Udaharanam Sujatha

Udaharanam Sujatha

Udaharanam Sujatha tells the story of Sujatha, a hard-working single mother, and her attempts to ensure her daughter Athira studies and passes her year 10 school exams. Sujatha has big plans for her daughter, but the problem is that Athira isn’t interested in studying and rather than thinking about her future, her dreams involve movie stars instead. Phantom Praveen has directed this Malayalam remake of Hindi film Nil Battey Sannata by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari (who has also remade the film herself in Tamil), with a more Kerala-centric screenplay from Naveen Bhaskar and a few changes to the lead characters. It’s a simple story that focuses on the mother-daughter relationship and features excellent performances from both Manju Warrier and Anaswara Rajan as her somewhat rebellious daughter. I did have a few issues with some parts of the film, but the overall feel good factor and balanced mix of drama and humour ensures Udaharanam Sujatha is well worth a trip to the cinema.

Sujatha (Manju Warrier) gets up well before dawn to start her seemingly endless round of jobs to raise enough money to pay for her daughters education. Sujatha herself left school after 9th standard which she feels has severely limited her choice of occupation, and as a result, she resolves that her daughter needs to do well at school. However Athira (Anaswara Rajan) doesn’t care at all about her studies and has no thought for her future. She lives in the present, watching music videos on TV, playing with her friends and day-dreaming about Dulquer Salmaan. Athira doesn’t appreciate the long hours that her mother works to fund her education and even tells Sujatha that a doctor’s daughter will be a doctor and an engineer’s daughter will be an engineer, so since she is the daughter of a kitchen maid, that is all that she will become. Since Athira also regularly and quite spectacularly fails her tests at her school it seems unlikely that Sujatha’s grand plans will succeed no matter how hard she pushes Athira.

For one of her jobs, Sujatha works for prominent script writer George Paul (Nedumudi Venu) who listens to her daily recitation of her worries and fears about Athira with a surprising amount of tolerance. He finds a friend (Alencier Ley Lopez) who runs a tutoring service and who is willing to offer Sujatha a substantial discount, but only if Athira scores more than 50% in her maths exam. When Sujatha complains to George about the unlikeliness of Athira reaching this target, he suggests that Athira needs some competition and persuades Sujatha to go back to school herself and complete her Year 10 education.

A scene where Athira discovers her mother’s plans and attempts to cajole her mother with promises of improved study interspersed with pleas and general teenager angst is brilliantly written and perfectly performed by Anaswara. Her mother’s response is just as good and gets to the heart of the relationship between the two. Sujatha is determined to make her daughter succeed in life and is willing to go through the humiliation of going back to school to force her daughter to study. Athira’s subsequent tantrums and her refusal to acknowledge her mother’s presence in the classroom are also well handled, while Sujatha’s gradual acceptance by the other students seems plausible given her ability to cook! The good points though are mixed up with some terrible clichés such as the bespectacled nerd of the class who helps Sujatha understand maths, and the horribly abusive teachers who seem out of place in a film about the benefits of education.

Also problematical is the inference that doing a job such as working in a factory or as a maid is somehow shameful and to be avoided at all costs. While I can sympathise with Sujatha’s desire that Athira gets a good education and has options to choose from, it doesn’t follow that working in these jobs is wrong. Every parent wants the best for their child and particularly would prefer to see that they have a comfortable life, but this doesn’t mean that a house maid should be looked down on, just because of her occupation. However, aside from these points, the rest of the story is a heartening tale of the importance of a good education and how Sujatha manages to change her daughter’s attitude. It’s surprising that Sujatha manages to attend school at all, given her busy schedule of work but Naveen Bhaskar doesn’t let logic get in the way of a good story and after all, perhaps Sujatha has a time-turner hidden away somewhere.

The star here is undoubtedly Manju Warrier who is excellent as the harried mother desperate to wake some ambition in her daughter. Her work ethic is amazing and well portrayed, but what really stands out is the love she has for her daughter and her strength of will to make sure that nothing will get in the way of her dreams. She is fantastic as a concerned mother and completely inhabits the character of a cook/pickle-maker/house-maid/cleaner from a slum area of the city. Anaswara Rajan is also excellent as the bratty and ungrateful Athira who resents her mother’s interference in her life. Her whining is brilliantly irritating and her self-absorption typical of a teenager who naturally knows better than her mother. Together the two actors make a formidable team and it’s the warmth of their relationship that takes the film up a level to make it more than a simple moral tale about the value of education.

Udaharanam Sujatha

The other characters all have a small but significant part to play in the drama, and do it well. Joju George is excellent as Sreekumar, the headmaster and maths teacher who reluctantly agrees to take Sujatha on as a student. His role provides much of the humour, but he also succeeds in making his eccentric character more sympathetic than first appears and he plays a part in assisting Sujatha to further her own dreams. Nedumudi Venu is excellent throughout and he also adds some more light-hearted moments as does Sujatha’s potential suitor while Abhija Sivakala provides drama as a coconut seller who has lent Sujatha money and wants it paid back. Mamta Mohandas is also good in a small role as the local collector who takes on the task of bringing a supply of drinking water to Sujatha’s area and acts as the inspiration for Sujatha’s dreams.

The songs from Gopi Sundar are generally upbeat and suit the mood of the film, but one or two in the second half slow down the narrative and could have been excluded without losing anything from the story. Technically the film looks good, although Manju Warrier’s face is distractingly shiny at times, presumably due to the lack of make-up to give her character more authenticity. The moral message is hammered home a little too heavy-handedly at the end, but for the most part it’s the drama between mother and daughter that takes centre stage and gives the film its appeal. I like that Sujatha has the confidence to go back to school to improve her prospects and that she sees education as vitally important to secure her daughters future. It’s also heartening that she doesn’t need a man to prove her worth and prefers to manage alone despite having a suitor with a good job who could make her life easier. There are enough good points here to balance out the few negatives, and even if the dialogue is occasionally a tad shaky the performances are excellent and the story captivating. Recommended for Manju Warrier, Anaswara Rajan and a reminder that it’s never too late to follow your dreams.

 

Advertisements

Kammatipaadam

Kammatipaadam

Rajeev Ravi’s 2016 film Kammatipaadam is a dark thriller that tells the story of an ex-gang member’s search for his estranged best friend, who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances. It’s also a stark social commentary, as the film documents the urbanisation of a rural area and shows how poor farmers were forced out to make way for high rises and shopping malls for the rich. P. Balachandran’s screenplay explores the violent world of the gangs and the harsh realities of life for the marginalised poor while adding mystery and suspense with the search for the missing Ganga. Although Dulquer Salmaan is excellent in the lead role, the film really belongs to Vinayakan and Manikandan Achari who are both outstanding as the missing Ganga and his gangster brother Balan. While the film is overlong at almost 3 hours, this is an excellent slice of gangster life, Kerala style, and impresses with a realistic, brutal storyline and gritty memorable characters.

The film starts with an injured middle-aged Krishnan (Dulquer Salmaan) flagging down a bus somewhere in Kerala. In a series of flashbacks, intercut with current events, he remembers his childhood and his life as a young man in the fields of Kammatipaadam before they vanished under the high-rises of Kochi. Krishnan and Ganga’s friendship is gradually revealed in an intricate and detailed story, painting a vivid picture of life for the poorest and most marginalised members of society, but also describing a rich and deep friendship that is enough to draw Krishnan from his settled life in Mumbai back to the dangers of his youth.

The scenes describing Krishnan’s early life are detailed and set the scene to explain why later, despite everything that has happened between them, Krishnan still responds to Ganga’s call for help. When Krishnan’s father (P. Balachandran) moves the family to Kammatipaadam, young Krishnan and Ganga become inseparable friends despite their different backgrounds – Ganga comes from a Dalit family, while Krishnan’s family are middle class and generally appear better off. However, caste is no barrier to the two boys and although Krishna’s older sister (Muthumani) seems appalled by the friendship, Krishnan’s father doesn’t seem to have any real issues with his son’s relationship with the local Dalit community. Ultimately though, it’s Ganga whose influence takes Krishnan away from his family and leads him into a life of crime.

As children, the boys witness a brutal killing when Ganga’s elder brother Balan (Manikandan R Achari) attempts to murder a local thug. This seems to set them on the path of rowdyism and as they grow older, they become part of Balan’s gang, doing odd jobs and fighting as required. What makes this part of the film so watchable is the persona of Balan. He’s charismatic and outspoken with a larger than life personality and an almost theatrical approach to defending his place in the local underworld. There is an awesome fight scene outside a movie theatre where Balan fights everyone before leaping up on a car to sell movie tickets – making his entire performance a brash advertising stunt as well as driving away his rivals in the business!

Balan runs an illegal alcohol business with local entrepreneur Ashan aka Surendran (Anil Nedumangad) Both Ganga and Krishnan eagerly join in with Krishnan acting as a driver for the smugglers. However not everyone is a fan of Balan’s style and Johnny (Shine Tom Chacko), a rival for the smuggling trade, sets out to bring Balan and his gang down.

While all this is going on there is another rivalry developing closer to home. Almost since their first meeting, Krishnan and Anitha (Shaun Romy) have fallen in love, but Ganga expects to marry his cousin and resents her attachment to Krishnan. Ganga’s path seems easier after Krishnan is sent to jail for attacking a police officer, but this is only a temporary hiccup and the two reconnect on Krishnan’s release. Dulquher and Shaun Romy have good chemistry at the start, but it’s the change to their relationship when they meet again years later that really impresses. Anitha reveals her resentment at the way Krishnan and Ganga treated her as a commodity while Krishnan has to deal with his memories and regrets. Unfortunately, Rajeev Ravi doesn’t go back to this part of Krishnan’s story, so we’re left to wonder what will become of Anitha who seems to be the loser in every respect.

Balan and his gang act as enforcers, and one of their jobs is to evict farmers from areas where the developers want to build. They don’t even seem to notice when their own land starts to be fenced off, but when Balan’s grandfather objects to his family being involved in pushing other Dalits off the land, Balan sees the error of his ways and decides to ‘retire’ from his life of crime. Balan has also become married to Rosamma (Amalda Liz)) but before he can settle down, Balan is killed and Ganga blames his childhood friend for his brother’s death. This is the final straw for Ganga and it leads to the estrangement between the two men.

However, when he is in trouble, Ganga calls his old friend, sparking Krishnan’s return to Kammatipaadam to find out what has happened.  As Krishnan searches for Ganga he is forced to face his past and come to terms with the bleakness of his friend’s life after Balan’s death. While members of the gang like Majeed (Vijay Kumar) have prospered, Ganga is still living in the past and involved in the seedy underbelly of Ernakulam. The mystery deepens when Krishnan himself is attacked and it seems as if no-one else wants to know what has happened to Ganga.

Kammatipaadam is a study of characters and each is so realistic and well-drawn that it’s easy to become involved in their lives and care about what happens to them. The film spans roughly thirty years and I was amazed at how successfully Dulquer shows his character’s aging in his mannerisms, gait and stance. As a young man, he is arrogant and cocky, with a confidence that shows in his walk and his dialogues. But when he returns to Kammatipaadam, he’s older, moves more slowly and stiffly and to some degree, thinks before he speaks. He really gets into the heart of Krishnan and his friendship with Ganga comes alive onscreen, while the small glances and covert looks are enough to convey the entirety of his romance with Anitha. However as good as Dulquer is, he is equalled by Vinayakan who puts his heart and soul into his portrayal of Ganga. Here there is loyalty and devotion. Here too, a poor man who makes his living exploiting other poor men and pisses away the profit with his drinking problem. Manikandan R Achari is also superb as Balan with his loud brash exterior hiding a man capable of greater understanding but without the wherewithal to allow his dreams free rein. These are the petty gangsters who so often make up the fodder in the big herocentric films, but this time the story is about them and their short and violent lives. The actors who portray the young Krishnan and Ganga are also excellent with Shalu Rahim in particular setting up Krishna very well for Dulquer Salmaan to smoothly take over as the character matures. But even the young kids at the start are fantastic, and again have all the same characteristics as their older selves.

The minor characters all have their own brief story arc that adds layers of complexity to the film. Krishnan’s father has his own issues, illustrated perfectly when he goes to pick up his son from prison but leaves empty-handed. Even Rosamma, Balan’s wife and surely an inconsequential character in most other gangster films, has a greater role to play than expected and turns out to be a better gangster than her husband or her brother-in-law. The story of Ganga’s disappearance and Krishnan’s search is simply the top layer that sits over the excellent character studies and underlying thread of the exploitation and eviction of the Dalits. The film also looks amazing, with excellent cinematography from Madhu Neelakantan although I would expect nothing less from Rajeev Ravi given his own work as a cinematographer in Hindi cinema. The songs too are interesting, with references to the plight of the Dalits and their lack of a permanent and safe place to live while Krishna Kumar’s background score is unobtrusive but effective in adding to the overall richness of the film.

However all of this depth of characterisation and attention to detail comes with a price. The film is overlong and does drag in places, particularly in the second half. A fight scene in the prison and one in a bus station are overly drawn out and the build up to the final scene is rather indulgent. Still, the film succeeds at drawing a picture of the violent and desperate side of life as a small time gangster, and the brilliant performances and characterisations ensure that Kammatipaadam is a film that stays with you long after the end credits roll. Fascinating, thought-provoking and a lesson in the birth of Kochi all in one – 4 stars.

Thirakkatha

 

Ranjith’s Thirakkatha is supposedly inspired by the relationship between Srividya and Kamal Haasan. I have zero interest in the love lives of celebrities but this is also a thoughtful look at the film industry, it’s a reasonably sane romantic drama except when it isn’t, and Priyamani steals the show.

Warning, spoilers ahead! There are some things that struck me so hard I don’t want to omit them.

Young gun director Akbar Ahmed (Prithviraj) is awarded for his first film hitting 100 days. He is given a trophy by industry legend Ajayachandran (Anoop Menon). Ajay’s internal monologue is all about himself and how he fought the odds to become a star. Certainly judging by some of the chatter amongst other guests, he is not universally loved. Akki is inspired to make his next film on the story of Ajay and his ex-wife, the star actress Malavika (Priyamani). She hasn’t been seen in years and nobody really knows much about her, despite all the gossip. Akki obtains diaries and letters written by director Aby Kurivilla (Ranjith himself) from his son Appu (Vineeth Kumar), and starts to piece their story together from both the private and public sources. The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with Akki telling the story as he knows it to his crew. When it seems that a story is all they have, they locate Malavika. Now terminally ill and alone, her life is a far cry from Ajay’s success and acclaim. What happened, and why?

Anoop Menon had to battle with some unflattering wigs and 80s attire that did an excellent job of obscuring his alleged charms, but Ajay’s determination is loud and clear. His break came playing a villain opposite Malavika and some producer’s nondescript son. He fell for Malavika at first sight, his heightened emotions helping him deliver a convincing performance. Whether shyly flirting with Malavika or pushing his career agenda, he didn’t back down when reminded of what people saw as his place. Ajay is obsessed with success and Malu was a lucky charm for his films. After a secret registry office wedding, Malu fell pregnant and planned to stop acting and be a mum. Ajay had been in a string of flops and was relying on Malu’s box office pull for their next movie to rescue his career. He told her she was ruining his life in favour of an unborn child and persuaded her to have an abortion, triggering events that ended their marriage. When Ajayachandran finds out about the movie, he tries to divert Akki to making a film with him rather than about him. Even Ajay’s wife thinks he’s a selfish bastard. Ajayachandran’s father was a makeup artist and people are snide about his lowly beginnings even now he is a legend. He became a big hero, but sometimes petty villain seems more his calling. Anoop Menon is most convincing as the selfish Ajay with his ambition and inferiority complex driving him. He benefits from a kind of halo effect in scenes with Priyamani, but seems lacking in the emotionally complex moments.

Malavika is a reluctant star, with a pushy ex-star stage mum (Mallika Sukumaran) and a loyal, almost silent assistant, Valarmathi (Surabhi). She’d rather get a job after graduating, but her mum hit Malu with a guilt trip of how she had to dance on film to raise her family and now the alcoholic dad is gone there is no money. Malavika is an assertive girl with everyone but her mother. I like the way she firmly shooed Ajayachandran away when she needed a moment between scenes. The flashbacks show all the drama behind the scenes as well as the vintage acting and dance styles of the early 80s.

Priyamani is just gorgeous, deftly showing Malavika’s star quality (the camera loves her), and her more pragmatic everyday personality. She berated Ajay for learning to kiss from watching local films, cheerfully telling him classic French films were the best reference. I loved Malu’s confidence in herself and her growing understanding of her power in the film industry. She has a drink with a producer but when he makes a pass she is comfortable and articulate turning him down. She doesn’t want to change who she is and she won’t be pressured or made to feel ashamed. Priyamani’s performance kept me invested in the story through even the most melodramatic plot contortions.

Major spoiler(s) – highlight to read:

Malu is told that during the abortion they found a growth that had to be removed. Later on her doctor friend Vasanthi tells her that Ajay lied – He requested that her tubes be tied so she won’t fall pregnant. It turns out this is not exactly true but that did nothing to quell my outrage. Firstly, bullying her into an abortion when she clearly wanted the child – BAD. Not telling Malu about the medical situation and not getting her consent or allowing her to have any part of the decision – BAD. Persuading the doctor to keep a cancer diagnosis from Malu so she would make another film instead of perhaps getting treatment that may have saved her life – BAD. Ajay believing that he was right because he wanted her to be happy and she would be happy when he was happy and he would be happy when he was a big star – BAD. Akki bringing Malavika to his place to recuperate although she didn’t know him at all, which is a nice gesture but once again there was no consultation with the actual patient, so therefore – BAD. The doctor who let Akki take a terminally ill stranger away just because – BAD. Everyone including Malavika apparently forgiving Ajay because he felt so sorry (for himself) – WTAF?!?

/rant

Ranjith is disparaging of some practices in his industry, calling out examples and mocking the results. Akki is very much the guy who got there because of his passion for film making. He’ll sign with a producer but he won’t let them dictate what he does. The line between life and story fodder is also explored through Akki as he grows closer to Malavika and has to decide how and if he will use her story for his career.

Prithviraj is low key and generally likeable as Akki. He is hampered a bit by the narrative structure that uses his character as an agent of voiceover, and from being in the modern day part of the story which is for me the least interesting. He works with a small group of trusted friends, running a restaurant with them in between films. Akki is prone to the unilateral decision, and most of his friends are followers. I was sometimes annoyed despite his good intentions just because he was so self-righteous. Akki and his capable girlfriend Devayani (Samvrutha Sunil) have a no fuss relationship and make a nice couple. As Malu and Ajay’s romance is explored, they realise maybe they need to think about theirs.

The songs (by Sharreth) fit better in the flashback. Onnodu is a random and quite uncoordinated song between prologue and titles, perhaps just there for the Prithviraj fans.

There is so much that I liked, but the flaws are equally striking. Some of the discussions about film making felt out of synch, but I liked the extra layer about interpretation and storytelling. Ranjith handled the multiple timeline structure more deftly in Paleri Manikyam, but the 80s flashback section is a highlight. 3 ½ stars! (BIG deduction for the medical ethics)