Kilometers and Kilometers

Jeo Baby’s romantic comedy Kilometers and Kilometers takes a meandering route with both the screenplay and the road trip that forms the centre of the story. The basic premise is a love story between a rude, privileged American and a struggling Keralan mechanic although the film does briefly touch on a number of different themes including the value of money, Indian patriarchy, family relationships and cultural differences. For the most part though, it’s a fairy-tale style road trip across India that works reasonably well as a light entertainer, mostly due to Tovino Thomas and an excellent soundtrack.

The film opens slowly with the first half hour concentrating on Josemon (Tovino Thomas) and his family. The opening titles charmingly explain the back story of Josemon and his father’s Bullet motorbike which was bought at the same time as Josemon was born. He grew up with the bike, and after his father’s death, the bike has come to be Josemon’s connection to his father, full of good memories and the love they shared. But the family is struggling to pay their debts, and at every turn Josemon is being urged to sell his beloved Bullet to pay the bills. 

At the start of the film everyone is celebrating Onam, with the local festivities being sponsored by a local made good, who has just returned from America. Right away, America is held up as the land of riches while meanwhile Josemon is shown entering every competition in an attempt to get as much of the ‘cash prizes’ as possible. He’s also not above small deceptions such as tampering with the church water pump to get some paid work from the priest when he is asked to fix it. But on the whole, Josemon is a nice guy, trying to do his best for his family and shouldering the usual head-of-the-family burdens. I always thing this is a uniquely Indian view-point, in many ways similar to the UK about 50 years ago, where the head of the family looks after all the finances. Perhaps this really is still the case, but for me this adds to the fairy-tale aspect of the story.

Luckily for Josemon, just when he is about to sell his bike, providence arrives in the form of American tourist Cathy (India Jarvis) who wants a driver to take her on a road trip through India. Cathy has won a heap of money from a casino and is spending all her winnings on a once in a lifetime trip abroad. She’s travelling all by herself and doesn’t seem to have made any attempt to learn any of the local language or tried to fit in with any local customs.  All plausible but none of these fit with my idea of travelling through India. While some of what she says and does is common sense for travellers; not eating from the local stalls, drinking soft drinks instead of water, she seems fairly clueless in many other ways. For instance, at one point she is travelling on the bike and wandering around various tourist sites wearing incredibly micro-shorts, something that jumps out as being incredibly inappropriate even for a dumb tourist. 

Cathy also has a bad attitude initially, berating Josemon for giving all his money to his family and expounding her own personal theory that money is everything while personal relationships are meaningless. At the same time, she is appalled by the dichotomy that is India, seeing children begging in the streets while milk is poured over giant cut-outs of movie stars and being shocked by the need to bribe police. To all of these, Josemon merely says that this is just the way it is, without ever really showing anything other than calm acceptance. I like how Jeo Baby brings out these issues which strike almost every visitor to India, although he doesn’t ever address these as anything other than simply the way life is. I did completely sympathise with Cathy though when she is shocked by Josemon’s attitude to litter, which is something that always shocks me in India. For a country that recycles so much, the attitude to rubbish as something that can be just chucked down in the street anywhere always seems incongruous to me.

The trip dynamic changes when an impulsive decision by Cathy results in a disaster befalling the pair. While Cathy is frustrated by Josemon’s tendency to help everyone he meets on the road, his kindness is rewarded and they fall in with Sunny (Sidhartha Siva) a Malayali living in Punjab. At this point Cathy changes from a typical tourist staying in posh hotels and refusing to share her belongings to a more relaxed persona, happy to spend nights in a concrete pipe and eat simple local fare. It’s a fairly fast transformation, but still not completely unlikely, and the change in circumstance allows a romance to develop between Josemon and Cathy. It’s not all smooth sailing and it never seems likely to be a completely happy ending, but again this all makes sense in the context of the story, and this latter half of the film is smoother and tighter than the earlier scenes. 

The film depends heavily on the on-screen presence of Tovino Thomas and his likeable personality. He oozes charm and his frustration with Cathy is totally understandable. The language barrier is cleverly exploited both for comedic value but also to emphasize the huge cultural difference between Cathy and Josemon and the two actors work well together to illustrate these differences. India Jarvis is also good in her role, but has a harder job since her character is not well developed. She starts as a ‘typical’ foreigner, ignorant and rude, but has to evolve into a more empathetic character while still holding rather odd views about money and family. He idea that money is more important than relationships isn’t a common viewpoint, whatever the background, and it’s a difficult one to reconcile with her change of heart as the film progresses. The kindness Josemon and Cathy meet along the way, while possible is also rather rose-tinted, but also doesn’t seem quite enough to cause such a big change of heart. The pair also don’t have fantastic chemistry, Tovino Thomas seems to get on better with Sidhartha Siva and Basil Joseph as Kuttan his best friend, but mostly this adds to their awkward relationship rather than being a downfall of the film. The other cast members including Joju George, Sudheesh and Pauly Valsan are all good in their small roles.

The other standout of the film is the music. Both Sushin Shyam’s soundtrack and Sooraj S. Kurup’s songs are gorgeous and suit the mood of the film perfectly. While Sinu Siddharth’s cinematography is beautiful with wonderful attention to the lighting, we don’t get to see as much of the different locales in India as I would have liked. The action is all firmly focused on Josemon and Cathy, often on country roads and nondescript fields which could be literally anywhere. I did feel very nostalgic for Mumbai though when the pair finally make it to the city at the end of their journey. 

Although at heart Kilometers and Kilometers is a fairly routine rom-com, adding a foreigner with actual personality is fairly novel, while the contrast of positives and negatives of life in India are rarely shown together in such stark clarity. There is nothing ground shaking here, but despite the slow start and wandering story, I still enjoyed this trip across India by motorbike. 3 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.

Varane Avashyamund

Anoop Sathyan’s debut film is a slice-of-life romantic comedy that, despite a relatively predictable plot, has plenty of feel-good factor. The story revolves around single mum Neena (Shobana) and her daughter Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan), but also dips into the lives of various other residents in their idyllic apartment block in Chennai. With excellent performances from the mostly veteran cast, this is a charming film that’s comforting and just perfect for a cosy afternoon’s entertainment.

Neena and her daughter Nikki live in what appears to be the most harmonious block of apartments ever seen in Indian cinema. The mix of residents all seem happy to help each other out and although the owner’s wife Maami (Meera Krushnan) prefers vegetarian tenants, this seems to be more of a guideline than an enforced rule. Neena and Nikki live on the second floor of the apartment block, having moved to Chennai a few years before. Neena is a single mother who teaches French in Chennai, while Nikki’s main aim in life seems to be to find the perfect partner via a matrimonial service. Despite meeting a number of potential husbands, she is yet to find ‘the one’ but is happily getting on with her life while she continues her search.

Meanwhile, a couple of new tenants move into the block and start to have an impact. First is Major Unnikrishnan aka Major (Suresh Gopi), a retired soldier with alcoholism and anger management issues. His friend Major Athmaram (Major Ravi) convinces him to get help from a local weight management doctor, who also runs a counselling service. Multi-tasking at its best! As the Major gradually begins to come out of his self-imposed isolation, he gradually becomes friends with Neena, even though Nikki disapproves of their developing relationship. Their romance is beautifully handled, and just like real life, it’s hard to say exactly when the friendship begins to turn into something a little deeper. Despite her apparently romantic lifestyle, Neena is incredibly practical and tends to take the world as it comes, accepting people as who they say they are. However, her daughter is much more of a romantic despite her practical approach to the queation of her marriage, and the idea of Neena being involved with the Major threatens to completely derail the relationship Nikki has with her mother.

At the same time, the block is excited by the arrival of Akashavani (K.P.A.C. Lalitha), a TV serial star who moves in with her two ‘nephews’ Bibeesh aka Fraud (Dulquer Salmaan) and Karthik (Arvajith Santosh Sivan). Fraud has his own problems as his relationship with work colleague Wafa (Wafa Khatheeja Rahman) is about to end with her transfer overseas, and he also spends much of his time arguing with his younger brother. There is much to enjoy in their fractious family scenes, while Akashavani’s popularity despite her acerbic personality is a real nod to the lure of celebrity. While all this is going on, Nikki appears to have found the perfect husband in Aby (Rahul Rajasekharan), but it’s really his mother Sherly (Urvashi) with whom she has an ideal relationship, and whom she misses most when the relationship ends.

Shobana and Suresh Gopi are perfectly cast here and it’s so good to see them together again after a long time. Anoop Sathyan doesn’t dwell on the age-aspect of their romance, but rather makes the relationship a natural development as the Major begins to overcome his shyness and Neena reaches out to help. Shobana is simply gorgeous with such energy and passion in her performance that she easily outperforms all the youngsters by miles. Even when she starts to talk about her failed marriage and the domestic violence she endured, her manner is so down-to-earth and realistic that it takes a moment or two for the subject matter to really register. I love the scenes where she dances around her apartment and joins in with a dance lesson on the beach. Just perfect!

Suresh Gopi takes the role of an angry man and exposes his vulnerability with incredible sensitivity and yet with enough comedy to make the Major’s emotional development a real delight to watch. Although some of the scenes are quite serious, they never come across as depressing or over-done. Even a fight scene ends up funny. And throughout it all we can feel the sincerity as the Major tries to overcome his issues. It works because it feels genuine, while the nosiness and interference from the neighbours adds another layer of realism to the plot. Nikki is the central character and her story is woven through with threads of all the other occupants of the apartments. While her relationship with her mother is key, her gradually developing friendship with Fraud is important, but so are the brief exchanges with Maami, Akashavani and the others who live in the apartment block. Kalyani Priyadarshan is fine in the role and is particularly good in the scenes with Urvashi and in the second half as she starts to see her mother in a different light. Dulquer Salmaan is fantastic as always and the rest of the cast are all excellent. Everyone in the story has a small part to play, even the security guard and his family who have to evacuate to the roof when the rains begin. There is a reason for each small vignette and they all serve to build up the picture of this small community and their interlocking lives.

I watched Varane Avashyamund one grey Melbourne afternoon, and it was as warming and cheering as my cup of hot tea and accompanying ginger biscuits. I miss Chennai and India, and this was such a treat to see the city portrayed so well on screen. The story follows a few months in the lives of Neena and Nikki while exploring love and loss, the effects of violence – government sanctioned, street and domestic, relationships of all kinds and the sense of community that can be difficult to find in the world today. There is drama, a social message and plenty more besides, but it’s all done with a light touch and entertainingly, ensuring that Varane Avashyamund is perfect as a feel-good film whenever you need one. 4 stars.