful, which alienates both Sathya and Arumugam right away. However Sathya is an expert in dealing with such disrespect – he deals with it every day from his supervisor and the hospital doctors, so he’s able to cope with Kailasam’s orders and quirks, eventually getting him into the ambulance and on his way to the hospital.

Naturally the journey doesn’t go smoothly and there are various interruptions along the way. Throughout it all, Kailasam is difficult, demanding and a typical grumpy old man. Vijay Sethupathi doesn’t quite look old enough for the character despite colouring his hair grey, but he does get the mannerisms spot on. In particular, his nosiness about Sathyam’s relationship is brilliantly written and seems completely natural, as does his general dissatisfaction with the world at large. As the journey unfolds it’s clear that Kailasam has a fractured relationship with his son, and since Sathya is dealing with issues related to his own father, the expectation is that the two will develop a father-son style relationship. To some extent this does occur, but not until later – after Sathya has come to realise it’s easier to feel compassion towards someone he’s not related to, and begins to understand that loneliness is behind Kailasam’s difficult persona.

Ramesh Thilak frequently appears in Tamil films as the friend or sidekick, often in a comedy role, but here he plays the central character which allows him to show a more serious side. Sathya is basically a decent person who just wants to be able to help people, and Ramesh does an excellent job of blending understanding and compassion with frustration, exasperation but also acceptance as Sathya deals with Kailasam, his demanding supervisor and a hospital doctor who has no respect for his skills. He also hits the right note with his girlfriend, even giving her some good advice as he finally tells her what he really wants in his life and that it’s up to her to decide what she really wants too. Unusually, the romance is merely a side note to the film rather than a central plot point –  it’s why Sathya is distracted at work and gives Kailasam an opportunity to give out some advice, but there are no odd duets or long involved romantic scenes. This is a much more down-to-earth film that doesn’t need any of this kind of drama, and the story works much better as a result.

The comedy in the film also seems to flow naturally, with Ramesh and Arumughan Bala working together beautifully to produce the laughs. Arumughan is the typical hapless idiot who will always do or say the wrong thing, but his relationship with Sathya has more to it than just these comedy interactions, which makes for a more interesting journey.

Although there are a few misses, for the most part the story gently builds a relationship between Sathya and Kailasam, even though the latter is resilient almost to the end. With Kailasam’s estrangement from his son, the friendship that develops with Sathya is bittersweet, which may be why the film is titled Orange Mittai, also referencing the bitter orange sweets Kailasam eats on his journey to the hospital. Interestingly, Vijay Sethupathi is credited as co-writing the film with Biju Viswanath, who is responsible for the stunning camera work and for editing the film as well as directing. This depth of involvement is perhaps why Orange Mittai at times seems indulgent, for example when Sathya stops to let an exuberant Kailasam dance in the moonlight, but this is only a minor point since overall the story is told simply and with care and attention to detail. I enjoyed the slow development of an unusual friendship and the meandering journey from hospital to hospital with a patient who really just wanted a day out and a break in routine. One to savour and enjoy as a simple reflection on the complexity of human relationships. 4 stars.

Orange Mittai

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Virus (2019)

Based on a true story, writers Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas have taken the subject of the 2018 Nipah outbreak in Kerala and delivered a tense and suspenseful drama that is all the more powerful for its basis in fact. Although at times the effort to appear like a Hollywood disaster movie makes some of the screenplay seem a tad forced, for the most part this is a solid delivery of a fascinating story. The attempts to control the outbreak and the forensic analysis to discover the source of the virus are cleverly written to demonstrate the dedication and compassion of all involved, and it’s the realism and depth of detail that make this such an engrossing watch. Director Aashiq Abu has an all-star cast, but what really shines through is the story and ultimately the response of the hospital and government staff at the time who did such an amazing job of containing the infection and preventing mass exposure.

As someone who works in a hospital in Australia, the opening scenes in the casualty department of the hospital in Kozhikode appear completely shambolic with doctors and nurses struggling just to get near a patient let alone treat their problems.  But over the years I’ve worked in a number of hospitals in India myself and I recognise that the apparent chaos is actually all under control despite appearances to the contrary, and that somehow the doctors and nurses manage to see every single patient over the course of the day. In Kozhikode, as junior doctor Abid Rahman (Sreenath Bhasi) is starting his shift, the patients seem the usual collection of injuries, illnesses and infection cases, but then there is a young man admitted suffering seizures, hallucinations and who is rapidly getting worse. One of the nurses, Akhila (Rima Kallingal) tries to take care of the patient, Zachariah (Zakariya Mohammed) but her efforts and those of the medical team are in vain, and just as Zachariah’s condition deteriorates further, more patients start to appear with similar symptoms.

It takes some time for the pieces to start to come together. The cases are spread across two districts so the similarities between patients’ symptoms are not immediately recognised, but when Akhila herself becomes ill the situation suddenly escalates to a full-blown emergency with the main objective being to control the spread of the disease. The story from here unfolds gradually, following the medical staff as they treat patients and Kozhikode Distric Collector Paul Abraham (Tovino Thomas) and Health Minister Prameela (Revathi) as they start the search for the source. But we also see the hospital orderlies and cleaners who are willing to risk their lives to try and help stop the spread of the disease, and the impact these decisions have on their families too. Dr Suresh Rajan (Kunchacko Boban) confirms that the patients have contracted Nipah, which has no treatment, no vaccination and a 75% fatality rate, with the only option being containment and quarantine. For those who already have the disease there is little hope. Paul starts the process of tracking down the “Index patient’, aided by Dr Annu (Parvathy) and as each patient is admitted there are flashbacks to possible contamination moments which highlight the relentless spread of the disease through close encounters with possible carriers.

Nothing is omitted – the struggles to calm the fears of medical students and hospital staff are here as well as descriptions of the difficulties of disposing of the bodies of the deceased. These are still infectious and need to be incinerated safely which causes further distress to grieving families who aren’t even allowed the dignity of a funeral for their loved ones. There is a conspiracy theory thrown around that this could be a form of terrorist attack by germ warfare, but mostly the tension comes from a combination of the race to find the cause, and the plight of the patients and the doctors trying desperately to save them.

The film works so well because it is incredibly realistic and down to earth. The reactions are all natural and even the attempts to increase tension with the conspiracy theory and sensational TV interviews could all be plausibly grounded in fact. Every single character is beautifully drawn with each actor perfectly cast for their role, so that Virus often seems more like a documentary than a film. Taking each character and giving them plausible background is inspired – like hospital porter Babu (Joju George), initially seen negotiating for wages which have not been paid and whose wife and children are stigmatised while he is away. These details, even down to a broken strap on his backpack give authenticity to the story and draw the audience deeper into what is happening onscreen. There are so many excellent but fleeting performances. Soubin Shahir is good as a patient whose infection initially baffles the doctors as he seems to have had no contact with any of the confirmed cases, while Madonna Sebastian appears even more briefly as a junior doctor who contracts the virus. Poornima Indrajith, Asif Ali, and Sharafudheen all appear in critical roles while Savithri Sreedharan, who was so good in Sudani from Nigeria is brilliant in her few short scenes as the mother of the index patient. Zakariya Mohammed brings so much humanity to his role as the first identified case of the virus with an incredibly poignant closing scene delivering the perfect finale to a film that really is all about compassion and caring.

This is a brilliant depiction of real-life events and I found it compelling but chilling to realise that this outbreak actually happened. The film unfolds as if watching the events in real time and I was awed by the immediacy of the hospital and government response and impressed by the success of their quarantine. Aashiq Abu has done an amazing job with bringing this story to life onscreen and while Virus may be a factual telling of the story, it’s the characters that are most memorable and have the biggest impact. Highly recommended.

Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota

Vasan Bala takes all the required masala ingredients and tosses them around. And throws in some real talk about love, loss and growing up, wrapped up in offbeat humour, visual gags, movie references, and tons of Hong Kong film style action.

I knew I was probably going to like this film from the get go when the hero flashes back to when he was still in utero…with his parents watching Chiru dancing to It’s A Challenge in Aaj Ka Goonda Raj!

Surya grows up under the care of his dad (Jimit Trivedi) and granddad (Mahesh Manjrekar) after his mother is killed in a bungled theft. He has congenital pain insensitivity and according to the movie medicine, will probably die by the age of 4. So his anxious dad almost literally wraps him in cotton wool. His only childhood friend is Supri, a neighbour who is his opposite in many ways. She never says anything but she feels pain. Her abusive drunk dad is the opposite of Surya’s too. Ajoba feeds Surya a diet of action and masala movies to try and teach him what pain means and how to recognise injuries, and insists that he stay well hydrated. There is some sense in teaching the kid how his body works and what could go wrong but it didn’t help his emotional development. Both kids become obsessed with Karate Man, a one-legged karate master who once beat 100 men in a single fight. Surya believes that life will conform to the rules of films, and he is a hero – the next Karate Man. So when people treat him as a villain, he is bewildered and annoyed. The family moves out of town to his grandfather’s house and Surya loses touch with Supri.

Adult Surya (Abhimanyu Dassani) quotes his grandfather who said “Behind every mind blowing story are some pretty bad decisions”. He is an unreliable narrator, often rewriting scenes on the fly or drifting into a filmi fantasy before the world crashes in. He is as influenced by Bruce Lee and the Terminator films as he is by Amitabh and Rajinikanth. And he’s not particularly bright so he is almost guaranteed a succession of mind blowing stories. Dassani has classic chocolate hero looks, an exuberant acrobatic physicality, and an expression of intense innocence that can be hilarious or can make me want to deliver the one tight slap he sometimes needed.

Supri (Radhika Madan) re-enters his life in a beautifully choreographed fight underscored by Kishore Kumar singing “Nakhrewali”. I really loved that rather than race in to take over, he watched her kicking arse and was utterly enchanted by her skills and strength. It took a while for them to recognise each other but Karate Man divided them and brought them back together. Radhika Madan clearly worked hard for this role. She does a lot of physical action and portrays Supri as strong but not invincible, and not just a comedy prop for the men in fight scenes. I liked her performance a lot and found her character a necessary and welcome counterpoint to Surya’s more cartoonish perspective. She is resilient, and a sound thinker who doesn’t carry shame or guilt that isn’t hers to own.

Supri’s life was no fairytale. I cringed to hear her dad tell her boyfriend Atul to just slap her if she was difficult. It so unusual for films to even hint at domestic violence issues that I was pleasantly surprised when Supri and her mum had some real talk. Ma doesn’t want Supri to throw her life away on a bad marriage but Supri is struggling to know what else to do. She doesn’t earn, they need money for medical care, and she simply doesn’t know where to start. Mother and daughter talk about their feelings and the demands of life and there is no drama, just love. Supri says her mum sacrificed to nurse an abusive husband back to health so it is her turn now. But Ma is an interesting woman and she says she can’t break her internal programming to keep supporting her husband, but she doesn’t want Supri to follow in her footsteps. She encourages her to get out and live her own life.

Gulshan Devaiah rounds out the main cast in a brilliant dual role performance. We get the history of Mani and Jimmy in a funky flashback as one becomes a cliché drunk karate master and the other a cliché psychotic villain. How good is this retro funk sound?

Gulshan hits all the right notes in both roles and he commits. I loved his Karate Man style and if there was an award for best use of citrus fruit in a fight sequence, he would win it hands down. Mani is Supri’s mentor although he knows Atul is giving her grief and pushes her away for her own good. He reluctantly acquires Surya as a sidekick on his quest to get the locket back. Jimmy is grandiose, verbose, and constantly disappointed and dismayed by his goons and their lack of style. And when they are together, it’s like they’re both 9 years old again.

The film comes across as a loving tribute to movies and action, not just a piss take. It’s often laugh out loud funny, with a succession of blink and you’ll miss them references. Karan Kulkarni and Dipanjan Guha riff on some classic sounds and the songs are generally well placed. I loved the use of old filmi songs in the background, and the hoardings and murals that featured movie stars. Apart from being lovely it helped fuse Surya’s inner life to the world where this action was taking place. Bala uses some visual gimmicks to allow viewers to be aware of what was going on in real time, but the fight scenes are real and very physical with none of the bad CGI so prevalent. At its heart the movie is full of old school mass goodness.

The movie is on Netflix so you have no excuse. 4 stars!