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.

Jallikattu (2019)

Jallikattu starts with a chorus of household noises that gradually give way to the birdcalls and insect sounds of the forest. But the peace is quickly disrupted by the chaotic cacophony of groups of men chasing after an escaped buffalo. The pace is frenetic as the buffalo damages crops, buildings and people, old rivalries between enemies are renewed, and the entire male population of the village descend into a kind of primitive madness as they chase after the beast. It’s a potent mix of petty rivalries, domestic and social clashes, underscored by masculinity at its most base, all combining to make Jallikattu a feast for the senses and above all, a wild ride of a film.

After the quick cuts of the opening section, the film introduces the various characters in the village. Varkey (Chemban Vinod Jose) is the butcher who dispenses chunks of fresh meat to a predominately male clientele alongside his helpers, chief of which is Antony (Antony Varghese). Also notable in the early scenes are a police officer (Tinu Pappachan) who is seen abusing his wife (Pravitha Vijayan) although she seems able to fight back quite effectively, and the rich but unpopular Kuriachan (Jaffer Iddukki). As the only supplier, Varkey is asked to provide the meat for Kuriachan’s daughter’s engagement party but when the time comes to slaughter the buffalo, Antony slips up and the animal escapes, starting a madcap chase to capture the beast. Initially it’s just Antony and Varkey running through the fields, but the situation quickly escalates as the buffalo damages crops and the local church before setting a haystack on fire and destroying a couple of small businesses in the village. It’s impressive work for one buffalo and the trail of destruction just gets bigger and bigger as the chase continues.

To try and catch the animal, the villagers first rally together, but the arrival of a group from a neighbouring village sparks the first signs of serious conflict. Adding to the heady mix of testosterone is local hunter Kuttachan (Sabumon Abdusamad), who has recently been released from jail and is keen to extract revenge on the man who put him there – Antony. Kuttachan arrives to his own cheerleading soundtrack, provided by the villagers, and along with his aggressive attitude it seems likely that more blood will be spilled before the buffalo is captured.

As more and more men gather and take up torches and crudely carved wooden spears to hunt the buffalo, the night forest comes alive with streams of light and the sounds of the hunt. The buffalo is heard more than seen – a shadow in the night, occasionally a tossed body or the flash of horns, but mostly there is only the rustle of grass and sound of hooves. In the brief moments when the animal is actually visible, the animatronic buffalo is realistic and convincing to the point where I was happy there was a disclaimer at the start of the film given the level of escalating violence doesn’t bode a happy end for the buffalo. It’s great work from the whole team and the combination of art director Gokul Das and cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan ensure the buffalo is a central presence despite the mainly fleeting glances.

The film is more about the frenzy of the chase and the sounds and images of men on the hunt rather than a story involving specific characters. The stories around Kuttachan, Varkey and Antony are for the most part short vignettes and the main focus is on the rising blood frenzy of the crowd. Even when there is a brief interlude after the buffalo falls into a well, some of the men are seen killing and cooking a chicken, and the threat of violence is never far away as the different groups clash. With such a male dominated cast there is little scope for any female characters, and only Varkey’s daughter Sophie (Santhy Balachandran) has any real role to play. Her interaction with Anthony requires a screen warning about violence towards women, but despite the character’s attempts to appear manipulative, I felt that she was more resigned to her fate in a village full of such machismo men. The rest of the women seem to be either secretly laughing at the men (given the mostly inept and ham-fisted attempts to catch the buffalo), or just indifferent to their antics. In a sort of ‘watching the children play’ attitude, the women gossip and cook tapioca while mostly ignoring the warnings to hide inside their houses to escape the buffalo.

Probably the most impressive part of the film is the soundtrack – both the music and the ambient sounds are brilliantly integrated into the action and serve to heighten the tension of the chase. Prashant Pillai’s soundtrack underscores the wild excitement of the hunt and the vocal chants sound almost like anthems to the gods of the forest. Along with the stunning visuals, either soaring high above the forest or deep inside the chaotic action, the sounds are vital in conveying the blood-lust and violence simmering in the crowd.

The end is appropriately cataclysmic and while the symbolism may be a tad heavy-handed at times, it’s the overall spectacle that impresses. However, this isn’t a film for everyone. Violence simmers at every turn, frequently boiling over into blood-lust and naked aggression, while the themes are belligerently masculine and at times even misogynistic. But as in Lijo Jose Pellissery’s previous film Ee. Ma. Yau., there is still humour even in the darkest moments of the film. Indeed, this may perhaps be the point – that for all their aggression, the men’s behaviour is so ridiculous that it becomes comical when seen from outside the maelstrom of the hunt itself.

The frenetic pace of the film and incessant beat of the soundtrack sweep you along with the action and leave little room for anything other than wonder at Lijo Jose Pellissery’s vision. Toxic masculinity aside, the film is a departure from standard Indian cinema and as such deserves to be seen by a wider audience. Different and challenging, Jallikattu is well worth watching on the big screen if you can.