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.

Super Deluxe

Super Deluxe

Thiagarajan Kumararaja’s Super Deluxe is a significant step up from his previous film Aaranya Kaandam, aided by a sumptuous colour palette from P.S. Vinod and Nirav Shah, and the presence of a number of top actors from the South. Included are the likes of Vijay Sethupathi, Samantha, Fahadh Faasil, Ramya Krishnan and Mysskin but the newcomers are just as good and hold their own against the established stars. It’s an interesting story too, although after a good start the middle section does wander and become rather self-indulgent before ending with a stronger finale. It’s still a compelling watch, not just to discover what happens in the various threads, but also to spot influences, note the repeated motif’s and ultimately try to figure out just what Thiagarajan Kumararaja is trying to say. Super Deluxe isn’t for the faint-hearted – the language is strong and there are a number of confronting themes, but the juxtaposition of topical issues and out-and-out fantasy is intriguing even with a close to 3 hour run time.

The film consists of a number of different threads which don’t interconnect as such, but instead superficially intersect and occasionally influence each other. The first involves a cheating wife Vaembu (Samantha) and what happens when her husband Mugilan (Fahadh Faasil) discovers her infidelity when her lover has the bad taste to die during their lovemaking session. Next there are a group of schoolboys who arrange an elaborate plan to bunk school and watch porn movies. Their problems start when one of the four recognises his mother Leela (Ramya Krishnan) in the movie and the ripples from his subsequent actions have far-ranging consequences. Part of this sparks an existential crisis for Leela’s husband Dhanasekaran (Mysskin) who has become a faith healer after surviving the tsunami by holding on to a statue of Jesus. The other boys end up in trouble when they try to raise the funds to buy a new TV and end up in a truly out of this world experience. And then there is the story of Shilpa (Vijay Sethupathi), a transgender woman trying to reunite with the wife and young son she left behind many years before. It’s a fascinating blend of narratives and some of the stories work better than others. Or perhaps it’s more that some parts of each story are simply brilliant (and brilliantly simple), but then at times Thiagarajan Kumararaja and his co-writers seem to get carried away and try just that little too hard to be edgy and confrontational.

As well as a lot of swearing, there is a lot of sex in this film. Vaembu is first seen in bed with her lover, the teenage boys are obsessed with sex (although that’s not surprising) and there’s a creepy cop (Bagavathi Perumal) whose rapacious tendencies provide an important plot point in two of the stories. One of these is nasty but effective, while the other is too drawn out and staged to be convincing. In those parts where the film is subtle and suggests rather than shows, it is more chillingly real and packs more of a punch compared to the more filmi scenes with Vaembu, Mugilan and SI Berlin. Perhaps it’s a consequence of too many writers (Mysskin, Nalan Kumarasamy, Neelan K. Sekar and Thiagarajan Kumararaja are all credited with the screenplay), but Vaembu and Mugilan’s story is the least successful for me, despite fine performances from the two actors. Their relationship just doesn’t ring true and the characters are an odd mix of modern and traditional that doesn’t seem plausible. However, I appreciate that the fallen woman gets a shot at redemption and isn’t permanently tainted by her infidelity. Something which is also the case with Leela who is proud of her film achievements and sees no reason to disavow her presence in a porn movie. It is refreshingly different even if at times there is a feeling that some of the dialogue has been written by grubby little boys sitting and sniggering at the mere mention of sex. That may be more to do with the subtitles though as I have read a number of comments that some concepts weren’t translated accurately, particularly in respect to Ramya Krishnan’s character.

The most successful thread is that of Shilpa, and despite all the issues around a cis male actor playing a trans woman, Vijay Sethupathi is much more here than just a man in a wig. The issues here feel true to life, shocking as they are, as Shilpa tries to navigate a brief visit to her son’s school and faces prejudice and abuse at almost every turn. Ashwanth Ashokkumar is outstanding as her son Rasukutty and although Gayathrie has very little screen-time as the abandoned wife, she makes a strong impact as her facial expressions say so much more than any dialogue could possibly manage. Vijay transforms himself yet again and adds many layers and nuances to his character, alternating between comedy and tragedy but still providing a sense of the underlying weakness that drove Shilpa to abandon her family.

The first half has a lot of well-written comedy but immediately after the interval the film shifts into more serious territory. The pace is also more uneven in the second half, and the labyrinthine feeling of diving down a rabbit hole, so well done in the first half, falters as the frenetic pace slows. There is still a lot going on though, and with the richness of the visuals the film at times becomes almost overwhelming. There are close-ups of ants running up and down a door frame for example – the implication initially seems fairly straight forward, but is it really? There are so many questions and possible explanations for even the simplest shot and it seems that every single part of the set could have a secondary meaning. This is a film that I think does need multiple viewings, and I’m sure that I will see more detail each time.

There are plenty of film references here too – to both Indian and Western films and probably a lot more cultural references that completely passed me by. Despite the variability in the second half this is definitely a film that I’d recommend for the sumptuous visuals, excellent performances and intricate story. Thiagarajan Kumararaja has built a complex world that tries to encompass the natural, unnatural and everything in between. The best part about Super Deluxe is that he so very nearly succeeds.

 

Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights

Kumbalangi Nights finally made it to Melbourne over the weekend, and I was lucky enough to get a ticket for one of the packed out shows in Clayton. Madhu C. Narayanan’s directorial début is a coming of age story, but one where a family grows and matures together rather than simply telling the tale of a single person. With exceptional performances from the entire cast and an unexpected twist at the end, this is a must watch film that hopefully will get a wider release in Australia.

The film begins with Franky (Mathew Thomas), the youngest of four brothers coming home after spending time at a soccer camp. He has a scholarship and is receiving a good education, but he’s ashamed of his poor home and dysfunctional family so he keeps his school friends at a distance. Franky and his two older brothers Saji (Soubin Shahir) and Bobby (Shane Nigam) live in a partially unfinished house at the end of an inlet. It’s definitely not in the best part of town (it’s where trash is dumped), but it still looks to be a pretty spot just at the edge of the water. The house may be rickety but the brothers can navigate home by boat and are able to organise dinner by walking outside and casting a net to catch a fish. The fourth brother Boney (Sreenath Bhasi) doesn’t live with the others, mainly because of incessant fights between Saji and Bobby but Boney has a full-time job and a separate set of friends which may contribute to keeping him away from his brothers.

The story of the family is gradually revealed, but more by small day-to-day actions rather than by any major event. For instance, when Frankie arrives home he’s upset to find an egg shell full of cigarette ash – a sign that his brothers haven’t been cleaning while he’s been away. He’s taken on the role of their absent mother and does most of the cooking and cleaning but his despair at the half-finished state of their house is constant. Boney is seen paddling a canoe over to the house but turns away when he sees Saji and Bobby arguing yet again, while Franky finds a sack of abandoned kittens, proving that they really do live in a dumping ground for unwanted strays. In this way, Narayanan gradually reveals a family in crisis, where Saji seems to be content to live off his partner’s earnings in their ironing business, Bobby wastes his time away lounging around with his best friend Prasanth (Sooraj Pops) and Franky escapes to play soccer with his friends as much as possible.

Meanwhile, across the water, Shammi (Fahadh Faasil) has recently married Simmi (Grace Anthony) and moved in with her, her mother (Ambika Rao) and her sister Baby (Anna Ben). Shammi has a good job and Baby also works in a local hotel while their upmarket house is also used as a home-stay for tourists in the area. Although on the face of it this family seems the total opposite of Franky’s, there is something not quite right – first seen in Shammi’s adamant objection to the local kids playing football on ground outside the house. Fahadh Faasil is wonderfully creepy here, with considered arrogance and a scary smile that he keeps plastered on his face while he asks ever more intrusive questions to his wife and her sister. He’s the quintessential patriarchal male who wants to control everyone in the family and expects them to follow his rigid morality. There are so many small mannerisms that Fahadh Faasil adds that together make up the portrait of a not-very-nice man as he eavesdrops, spys on his guests and makes snide and demeaning comments at every opportune moment. One excellent demonstration is when he uses his razor to remove his wife’s bindi from the mirror in the bathroom showing his toxic masculinity at its most blatant with Shammi even calling himself the ‘complete man’ as he preens his moustache in the mirror. It’s a superb performance throughout and although Shammi isn’t onscreen much in the first half, he always leaves an impression.

Meanwhile, Bobby is in love with Simmi’s sister Baby, but the difference in their social status is huge, and the gap in their personal goals appears even more vast. Bobby is content to spend his days drinking and smoking, while Baby has a much more upwardly mobile mindset. However the romance is a realistic portrayal of a relationship trying to span the social divide and there are some beautifully written scenes here too.  Baby persuades Bobby to get a job, which he hates, but he’s determined to stick it out as the only way he’s ever likely to persuade her family to consent to their marriage. Shane Nigam and Anna Ben are delightful here with each perfectly complementing the other and reacting exactly as would be expected to each new problem. Initially Bobby asks his friend why would anyone buy a tea shop just to get tea, when Prasanth reveals he’s planning to marry his girlfriend Sumisha (Riya Saira), but when he falls in love with Bobby he gradually changes his point of view. Realistically, it’s not an instant change, but one that feels plausible given the development of their relationship. Sooraj Pops and Riya Saira provide the perfect contrast too since although Prasanth is just as job shy as Bobby, he has more get up and go, while Sumisha has the confidence Baby lacks.

Syam Pushkaran wrote the screenplay, and as in Maheshinte Prathikaaram (the only other film of his I’ve seen ….so far!), he uses a mixture of comedy and drama to underpin a story that gets to the basic heart of a society and the social constructs that define what makes someone a good person. Saji is argumentative and hot-tempered, but does want the best for his family. When his friend Murugan (Ramesh Thilak) is killed, Saji takes in his widow and her young baby proving that is heart is in the right place, even if sometimes he forgets to listen to it. This is a beautifully nuanced performance by Soubin Shahir and there are moments of absolute brilliance as Saji has to come to terms with the consequences of his actions. So much is not said, but rather is shown by his mannerisms and the way he deals with every set-back and put down. Shane Nigam too does an excellent job with his role, and his Bobby is the quintessential slacker who realises he needs to change his ways or he will lose the woman he loves. The question is whether or not that’s a strong enough incentive, particularly since Bobby has no strong role model to follow.

My absolute favourite though is Grace Anthony as Simmi. There is a real gender divide in the film with the men generally failing to deal with the issues in their lives. The women on the other hand, just get on with things without any drama or fanfare. Simmi initially seems to be just another long-suffering and put upon wife but she has an inner strength and determination that finally breaks out towards the end of the film in a brilliantly written and performed scene. It’s this combination of normal routine life and small moments of drama that makes Kumbalangi Nights such an engrossing and relatable film. Although ultimately it’s the story of Franky’s family and their gradual transformation as different women enter their lives and help to turn them around, it’s also a study of ordinary human behaviour that will ring true for most of us. There is so much more I could write about almost every scene, but I don’t want to give away any more of the plot, so all I can do is advise everyone to go see the movie!

This is a beautifully told story and Shyju Khalid adds the finishing touches with good use of the camera to capture both the beauty and the ugliness in this small area of Kerala. Sushin Shyam’s music fits perfectly and every single member of the cast plays their role as if it was one they were born to fill. The only odd note comes at the end where the plot takes a sudden turn, but it’s still so well executed that even this doesn’t seem all that out of place. I loved this film and highly recommend watching Kumbalangi Nights for a simply great little slice of life in small town Kerala.