Theevandi (2018)

TheevandiSmoking is not something you see very often in Australia since there are laws that prohibit lighting up in most public spaces. As a result, a film that’s all about smoking seems a really strange topic to me, especially one that seems to treat the subject matter so lightly. It’s also quite ironic that the story ensures there are statutory warning notices displayed on the screen almost constantly, and in addition to the smoking and drinking warnings, there are also warnings about not wearing a motorcycle helmet, not wearing a seat belt and a declaration at the start advising that violence against women is a crime. However, Tovino Thomas makes this meandering story worth watching as he transforms from a clean-shaven school boy to a bearded and chain-smoking adult with an interest in local politics. Not a must-see drama, but a pleasant excursion in good company that benefits from a strong central cast and a generally upbeat approach.

The film starts with a birth, but the baby doesn’t breathe until his uncle blows a puff of smoke into the baby’s face – not a recommended way to start a child breathing! After this medical miracle, young Bineesh (Maheen) grows up as a normal village kid, although the local shopkeeper (Jaffer Idukki) is used to him buying cigarettes for his uncle Sugunan (Sudheesh) and using the change to buy sweets and snacks. This makes the teenage Bineesh (Tovino Thomas) the ideal person to send for cigarettes when the group of school friends decides to try smoking one day after school. While the others cough and splutter, Bineesh has no problems, since after all, his first breath was full of cigarette smoke. Oddly, while the students are having their first experience of smoking, their cigarettes are blurred out, I guess in some sort of censorship decision. It must be the school uniform that’s the issue, since the same actors are shown moments later without any blurring when they are supposedly older, but it still makes very little sense.

Tovino Thomas makes a convincing teenager, mainly due to his posture and body language, but he really hits his stride as the adult Bineesh. By this stage his smoking has become a chain habit that earns him the nickname of Theevandi, after the old-fashioned smoky steam trains. Bineesh hangs around the village with his friends, and doesn’t appear to have any gainful employment, although he seems to have a reasonably ready supply of cash to keep buying cigarettes. I was expecting some of the usual family rows with Bineesh being forced by his father to find a job, but his family seem happy to let him drift, although there is an undercurrent of concern about his smoking.

There’s a glimmer of hope on the horizon though as Bineesh is in love with Devi (Samyuktha Menon) who has promised to marry him only if he gives up his disgusting and smelly habit. But Bineesh doesn’t take her seriously and only pays lip-service to the idea, with his nonchalance and lack of commitment eventually resulting in a breakdown of their relationship. Samyuktha Menon is very good here and she gets the balance between heady romance and responsible common-sense just right. She’s the one who climbs up ladders in the middle of the night to speak to Bineesh, but she’s also the one with a job and a much clearer idea of where she wants to go and how to get there. Devi is a strong character who has the determination not only to stand up to her parents, but also to turn her back on Bineesh when he lies and hides his habit from her.

Bineesh is an interesting character and Tovino is excellent in this portrayal of a young man who his happy to drift until he works out what he wants from life – although he’s pretty clear that he wants Devi to be a part of it. As long as he can continue smoking , which is really his only other passion. To be fair, he’s probably more passionate about smoking than Devi, and certainly shows more emotion when faced with circumstances that force him to give up cigarettes. Despite this imbalance, the relationship between Devi and Bineesh is charming and sweet, with a realistic approach to the conflict between them. Oddly, although there is a warning at the start of the film, it’s Devi who slaps Bineesh every time she sees him smoking, and not surprisingly this isn’t a strategy that succeeds.

Writer Vini Vishwa Lal brings in a political angle with Vijith (Saiju Kurup) who is married to Bineesh’s sister. Vijith is active in the local party and Bineesh and his friends become involved as a result. One of the leading party members is Devi’s father Madhu (Suraaj Venjatammoodu), who generally disapproves of Bineesh and isn’t keen at all on the proposed marriage with his daughter. Adding fuel to the fire, Madhu becomes involved in a struggle with Vijith for the leadership after the party leader Balachandran (Shammi Thilakan) meets with an accident. After arguments and posturing on both sides, the leadership contest comes down to a bet that Bineesh will stop smoking until after a major protest organised by the party. But with Madhu and his supporter Libash (Vijilesh Karayad) determined to win at all costs, Bineesh’s struggle to overcome his addiction becomes a more public battle that he seems unlikely to win.

This is an interesting story that could have made more of Bineesh’s struggle to stop smoking. His initial attempts appear realistically half-hearted and the lengths he goes to in order to hide his smoking from Devi ring true, but the latter half of the film fails to show just how difficult it is to break the habit. Although Tovino Thomas gives a good portrayal of a man driven to the brink by his cravings, director Fellini T.P. takes the easy way out and gives Bineesh no choice other than to break his addiction. The methods employed by Vijith aren’t likely to be useful to anyone genuinely looking for a way to stop smoking and that to my mind seems to be a lost opportunity. The political bun-fighting also seems rather contrived and isn’t helped by Surabhi Lakshmi overacting as the corrupt party secretary. In fact, overall the political thread is weak without any real focus for this part of the story and it’s difficult to know if Fellini was trying to send a message about corruption, or just play the situation for some laughs. The best parts of the film are undoubtably those that focus on Bimeesh’s struggle and the song Oru Theeppettikkum Venda is a perfect example of how well Tovino Thomas portrays this inner conflict.

What also works well are the relationships , particularly between those between Bineesh and his friends, family and Devi. Tovino Thomas makes his character work and despite the vagueness of the screenplay, he keeps his part in the story focused and engaging. The support cast too are generally good and Suraaj Venjatammoodu, Saiju Kurup and Sudheesh excel in their supporting roles. The music from Kailas Menon is lovely and although the songs in the second half are less effective, those in the first half fit well into the narrative. Gautham Sankar does a great job behind the camera and the film looks beautiful with scenes set on an island appearing lush and colourful. This is a thought-provoking concept for a film, but Vini Vishwa Lal and Fellini T.P. seem to have run out of steam half way through, resulting in a film that doesn’t quite succeed as a whole. Nonetheless, it’s worth watching for Tovino Thomas and Samyuktha Menon, and it may perhaps convince people that smoking really can be injurious to your health.

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Ira (2018)

 

Ira posterIra is billed as a thriller but unfortunately it rarely manages to elicit any suspense or excitement as it plods through an investigation into the murder of a politician accused of corruption. All the elements are there, but the execution is clunky with the sort of dialogue where the characters carefully explain to each other exactly what they are doing and why. Unni Mukundan is good as the main lead, but the rest of the cast get little opportunity to make an impression while director SS Saiju seems to have let the film take its own meandering course.

The film starts with a crowd of reporters waiting outside a hospital for Minister Chandi (Alencier Ley Lopez) to quiz him on a corruption scandal within his administration. However, the mood quickly changes when the minister dies of a heart attack during his check-up and the plot thickens when junior doctor Aryan (Gokul Suresh) is accused of his murder. Right away this seems strange. Why would reporters gather for an interview at a hospital when the intended interviewee is there for a check-up? Surely this is ghoulish and unethical. Also odd is the speed with which the police decide that the death was murder and not a heart attack, since there never seems to be an autopsy or any internal investigation. The decision to blame Dr Aryan is also difficult to understand, since there are a few other potential suspects who never seem to be considered at all. However, the media are quick to follow-up with the story and move quickly to suggest Jacob Chandi (Shanker Ramakrishnan) as his father’s successor in politics.

The police torture a confession from Dr Aryan, but that’s pretty much the whole extent of their investigation and they almost vanish from proceedings to allow Special Investigator Rajeev (Unni Mukundan) free rein to carry out his own enquiry. This mainly consists of speaking to various work colleagues of Dr Aryan at the hospital while some of the other gaps in Aryan’s history are explained in a good flash-back.

However, what’s particularly annoying is the treatment of these character witnesses at the hospital. All are female and are solely defined in terms of their relationship with Aryan despite both having taken part themselves in the events on the day of the murder. Nurse Tara (Neeraja) and Kavya (Mareena Michael) go through exactly the same process of denying any romantic relationship with Aryan before carefully explaining how wonder Aryan was and how happy they were to work with him. Even his girlfriend Jenny (Niranjana Anoop) is simply seen as ‘the girlfriend’ even though she is also Jacob Chandi’s daughter and her relationship with Aryan may provide a possible motive for her grandfather’s murder.

After ignoring plenty of potential clues and viable suspects, the second half starts with an extended flashback that develops some backstory for Rajeev. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to reach the point where any of this is relevant to the main story and the central character, Karthika (Mia George), is just as poorly written as Jenny and Tara. From here the plot continues to unravel as coincidences abound, and the bad guys reveal their secrets at opportune moments for no good reason. Saiju throws in a few songs at random moments and adds key characters late in the screenplay, adding to the overall haphazard feel of the film.

Performance wise everyone is fine, although for the most part the roles are straight forward without too much emoting required. Unni Mukundan has the most to do and is generally good as a police officer investigating a crime. Niranjana Anoop and Mia George have the best female roles, but they are simply there to provide a reason for Aryan and Rajeev to act the way they do, so there is little else for them to do once that reason has been established. Gokul Suresh is fine as the rather naïve Dr Aryan, although the character is too one-dimensional to say anything more than he gets across the idea of wrongly accused innocence well.

Disappointingly, Naveen John’s story just doesn’t feel plausible and there are too many plot holes and contrivances to allow any suspense to develop. Small details are explained by the characters in blatant disregard for the cardinal rule of ‘show, don’t tell’, while other crucial points are introduced and then completely ignored. There is a really important message at the very end of the film too, but it’s glossed over so quickly that I’m not even sure if this was added intentionally or not. Ira isn’t a terrible movie and it’s even reasonably well filmed, it’s just very average without anything that stands out to mark it as sufficiently different from the great commercial sea of current Indian cinema.

 

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana

Ohm Shanthi Oshaana is a rather sweet love story that follows the exploits of tomboy Pooja (Nazriya Nazim) as she searches for a suitable groom to marry. The entire romance is told from a female viewpoint but with many of the usual Southern Indian romance tropes, so it’s Pooja who stalks potential grooms (literally!) and also makes the first moves. It’s not just about the romance either. Pooja also has career ambitions and plans for her future, making the film refreshingly different while still retaining all the charm needed for a successful love story.

The film starts with Dr Mathew Devasya (Renji Panicker) anxiously waiting the birth of his child at the hospital. After being initially misinformed that the child was a boy, he nonetheless is happy to learn that he has a daughter and the opening credits show Pooja growing up through a series of photographs. She narrates her own story, and perhaps there is some influence from the midwife’s mistake since, with hobbies including archery and riding a motorbike, Pooja is definitely a bit of a tomboy. Nazriya Nazim gets the balance just right here as she blends enough femininity in with her non-conformist and feminist attitude to ensure that Pooja appears to be a normal, well-adjusted teenager. Her two school friends, Neetu (Akshaya Premnath) and Donna (Oshein Mertil) both have their own personality quirks and these relationships are used to add more depth and colour to Pooja’s character. Another important relationship in Pooja’s life is with Rachel Aunty (Vinaya Prasad), a winemaker who dispenses worldly wisdom along with samples of her art.

After attending her cousin Julie (Poojitha Menon) arranged marriage to a balding suitor from the USA, Pooja decides that an arranged marriage is not for her, and instead she will choose her own husband. Immediately putting her idea into practice, she looks for the best possible option at her school – and she thinks she’s found the ideal choice in Yardley (Hari Krishnan), a popular boy who also seems interested in her. But before any match can be finalised, Pooja meets Giri (Nivin Pauly) and she instantly realises that this is the man for her.

There are however a few potential problems. To start with, there is a significant age difference as Giri is 7 years older than Pooja. Secondly, there is the problem of status since Giri is a farmer while Pooja’s father is a doctor. Finally, and most problematic of all, Giri was apparently left heart-broken after being jilted by Pooja’s cousin Julie, creating a potential reluctance to be further involved with Pooja’s family. However, Pooja isn’t one to shy from a challenge and after finding out that Giri seems to like more conventional girls, she learns how to cook, changes her casual clothes for saris and takes an interest in current affairs. But it’s all to no avail as finally Giri rejects her on Palm Sunday (the Oshaana of the title) and tells her to go and concentrate on her studies.

Being a sensible girl, Pooja does just that. She heads off to medical school and the film catches up with her in her 4th year when she is working as a medical resident. Actually working too – she’s shown carrying out ward rounds and dealing with patients, rather than the usual shots of the heroine simply looking studious in a white coat with a stethoscope around her neck. She’s still friends with Neetu and becomes friendly with one of her tutors, Dr Prasad Varkey (Vineeth Srinivasan), who could be another potential life partner if Pooja could just forget about Giri. But just when this seems to be a real possibility, Giri comes back into Pooja’s life when his mother ends up in the hospital where Pooja is working.

What I really like about this film is that Pooja is a regular, normal teenager with the usual issues with school, her parents and typical teenager mood swings. Although she is portrayed as a tomboy, she can still be girly when she wants to be and rather than going for the more usual crazy airhead or too-good-to-be-true heroine, writers Midhun Manuel Thomas and Jude Anthany Joseph have kept her as a down-to-earth and believable character. Also well done is the change when she attends college. This isn’t shown as a type of ‘make-over’ where Pooja suddenly becomes glamorous or more feminine, but instead  is a genuine coming of age as all Pooja’s beliefs and mannerisms are retained but just with a more mature perspective. The only reason she dons a sari for instance, is to try and impress Giri’s mother. It’s all part of her campaign, and she doesn’t try to sugarcoat or hide her intentions in any way.

Nazriya Nazim is excellent here and suits the role perfectly, keeping her portrayal of Pooja quirky and sassy but without ever veering into annoyingly manic. She’s good as both an obsessed teenager and as a more self-assured medical student, but also impresses with her comedy, particularly in the scenes with her cousin David Kaanjani (Aju Varghese).  I liked her in Bangalore Days and I think she is even better here in a role that gives her plenty of opportunity to show a range of different emotions.

Nivin Pauly has the unusual position (for a hero) of not having much to do in a romance where he also has little say in the proceedings. He only appears as Pooja’s love interest and apart from appearing in her fantasies, periodically appears working in the fields or driving around the local area. Overall, Giri seems too good to be true, but as the character is only seen through Pooja’s eyes, this perhaps isn’t surprising – after all, she considers Giri to be perfect husband material. The few interactions he has with Pooja are characterised by his lack of dialogue, since Pooja usually has plenty to say for both of them, but despite these limitations there is still good development of their relationship as time passes. The romance is completely one-sided, but still very relatable as Pooja pines from afar for someone who seems unattainable despite all her best efforts.

Jude Anthony Joseph has crafted an enjoyable love story with a novel approach and memorable characters. The mix of romance and comedy works well, and there are  plenty of snappy dialogues that complement the engaging storyline. Some of the ideas are a little strange, for example Giri’s passion for Kung fu, Rachel’s winemaking and Dr Matthew’s attempts to manufacture a new drug, but they fit into the overall unconventional nature of the story and Giri’s Kung fu does at least provide a reason for his disappearance. While the idea is simple, the execution is detailed and with good performances, a beautiful soundtrack and clever dialogue Ohm Shanthi Oshaana is well worth a watch. 4 stars.