Mee Raqsam

Mee Raqsam is a rather sentimental film by Husain Mir and Safdar Mir about a young Muslim girl learning Bharatanatyam in the face of community opposition. Acclaimed cinematographer Baba Azmi directs, and the opening credits explain that the film is a tribute to his father, Kaifi Azmi, who always wanted a film to be made in his home village. Perhaps as a result, the story leans heavily on sentiment and is light on depth, but for those who don’t mind a dash of schmaltz with their melodrama it’s a reasonable time-pass, especially for fans of dance.

The film opens with the sudden death of Maryam’s mother Sakina as she is showing off her dancing skills to her daughter. It’s a bit of an odd start to the film to immediately kill off one of the characters and there is also no context to why Maryam’s mother is dancing on the terrace of their home. Subsequent scenes with her family make it unlikely that she ever had any encouragement from them to learn dance, although it’s suggested by Maryam that she copied dance steps after watching them on TV. Sakina’s dancing seems to be purely a device to link Maryam’s wish to learn dance with memories of her mother, but it feels somewhat contrived without any backstory or explanation. 

Maryam (Aditi Subedi) is understandably devastated by her mother’s death but decides that she will go to classes to learn Bharatanatyam since this reminds her of her mother. Her father Salim (Danish Husain) is supportive, mainly because he just wants his daughter to be happy again, and he can’t see any harm in letting her learn how to dance. The simplistic nature of this part of the story is rather frustrating as it all happens so easily. Maryam wants to learn Bharatanatyam., there is a class nearby, and her father is fine with the idea. There is no explanation of how a poor tailor is paying for the classes, or why Salim doesn’t think through the consequences a little more before agreeing to Maryam’s request. However, everything runs smoothly, at least to begin with, and Maryam begins classes under the aegis of dance teacher Uma (Sudeepta Singh). Of course, it turns out that Maryam is a natural, and despite her lack of experience is selected to perform at a local event for the dance school sponsors. One of these is local Hindu bigwig Jai Prakash (Rakesh Chaturvedi Om), who is unimpressed by the inclusion of a Muslin girl in the classes, dismissively calling her Sultana and later, actively campaigning against her inclusion in a dance competition.

Meanwhile, Maryam’s maternal relatives are equally horrified by the thought of her dance lessons and complain vociferously to Salim. Her aunt Zehra (Shradha Kaul) is loud and bossy, but despite her dictatorial ways it is clear that she genuinely wants the best for Maryam It’s just that it has to be her idea of what is best. She drags Maryam out of classes and instead gets her to join a sewing circle, but Salim manages to allow Maryam to continue classes and still appear to be compliant with her aunt’s demands. However, the local Muslim community is also opposed to Maryam’s dance lessons and community leader Hashim Seth (Naseeruddin Shah) organises a boycott of Salim’s store. Poor to start with, Salim and Maryam face even more poverty and even violence, with stones thrown through their windows and threats made directly to Salim when he attempts to attend the local mosque. Everything culminates in Maryam’s performance at a local dance competition where talent scouts from Delhi will be in attendance. With both the Hindu and Muslim communities against her, the question is will Maryam manage to dance at all, let alone make her mark at the competition.

The story is kept simple, and all the characters apart from Maryam and her father are essentially one-dimensional. On one side are the people who are good – Uma who is thrilled to have a ‘natural dancer’ in her classes and doesn’t care who she is or what her family does. Maryam’s cousin (Juhaina Ahsan) is supportive while local auto driver Ashfaque (Kaustubh Shukla) persuades his fellow drivers to buy their ‘designer’ shirts from Salim when he sees how the family is being shunned by their regular customers. There is a vague love story between Ashfaque and Maryam’s cousin, but despite initial promise this doesn’t go anywhere, and adds little to the story. A track involving Jai Prakash’s ‘modern’ daughter Anjali (Shivani Gautam) is also a little odd and appears forced into the story partly to show a modern viewpoint but mainly so that Anjali can save the day at the end. On the other side are the bad guys – Zehra is traditional and narrow-minded, Jai Prakash and Hashim Seth are as prejudiced as each other, and the local communities follow their lead blindly. 

Although the story follows a predictable path, what really makes the film stand out are the performances from Danish Husain and Aditi Subedi. Danish excels in the role of an understanding and sympathetic father who is completely supportive of his daughter’s decisions. He’s kind, resigned to dealing with his wife’s family, but also stubborn when it comes down to doing what is right. Aditi Subedi is charming as Maryam and she nicely blends together conformity with her rebellious desire to learn Bharatanatyam. She gets the emotional scenes just right and does look lovely when she dances. Deepali Salil’s choreography suits her well, and my only complaint about the dancing is that there just isn’t enough of it. Disappointingly, the final dance competition is spoiled by some erratic camera angles, but the dance scenes in Uma’s classes are simply beautiful. I also enjoyed the music here; the background score by George Joseph and Ripul Sharma is excellent and suits the atmosphere of the film perfectly.

The idea of the story is interesting, and I must admit I hadn’t ever thought about the difficulties of learning Bharatanatyam aside from how complex and physically challenging it appears to be. I’ve always thought of it as a quintessentially Indian dance and it’s fascinating to see it through the lens of religion rather than simply as an art form. The prejudices and conservative mindset of both the Hindu and Muslim communities are well portrayed, although it would have been even better if there had been some more shading of the characters rather than leaving everything quite so black and white. However, the scenes of family disagreement are better and give more of an insight into the difficulties facing Maryam and her cousins as modern attitudes clash with traditional values. Mee Raqsam may not be as ground-breaking a film as it could have been, but it’s a different take on the clash between cultures and that makes it well worth a look. 3 ½ stars.

Naduvula Konjam Pakkatha Kaanom

After tracking down a subtitled copy of Balaji Tharaneetharan’s début film, it took a little while to get around to watching the film. The synopsis wasn’t terribly inspiring; ‘a young man experiences retrograde amnesia after a cricket incident two days before his wedding’ and so, despite the presence of Vijay Sethupathi, I didn’t put it straight to the top of the pile. But I really should have known better. While not quite as good as Balaji Tharaneetharan’s later film Seethakaathi, NKPK has plenty of quirky humour and the story is much better than the one-line summary suggests. It’s funny, well told and best of all, the film is actually based on a true story that actually happened to one of Balaji Tharaneetharan’s friends. In fact the real-life Prem is the film cinematographer C Prem Kumar, while Bagavathi Perumal plays his real-life role as Prem’s desperate friend.

The plotline of the story really is as simple as the synopsis suggests, and yet there is so much more happening as Prem’s friends hide his amnesia from his bride-to-be and her family. And yet, the funniest part of the film isn’t the absurd lengths his friends go to in ensuring that no-one knows Prem has lost his memory. Rather it’s the baffled expressions on Prem’s face as he struggles to understand what is going on, and his repeated dialogue of the last few moments he can remember before he hit his head that raise the biggest laughs. Medulla oblongata has never sounded so funny!

The film starts with Prem discussing his problems with his friends, Bugs (Bagavathi Perumal), Saras (Vigneshwaran Palanisamy) and Balaji (Rajkumar). It’s a couple of days before Prem’s wedding and he’s worried because his fiancée’s family don’t like the match, his bike’s been stolen and he’s having problems with his boss. To take his mind off his woes, the friends decide to go and play a game of cricket, which Bugs takes far too seriously, while everyone else struggle to even hit the ball. But then, when running back to take a catch, Prem falls and hits his head. He seems fine, but as the friends are heading back home, Saras realises that something might be wrong. Prem keeps repeating the same thing, over and over again, with exactly the same phrasing and timing. He can’t remember that his bike has been stolen, and worst of all, he has no idea who his fiancée Dhanalakshmi (Gayathrie) is.

Because it’s a love marriage and the parents don’t approve, Bugs, Saras and Balaji spend the next few days doing absolutely everything they can to make sure no-one finds out and stops the wedding. They take Prem to a doctor who tells them that Prem could regain his memory at any time, or could potentially never remember, which means that they are continually on tenderhooks, waiting for that moment when Prem finally regains his memory. But instead, he just keeps going back to the moment when he falls and hits his head.

The friends are absolutely sure that Prem will be devastated if the wedding doesn’t take place, which seems a strange motivation for the extremes they go to, which even includes Saras jeopardising his own potential romance. But at the very end, there are stills of the actual wedding that the story is based upon, and by that stage it really does all make sense.

Vijay Sethupathi is simply amazing here, and brilliantly shows his internal confusion as he tries to work out what is going on, before losing the struggle and going back to the moment when he fell. His facial expressions are perfect, and I don’t know how he managed to keep repeating the same dialogue over and over again without cracking up laughing. The moment when he sees his bride and thinks she looks dreadful in all her makeup is sad and funny all at the same time. The writing is so well done that it’s possible to really feel for Dhanalaksmi and understand her hurt at Prem’s reaction, while still finding Prem’s comments hilariously funny.

Gayathrie doesn’t have very much to do, except stand beside Prem during the wedding, but she is such a talented actress, that even with little dialogue she gets across Dhanalaksmi’s love for Prem and also her despair at his attitude on her wedding day. The friends all have their own personalities, but it’s Vigneshwaran Palanisamy as Sara who really stands out as being the driving force behind the various schemes to shield Prem.

This is simply inspired and a very funny story which has been put together very well. The entire film only covers three days, a cricket match and a wedding, but despite being a little slow to start, once Prem loses his memory, there is a lot to enjoy. There are so many jokes, both visual and in the dialogue, but through it all, it’s Vijay Sethupathi who really stands out as a terrific performer. There is some real tension because the outcome of the wedding, Prem’s future and even his relationship with his friends is always in doubt, right p to the end. This is just a fun film and I recommend it to anyone who needs something to make them smile. 4 stars.

Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum

Dileesh Pothan’s second film is every bit as good as his first, Maheshinte Prathikaaram. In this tale of a couple trying to get their stolen property back from a thief, he takes Sajeev Pazhoor’s simple story and builds a world that is instantly recognisable with relatable, everyday characters. The cast are uniformly excellent and with cinematography from Rajeev Ravi and music from Bijibal, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is an excellent ‘slice-of-life’ film that deserves a wide audience.

The film starts with a series of events that appear to have little relevance to the rest of the story, but they give an excellent insight into the character of Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu). After a night out at a theatre, Prasad develops a cold, and while at the pharmacy to buy some medication, he sees Sreeja (Nimisha Sajayan) buying a pregnancy test. Prasad immediately jumps to the wrong conclusion and his tendency towards gossip soon ensures that Sreeja hears exactly what rumours he has been spreading around town. However, despite this rocky start, Sreeja finds that she is attracted to Prasad and the relationship soon develops into love. The couple end up getting married, but due to Sreeja’s father (Vettukili Prakash) disapproving of his daughter marrying someone from a different caste, they move up north to live.

This is where the story really starts. Prasad and Sreeja are struggling as the land they have bought lacks irrigation, which is making it impossible to either farm, or to sell and try something else. The couple are on their way into town to pawn Sreeja’s wedding chain to try for a final time to dig a borewell for water. On the journey, Sreeja’s chain is stolen by a thief (Fahadh Faasil) but as she wakes up and realises what has happened, he swallows the chain making not difficult for Sreeja to prove what has happened. Various people on the bus leap to her defence, and the bus deposits Prasad and Sreeja at Sheni police station to report the theft.

What makes the story so compelling are the additional characters who add small snippets into the story. On the bus is a young man who jumps into the action and a female passenger who hits the thief who are christened ‘violent lady’ and ‘waver guy’ by the police who decide they may need their testimony. In the police station is A.S.I Chandran (Alencier Ley Lopez) and SI Mathew (Sibi Thomas) who have different reasons for wanting an arrest under their name. The petty politics and power struggles between the different police officers are beautifully brought out over the three days the thief is held in custody, while the decision to try and make Sreeja and Prasad change their testimony speaks to corruption even at such a small local level. It’s fascinating to watch the push and pull between the different officers, and how they alternately cajole and beat the thief to try and exact a confession.

Also in the police station is Sudhakaran (K. T. Sudhakaran), a local drunk who has been locked up to prevent him from causing trouble at a temple festival which is being held in the town. The temple is close to the police station and the music and festival sounds provide a constant backdrop to the events occurring in the police station. The police officers even pop out now and then to enjoy the festival, in between interviewing suspects and planning how to force Prasad to confess.

At one point the thief manages to escape, and in the end it’s Prasad who captures him, by chasing him through a canal. The cinematography here is wonderful and there are excellent contrasts between the dusty grasslands and the dank atmosphere in the canal. The chase across the fields, though banks of solar panels, into the forest and finally along the canal is brilliantly done and I loved how difficult it was to decide between cheering for the thief to escape, or wishing that Prasad would finally catch up.

Prasad and Sreeja are wonderfully drawn characters and their relationship allows Dileesh Pothan to comment on intercaste marriages and the difficulties the couple face after moving so far away from their home. Poverty is a constant theme as is the day to day corruption and violence that occurs as a matter of course in the police station. Alencier Ley Lopez is as good as always in a role that allows him to explore different facets of an older police officer, coming to the end of his term, while Sibi Thomas is excellent at normalising the power struggles and in his depiction of his different relationships with the various police officers. But it’s Suraj Venjaramoodu, Fahadh Faasil and Nimisha Sajayan who bring the story to life and keep the various mood swings on track. The character of thief never gives any explanation of why he keeps lying, but his knowledge of the various rules and regulations suggests he is a career criminal. There are some stand-out moments; Fahadh Faasil’s grin when the x-ray finally reveals the whereabout of the necklace, his frantic attempts to escape and his sheepish expression while giving details to A.S.I Chandran. I also really like how the character of Prasad develops, from living with his family (I love the opening scene where his sister-in-law wakes him and then turns his bed into an ironing board!) to taking responsibility and after initially blaming Sreeja for the theft, stepping up to capture the thief and follow through with all the unpleasantness at the police station. In her debut role Nimisha Sajayan is simply outstanding and I love how she shows her initial anger at the thief changing to sympathy and horror as he is beaten, and she is persuaded to change her story. It’s a lovely performance and throughout it all she appears totally normal and reasonable in her behaviour, particularly in comparison with the machinations of the police around her.

While the story plays out more like a soap opera in a police station, the characters and their interactions with each other are fascinating. The mystery of the missing chain and the chase sequence inject some tension, as does some of the internal politics, but overall it’s the basic day to day lives of people in small town India that are really on display here. Nothing is wasted – the scenes where Prasad has to pay for the police officers and their prisoner to have lunch, or the trips up the hill to allow the thief to pass the chain are all finely nuanced and shed yet more light on each character. I really enjoyed this film and can’t wait to see what Dileesh Pothan comes up with next. 4 ½ stars.