Oru Mexican Aparatha

Oru Mexican Aparatha

I don’t know much about Indian politics and even less about Indian politics in the seventies, but that didn’t stop me enjoying Tom Emmatty’s directorial debut, Oru Mexican Aparatha. In fact, the political agenda of both groups involved in this college based drama seemed mostly irrelevant, as the film is more about the clash of personalities rather than any large differences in manifesto or ideology, despite the mainly Communist theme. What stands out about the film are the strong performances from Tovino Thomas, Roopesh Peethambaran and Neeraj Madhav, who rise above a somewhat patchy screenplay to deliver a passionate tale of student elections at Maharaja College in Kerala.

The film starts with a flashback to the seventies and the time of Emergency when students were among those involved in protests against the government. The government responded with lethal force resulting in the death of Kochaniyan (Tovino Thomas), leader of the student political party SFY. The flashback is overly dramatic and a little hard to understand for someone who doesn’t know the history, but it is an effective way to introduce the idea of revolution and the passion associated with student ideals.

Back in the present day, SFY has all but been eliminated from Maharaja college as KSQ, led by charismatic leader Roopesh (Roopesh Peethambaran), holds sway. KSQ are a more conservative party and they have numerous petty ordinances including bans on long hair and wearing lungi’s on campus that they use to let the party faithful throw their weight around. Mostly though, KSQ just want to hold on to power and keep their status as big frogs in a rather small pond. Roopesh and his friends decide who will compete in the annual college cultural festival, which is a major source of discontent in the college and seems to be the spark that will start a new revolution.

Paul (also Tovino Thomas) is a first year who shares a shabby hostel room with his friends Subhash (Neeraj Madhav) and Jomy (Vishnu Govindhan). He’s reasonably apolitical but notionally belongs to the SFY party, mainly due to Subhash’s dedication to the Communist cause. Subhash is a committed party member and is determined to bring SFY back to power in the college, despite a general lack of support and an obvious uphill struggle.  His main manifesto appears to be a protest against the bullying tactics of Roopesh and the members of KSQ rather than a strong socialist agenda and apart from a few pictures of Che Guevara and a tendency to brandish red flags the group as a whole initially appear to have only a glancing acquaintance with communism. Paul and his friends are concerned with the usual college activities and their opposition to KSQ seems more to do with Sharks and Jets style rivalry rather than any serious political leanings.

Subhash on the other hand is a socialist and is committed to the communist party which gives him some legitimacy in his fight against KSQ. His strong political beliefs start to affect the other members of the group, especially when they are pushed around by Roopesh and his cadre. Once college elections are announced, what started off as a push-back against a group of bullies escalates into a full-blooded revolution as the walls of the University ring with chants of ‘Vote for Change’ and blue starts to make way for red around campus.

The first half of the film meanders, sometimes rather aimlessly, as the different characters are introduced. For the most part the friends spend their time drinking, chasing after girls, getting up to the usual college mischief whenever the opportunity presents and then drinking some more. Paul is chilled and laid back, and cares more about his budding romance with Anu (Gayathri Suresh) than changing the world, or even just his small corner in Kerala while Jomy is just trying to cope with studying in general. For a political drama it takes a long time for the politics to be introduced and many of the scenes revolve around the friends sitting and drinking but discussing anything of significance. The romance between Paul and Anu also seems rather pointless, while the inevitable break-up is bland and also serves no purpose. I was expecting a spark of some kind to set off political leanings in the group, but neither the romance, nor the break-up achieve anything other than dissatisfaction with the poorly realised character of Anu. Tom Emmatty seems to have an aversion to writing female characters since the few that do appear have little to do and even less impact on the story, to the point where their non-participation is noticeable and impacts negatively on the story. Perhaps making Maharaja college single-sex rather than co-ed would have been a better decision since the focus is all on the male characters anyway.

The second half is much better when the fight between KSQ and SFY begins in earnest and the candidates for the elections are decided. Roopesh Peethambaran is excellent as the scheming leader of KSQ who will stoop to any lengths to hold onto power. His facial expressions are perfect and capture his fleeting thoughts as he plots and plans in response to SFY’s attempts to gain voters, while ensuring that he does display some good qualities and an inner strength that explain his hold on power in the college. Tovino Thomas is suitably charismatic as he runs for college president and his transformation from apolitical student to passionate believer in SFY is very well done. It’s another stellar performance from Tovino after his excellent work in Guppy and it’s impressive just how different he appears here.  Neeraj Madhav is just as good as the idealistic leader of SFY who has to put aside his own political ambitions for the good of the party. Again he gets every nuance just right, and his indecision as he puts his friend in danger is realistic and convincing. Together these three along with Manu, Vishnu Govindan and Jino John bring campus politics alive and infuse the film with the spirit of the revolution so that the lack of response from the college authorities and even the local police doesn’t even register until the final credits start to roll. What it lacks in the beginning, the film more than makes up for in the final scenes with impressive performances from the main leads and excellent dialogues that reverberate with the fervour of revolution.

The story and screenplay of Oru Mexican Aparatha may not be consistent but the three main leads are, and it’s their passion in their respective roles that makes the film so exciting in the second half. More emphasis on the politics and less on the usual college escapades and drinking in the hostel would have made for a more even storyline but the drama of the second half and excellent characterisations make the film well worth watching. One to enjoy as a different take on college life and a reminder that a revolution can start anywhere.

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Maheshinte Prathikaaram

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Maheshinte Prathikaaram is the début film from Dileesh Pothan, who has previously worked as an actor and as an assistant director on a number of Malayalam films. The experience has stood him in good stead as Maheshinte Prathikaaram is a well-crafted and entertaining film with a good balance of drama, comedy and romance. Screenwriter Syam Pushkaran has based the story on true events in his home town, building a simple tale of revenge into a more complex plot with plenty of interesting characters and situations. Fahadh Faasil stars and is excellent in the lead role, but the support cast are also good and with Shyju Khalid’s superb cinematography and Bijibal’s steady hand on the music, Maheshinte Prathikaaram is well worth a watch.

Mahesh Bhavan (Fahadh Faasil) is a photographer in Kattappana where most of his work involves taking passport photographs with a well-rehearsed spiel, although he does occasionally attend weddings and funerals and other such functions too. He’s a generally happy bloke, if rather quiet and somewhat set in his ways, possibly because he lives with his ageing father Vincent (K.L. Antony Kochi). Fahadh Faasil is always excellent as an ‘average bloke’ and his performance here perfectly captures the day to day life of a small-town businessman with plenty of details that ensure the character has plenty of charm. It’s the small touches that resonate so well, such as his bathing in the river, feeding his dog or fishing pieces of egg shell out of the bowl when he is cooking. Mahesh is a well-developed character and as such it’s easy to understand why he behaves the way he does for most of the film.

Mahesh is in love with his childhood sweetheart Soumaya (Anusree), but due to her job they only meet occasionally. When Soumaya returns home for her grandfather’s funeral her father approaches her with a marriage offer from an NRI living in Canada. He has a good argument too – presenting the offer to Soumaya when she is washing clothes the old-fashioned way and asking her if she wants to stay in the same town all her life, or if she would prefer a more comfortable life overseas. Soumaya’s indecision is beautifully written and it’s obviously a difficult choice for her, but finally she decides to follow her head rather than her heart and end her long-standing relationship with Mahesh. There is much here to enjoy, from the way Soumaya realistically agonises over what to do and her method of finally breaking the news to Mahesh, to Mahesh’s stoic acceptance, his appearance at the wedding to reassure Soumaya and his despair when alone. The relationship and the two characters are well portrayed to ensure the situation is kept believable but light without dipping into melodrama.

At the same time, Mahesh is dealing with the day-to-day running of the studio, helped by his father and his friend Baby Chettan (Alencier Ley Lopez). Baby runs a printing shop adjacent to the photography studio and has a good relationship with both Mahesh and his father. Baby is assisted by Crispin, aka Crispy (Soubin Shahir) and between them Baby and Crispy share most of the comedic dialogue in the film, although the rest of the cast also add some humour as the story progresses. Thankfully, instead of relying on slapstick and crude jokes, the comedic dialogue here is often subtle and relies on the characterisations carefully built up in the preceding scenes for its full effect, while overall the comedy fits perfectly into the main narrative. It’s effective and genuinely funny too, although I suspect I still missed a lot due to relying on the subtitles.

Events become more serious when Mahesh is involved in a fight with Jimson Augustine (Sujith Shankar) and loses badly. The build up to the fight is one of the best scenes in the film, as is the end where, in a move to save face, Mahesh vows to stop wearing his chappals until he has revenged himself on Jimson. However by the time Mahesh discovers exactly who is his nemesis and that he works as a welder, Jimson has moved on to Dubai for work. Rather than back down however, Mahesh continues to go barefoot, although there are times when it looks as if he regrets his vow, particularly when there doesn’t seem to be much chance that he will achieve his objective of revenge any time soon.

Mahesh also takes a hit professionally as his attempt to take a studio photograph for university student Jimsy (Aparna Balamurali) is less than successful with Jimsy ridiculing his work. However, her comments inspire Mahesh to stretch his photographic skills and in the process, he falls in love with Jimsy too.

Although initially the character of Jimsy is irritatingly brattish, she redeems herself later, turning out to be a pleasant young woman with a good understanding of how to nudge Mahesh out of his comfort zone. She’s frank and unafraid to speak her mind, and Aparna does a good job of ensuring her occasionally prickly character is still friendly and approachable when appropriate. She’s good in the more romantic scenes too, although here again her character is refreshingly down to earth and pragmatic. Plus any film with a flashmob scene wins my approval!

The entire concept of the fight and Mahesh swearing not to wear shoes until he has his revenge seems incredibly juvenile to me, but I can see that Mahesh feels his masculinity has been questioned by his defeat. Mahesh is not a natural fighter and has never been in trouble before, so his resolution to beat Jimson does make sense, even if the concept of a rematch seems a fairly pointless way to demonstrate he can fight. Sensibly, he responds by taking karate lessons and although they may not help much when it comes to fighting Jimson, at least it gives Mahesh something to do while he waits for his nemesis to return. I love that Jimsy and her mother appear to have the same opinion as me about the potential rematch, while Baby Chetan and Crispy are rather more encouraging, although they too try to persuade Mahesh to start wearing shoes and forget all about Jimson.

Maheshinte Prathikaaran

The story flows well and the blend of comedy, romance and drama ensure that there is never a dull moment. The film looks beautiful too with gorgeous shots of the Idukki region and local wild-life, even on the rainy days which seem to be the most common.

The songs and background music are also well suited to the narrative, adding more light and shade to the story. With excellent performances from all of the cast, particularly Fahadh Faasil and Alencir Ley Lopez, and a funny but still insightful screenplay, Maheshinte Prathikaaram is a refreshingly different and thoroughly enjoyable movie. 4 stars

Guppy (2016)

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Guppy is the beautifully filmed début from writer/ director Johnpaul George featuring Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas in the lead roles. The story is set in a small sea-side community in Kerala, and the scenery is stunning with vibrancy of colour in every frame. Cinematographer Girish Gangadharan makes the most of the beautiful location and with excellent music from Vishnu Vijay the film appears magical even before the wonderfully iridescent CGI guppies appear on-screen. The story follows the day-to-day life of Michael (Chethan Lal) aka Guppy and the problems that develop when an engineer comes to the colony, but mainly it’s the story of a young boy, his struggles to help his disabled mother and his relationships with the various people he interacts with on a routine basis.

Michael is known to everyone in his community as Guppy after the small fish he sells to supplement his income. He also works at a tea stall beside the local school where the owner Pappan (Alancier Ley) seems to be something of a father figure for Guppy as his own father is dead. His mother (Rohini) had a stroke after her husband died which left her paralysed from the waist down and Guppy looks after her as well as he can. His major goal is to buy an automated wheelchair for her so that she can get around when he is not there – and his fish sales are a vital part of that plan. The guppies are bought by local government officer Lalichan (Sudheer Karamana) as part of an initiative to help reduce the mosquito population by placing the fish in areas of standing water in the hope that they will devour the mosquito larvae. Despite knowing all about Guppy’s home situation and the plans for his earnings, Lalichan keeps half of the money for himself and only pays Guppy a small amount for each fish – a petty corruption but a common theme in his various deals with pretty much everyone throughout the film. It’s not just Lalichan either. Everyone in the community seems to inflate prices and expect bribes suggesting such corruption is normal and expected, even in such a small and remote village. Most disturbing is the acceptance of the practice as normal – shocking from my perspective that this is perceived as common practice and that no-one is even remotely bothered by it.

The first part of the film paints the picture of Guppy’s life – looking after his mother, working to raise money for her new wheelchair, breeding and selling guppies and hanging out with his friends.

There is a romantic interest in local schoolgirl Aamina (Nandhana) who wears a veil and is kept close to home by her grandfather Upooppa (Sreenivasan) which means all the local boys hang around at every available opportunity, trying to catch a glimpse of her. The other members of the community all have a role to play too and each slice of community life adds depth to the depiction of life in a small seaside village in Kerala.

Guppy’s relationship with his mother is beautifully depicted and there are some great moments, such as how he deals with his mother’s snoring, the way she prepares his fish food for him every morning, and the care Guppy takes each day in giving his mother her bath. Chethan Lal is excellent here, his emotions are perfectly displayed and the mix of joy and wonder when he feeds his fish, and excitement as he nears his goal of buying the wheelchair are superb. This is my favourite part of the film as each interaction gradually weaves the pattern of Guppy’s life, and although there are difficulties, there are also moments of happiness and camaraderie with his mother and friends.

Guppy is well liked in the community. His initiative in breeding the guppies is admired and his devotion to his mother is also appreciated by everyone who knows him, so it’s a shock when newly arrived engineer Thejus Varky seems to immediately take a dislike to Guppy. The engineer has been brought to the village by aspiring politician Onachan (Noby Marcose) and village officer Krishnan (Dileesh Pothan) to build a bridge over the railway but he doesn’t appear in time for the grand celebration prepared for his arrival. Which is a pity since it is rather special! Who could resist Michael Jackson, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth singing a Christmas song together?

Thejus is an odd character who immediately stands out from the rest of the village due to his motorcycle, his unusual dress sense and his bushy beard. Although Tovino Thomas is excellent in his portrayal of an egotistical and rather arrogant engineer, the character of Thejus doesn’t seem totally plausible – even after his full story is revealed later in the film. Thejus can be charming, as when he meets with his friend Krishnan or in his dealings with his landlord in the village, but all too often he is haughty and appears to look down on the villagers he has come to help. He is easily frustrated by the railway crossing supervisor Upoppa and rudely snubs his offers of tea and a place to sit, while his vendetta against Guppy is strangely childish and immature. Guppy’s reaction is a little more believable, given that an adolescent may be expected to act in an occasionally irrational manner, but this part of the film seems rather more contrived and filmy. However, the tension between the two is well-developed and despite a few unrealistic twists, the conflict between Thejus and Guppy becomes compelling.

What works well in the film is the story of Guppy and his mother. Guppy’s struggles to raise enough money for a wheelchair are realistically dealt with. I love that he first sees a fully automated wheelchair when watching the film Bangalore Days – up until that point he has no idea that such things existed. The love between Guppy and his mother is beautifully depicted and blends seamlessly into the general warmth of the whole community. The conflict between Guppy and the engineer is less successful but there are still some excellent scenes, particularly between Thejus Varky and Chinappa (Poojappura Ravi), the older man who runs the guest house where he has set up his tent, and his interactions with both Onachan and Krishnan. All the actors are good in their roles and their performances ensure that the occasionally convoluted storyline doesn’t get too bogged down with all the detail.

The excellent cinematography is another reason to watch the film. Even though the CGI fish are obviously not real, they are still wonderful to look at, and Johnpaul George weaves guppies into the story in many ways. The fish appear as painting on the walls, in lightbulbs in Guppy’s house and as decorations on his friend’s vehicle as well as swimming around in the drainage canal behind the school. The whole look of the film is just as colourful – whether it’s the brightly painted village, the stunning seascapes or the vibrant villagers, it all looks beautiful and instantly makes you want to move to a seaside village in Southern India!

What doesn’t work quite so well is the sheer number of characters and some of the extraneous plotlines that don’t really add anything to the main story. Each character seems to have to have their own small story and while some are quite fun, most only serve to divert attention away from Guppy and his story. However it’s hard to quibble too much, since the characters are generally fascinating and it gives even more of an opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery.

This is a lovely little film that takes a different look at adolescence, neatly giving Guppy rural innocence but enough street-smart knowledge to ensure that he can match wits with the likes of an engineer. Well worth watching for Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas, plus the excellent support cast, and to savour yet more stunning images of Kerala. 4 stars.