Nandanam

Nandanam

Nandhanam is based on the King Cophetua and Penelophon story and while it’s a fairly typical tale of a rich(ish) young man falling in love with the family maid and the various dramas that ensue, there are enough novel moments to make it more involving than it first sounds. The story is simply told, the characterisations are beautifully drawn and the actors all play their parts with ease. This was Prithviraj’s debut Malayalam film and he’s ably supported by some stalwarts of the industry along with a brilliant Navya Nair as Balamani. In fact it’s her performance that really lifts this film above average and it’s worth a watch just to see her character deal with the various obstacles in her path to true love.

Balamani is a young orphan working as a cook and general helper to Unniamma (Kaviyoor Ponnamma) who has been incapacitated with a leg injury. Balamani is a devoted follower of Lord Krishna and her biggest problem is that since she started working for Unniamma she has been too busy to go to the local temple. It’s a recurring theme which becomes more and more important as the story progresses. She is kept hopping from the early hours of the morning by three older women who were brought to the house by Unniamma’s friend Kesavan Nair (Innocent) to act as servants but all three prefer to be waited on hand and foot by Balamani. The interactions between the three servants and Balamani are funny and cleverly scripted as Balamani looks after them and somehow fulfils all their ceaseless demands, but simultaneously pulls faces behind their backs and berates them as lazy to their faces.

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Balamani seems to have endless patience despite her grumbles and she is genuinely kind-hearted and caring in her dealings with Unniamma, and even with the other three servants. They bicker and complain continuously to each other about each other, although they never seem to either take any offence or mean any of it seriously. I love these three and they have some of the best lines in the film – although that might just be the English translations!

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One of the best parts of the film for me is the way Balamani talks to herself and also to the picture of Lord Krishna she keeps in her room. In fact she talks to the animals she looks after, the plants she waters in the garden and anything else that seems to catch her eye. I can totally relate to this aspect of her personality and it made her a more human and sympathetic character. Her main confident in these discussions is Lord Krishna and she complains to him about not being able to go to his temple and about the amount of work she has to do, although none of it is with any rancour.

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Added in to the story are the next door neighbour Janaki (Kalaranjini) who is a friend of Unniamma’s daughter and is waiting for her son to come home on a visit. Janaki is another confidante and she tries to minimise her exploitation by the three older servants.

Things change when Unniamma’s grandson Mano (Prithviraj) arrives for a short stay before he leaves for work in the USA. He starts to flirt with the vivacious Balamani but before long it turns into something more serious and the two fall in love. But it’s not a straight forward filmi romance and the dialogue helps keep it realistic. Balamani asks Mano if he is really serious or if this is just a brief fling to keep him amused before he leaves the country. Mano in turn seems to be quite sincere when he answers that it started out that way, but has become something more serious. Balamani is also aware of her lowly status in comparison to Mano and is wary of the relationship, although she is obviously flattered and very much in love with Mano. Prithviraj seems subdued as Mano, compared to other roles I have seen, but it suits his character and he combines an air of experience with just enough of the mama’s boy to make Mano a believable character. Mano does seem to be a bit of a wimp and most of the problems Balamani faces are due to his lack of gumption and resolve.

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Just when things seem to be going so well, Mano’s mother (Revathy) turns up and decides to arrange his marriage before he leaves for America. Pesky details such as visas are never discussed and it seems to be no trouble to organise a wedding in just a few weeks, so obviously here is where we start to depart from real life! Thankam doesn’t discuss her plans with Mano, while Mano is slow to approach his mother about his plans to marry Balamani, with the end result that he is betrothed to the daughter of one of Thankam’s friends before he can make his wishes known. Thankam is a widow who defied her family to go to work and bring up her son alone, so she’s definitely not a soft touch and has no hesitation in telling Mano that the match will go ahead no matter what he wants.

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However Thankam is also distressed to have caused her son such unhappiness, particularly since she likes Balamani, but it’s not enough for her to upset the arrangement she has made. The family dynamics are further explored when all the relatives arrive for the engagement and wedding with many complaints about the precipitous nature of the affair. Writer/director Renjith emphasizes the solitary state of the groom compared to all the family hustle and bustle with the wedding preparations and the frantic work being carried out by the servants, including Balamani.

Meanwhile Janaki’s son has arrived – or has he? Balamani meets the person she thinks is Unnikrishnan (Aravind Akash) and is soon on very friendly terms; even confiding her innermost thoughts to him while he appears to already know her hopes and dreams. I was a bit sceptical of Aravind as Guruvayurappan at first but he did seem to embody the mischievousness nature of Krishna with a singular lack of concern about the consequences of his actions. Plus he can dance!

The addition of the divine into the narrative is cleverly done and never seems out of place, despite the generally modern feel of the rest of the story. However there is a terrible comedy side plot which is somewhat related to the main story involving Jagathis Sreekumar as a duplicitous priest. It’s never funny and most of Jagathis antics could have been left out without causing any disruption of the plot, so his inclusion does seem to be more a ‘film-making by the numbers’ rather than for any real addition to the storyline.

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Navya was perfect as Balamani and I loved her characterisation. There was enough back story to ensure that her actions reflected her personality and her mannerisms suited her youthful and innocent persona. Although the romance between Balamani and Mano doesn’t generate much heat, it is rather sweet and works in the context of their different status and the way the love story develops. There is rather more chemistry when Balamani meets Guruvayurappan, although the relationship is more one of two old friends who are comfortable with each other rather than anything romantic. Ranjith ensures that the interactions between the different characters are believable and illustrate perfectly both their personalities and their places within the hierarchy of the household. These help the film keep a sense of realism even with the addition of Lord Krishna into the mix and the rather fairy tale nature of the story
The music by Raveendran is beautiful, and of course it’s a Malayalam film so it looks stunning with wonderful cinematography by Azhagappan. Worth watching for a new take on an old story, fantastic performances, great dialogue and a scintillating performance from Navya Nair. 4 stars.

Nandanam

Big B

In term of its story development, production and editing Big B seems more like a Hollywood film than a typical Southern Indian action film, so I wasn’t really too surprised to learn later that it was based on a US film called Four Brothers. However there is plenty of local flavour and like all Malayalam films I’ve seen the cinematography is first class with great scenic shots, despite the film being primarily an action thriller. I haven’t seen the American film but after watching Big B I really can’t imagine anyone else but Mammootty in the lead role. Although the other characters are almost all well cast and give good performances, it’s Mammootty who makes an impact as the rather dour and resolute Big B of the title, and it’s his film the whole way through.

The film opens with the murder of Mary John Kurisingal (Nafisa Ali), more commonly known as Mary Teacher, or just Teacher. She’s well known in Kochi for her social work which mainly involves looking after orphans, and over the years has adopted 4 of them.  The opening scenes of Mary as she goes about her daily life helping the poor are very powerful and director Amal Neered succeeds in painting a detailed picture of a compassionate woman in just a few moments. And despite her lack of physical presence, Mary appears throughout the film in lots of small gestures and in body language as her adopted children mourn her loss when they notice the empty place at the table or are reminded of her as they move through her house.

We are introduced to the four brothers through the eyes of SI George (Vijayaraghavan) as he explains to ACP Balaji (Pasupathy) who’s who in the funeral procession and it’s an efficient way of letting us know a little about the characters.  While second eldest brother Eddy (Manoj K. Jayan) has been living in the area with his wife and daughters, working in a tourist restaurant and generally helping his mother, the youngest brother, Bijo (Sumit Naval), is a student in Coimbatore and Murugan (Bala) is a stunt director in the film industry. However the eldest brother Bilal (Mammootty) was banished by Mary Teacher after he killed a man in a street brawl and his entrance into the film is dramatic as befits a character with such a dark past. Bilal’s feet appear first as he gets out of his car into the rain-drenched streets and slowly walks across to join the funeral cortege. It is very OTT but effectively establishes Bilal as a force to be reckoned with.

After the funeral the brothers get together to try to discover exactly who killed Mary Teacher and why. They have no faith in the police investigation believing that corruption in the force and general apathy will lead to a cover-up. There are various other subplots including a couple of romances, but the focus of the film is firmly on the search for Mary’s killers. When Bilal left Kochi he had quite a reputation and he certainly hasn’t mellowed in the intervening years.

Bilal is the driving force behind the investigation and seems to use his search as a way to atone for his previous crime which forced Mary to close her door to him. While Bilal gives Mammootty the opportunity to be menacing, cold and vicious there is a more compassionate side to his character and there are glimpses of this in the way he deals with his brothers. The relationships between the four forms the secondary focus of the film and their differences in background, religion and opinion all disappear when they have a common enemy. Their camaraderie is well depicted and although I’m not very familiar with the actors here, they do all appear to be well suited to their roles.

Manoj K. Jayan is excellent as Eddy and gets it right as the hard-working family man who is more concerned with protecting his wife and children than cornering his mother’s killers. This reluctance to get involved in the investigation ends up making the others suspicious and the scene where the three brothers interrogate Eddy is very well scripted and filmed. I love the way Eddy is framed in the shot here, with a background showing family pictures and his brothers glaring down at him. The cinematography is excellent and the script is fast paced and seems well suited to the action although sometimes the subtitles do seem strange – perhaps this refers to measured speech??!

Not everything works though. The romance between playboy Murugan and Rimy (Mamta Mohandas) is generally well depicted and Murugan’s affection does seem to solidify into something more permanent, but there is a rather oddly placed song featuring the two frolicking around on a beach. It seems as if the director felt a ‘romantic’ song was needed to tick all the boxes for an Indian film, so in it went without any real thought as to how well it fitted with the story – which in my opinion is not at all. However it’s a good song that just needed to be in a different film. I do like Rimy’s character though, as she knows exactly what she wants and goes out to get it. Innocent appears in a brief role as Rimy’s father providing some comedy relief which isn’t particularly funny, but isn’t too annoying or intrusive either.

There is also an item song at the villain’s rather swish lair, which again seems to be rather oddly pictured with lots of tourists roped in to dance around and provide a party atmosphere. Again it doesn’t really work for me as it doesn’t quite give the debauched tone that I think it was trying to convey (and it’s also a remix of a Shakira hit).

The other disappointment is the villain of the story. Tony (Sherveer Vahil) is a horribly hairy man with a disconcerting habit of rolling his tongue which does make him sound appropriately villainous. But he’s too much of a caricature with his depraved and immoral parties, drug taking and enjoyment in beating up his minions as a bizarre form of training. He seems too unbalanced and quite frankly too psychotic to be able to lead a gang competently, let alone organise the killing of Mary Teacher. His co-conspirators are better and are more menacing and believable as bad guys, with the much appreciated added benefit of not removing their shirts unnecessarily. I warn you – Tony has no such scruples.

Big B is a relatively violent film but it’s all integral to the plot and the fight scenes are excellently choreographed by Anal Arasu. The casual brutality that Bilal displays is as much a part of his character as his ability to reason through the connections to find his mother’s killer. Bilal’s links to the various figures in the underworld and his fearsome reputation are also essential elements to determining exactly who was involved in the murder. But each of the brothers has their part to play in the investigation and the final showdown has a good mixture of suspense and action.  The background music by Gopi Sundar seems to fit the film better than the songs by Alphons Joseph although the ‘Yo Big B’ theme music and the beautiful Vida Parayukayano are excellent. The clip below does feature Bilal’s attack on a street thug so skip from 2 min 45 to 3 min 15 if you don’t like violence but the song is lovely and beautifully sung by Shreya Ghosal.

Apart from horribly hairy Tony the support cast are all good and overall it’s a slick and well-made film that looks fantastic. Amal Neered started in the industry as a cinematographer and early in his career worked with Ram Gopal Varma which seems to have been an influence on his directing style. He makes very good use of cinematographer Sameer Thahir’s camera work and as ever Kerala looks amazing – even in the rain.  I’m a Mammootty fan and have enjoyed all of his films I’ve seen so far, but I love him in this film as he gets everything right – he’s cold and ruthless when he needs to be but there is still plenty of emotion raging away underneath. Big B is well worth a watch for his performance and for a film that is a little bit different in its approach. 4 stars

Temple says:

I’m not sure what Heather means by saying this film is more Hollywood in style. To me it bears many  hallmarks of South Indian cinema – beautiful visuals, a sense of place/locality (in Kochi), a story heavily centred on the male star, flashy editing and sound effects, an emphasis on family loyalty, songs whether the film needs them or not,  a flexible attitude to the law, and a long lead up to a crunching finale.

It all sounds good on paper. But despite Mammootty delivering a compelling performance, there just isn’t enough to keep my interest throughout. I kept picturing the production team watching the rushes, congratulating themselves on bagging a brilliant actor and then one day asking each other that awkward question ‘Did YOU remember to write the rest of the story?’. The opening is brilliant and builds up the suspense and sense of loss very economically. But then the film wallows in repetitive scenes of the brothers’ unhappy reunion, and it starts to feel laboured. There isn’t enough conflict, character or relationship development to consistently keep my interest over the first hour. It’s all quite predictable, and while the actors are competent, I never cared much for the characters apart from Mary and Bilal. It is too easy to work out whodunit and who is marked for death so there is little suspense. Once things do ramp up in the quest for revenge, the story becomes more engaging but then goes off the rails again. As Heather said, Tony is a caricature. The opportunity for a real menace was lost so Bilal is the only convincingly scary bad guy in the final confrontation.

The songs were badly placed and poorly picturised, serving only to pad out the running time. The background score is probably OK if you like florid strings and angelic choirs but I found it intrusive and it detracted from the acting. Visually, there are far too many instances of the freeze frame, fast edits, quirky camera angles and accompanying sound effects when they aren’t really warranted. I felt that they were trying to inject some excitement into the draggy scenes by using effects. But what they needed was a bit more work on the story and structure.

See it for the excellent characterisation by Mammootty and the beautifully filmed scenery and interiors. 3 stars.

Manichitrathazhu

I love this film! It was probably the very first SI film I ever bought back in the days before I had any idea about the industry. I watched Bhool Bhulaiyaa in the cinema and then read that the dancing was better in the original movie, so immediately hunted down a copy. And really, it’s not only the dancing that is better! Manichitrathazhu was released in 1993 and has since been remade in a number of different versions but of the three I have seen, the original is definitely the best.

In contrast to the more comedy orientated Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Manichitrathazhu actually works well as a ghost story with some genuinely eerie scenes and unexplained happenings to set up the story. Nakulan (Suresh Gopi) and his wife Ganga(Shobana) move in to his ancestral home, Madampilli house to live for a few months while Nakulan works in the area.

The house is reputedly haunted by the vengeful ghost of a Tamil dancer Nagavalli and that of her murderer, the rich nobleman Sankaran Thampi. Their spirits are said to be held in a room of the mansion and the door is locked shut with the ‘ornate lock’ of the title. Ganga and Nakulan both disbelieve totally in such fanciful ideas, but Ganga is fascinated by the story of the doomed dancer and with the help of Nakulan’s cousin Alli (Rudra) she contrives to open the room. To my disappointment, and possibly hers as well, no vengeful spirits rush out, and she only finds the dust of ages and a box of Nagavalli’s jewellery.

Once the door is opened however there are a number of strange happenings around the mansion. Various articles catch fire and the sound of ghungroos and music are heard at night.  The head of the family Thampi (Nedumudi Venu) and his bumbling brother Unnithan (Innocent) move their families into the house to try to protect the couple as well as attempt to confine the spirits back to their room.

This part of the film is captivating with the juxtaposition between science and superstition and the various ways the family deals with the apparent ghostly manifestations. On the one hand Thampi and his family tie charms to ward off evil spirits, employ priests to hold ceremonies and engage a tantric expert to pacify the spirits, while Nakulan steadfastly refuses to believe in any supernatural entity and calls in his friend and renowned psychiatrist Dr Sunny Joseph (Mohanlal). Although from Dr Joseph’s introduction it’s hard to know which of the two methods is the better choice.

Nakulan suspects his ex-fiancée, Thampi’s eldest daughter Sreedevi, of causing all the incidents around the house. Sreedevi is a quiet and withdrawn girl who apparently has an unfortunate horoscope and who also seems to turn up at the wrong place every time something strange happens. With the arrival of Dr Joseph the story shifts from the supernatural into more of a psychological thriller as the psychiatrist does not believe in the existence of a supernatural entity either and decides that there is a mentally disturbed human agency behind the disruptions. Dr Joseph goes about tracking down the culprit with his unique methods, and then has to deal with the consequences of his discovery.

The only thing I don’t like about this film is the character of Dr Joseph despite Mohanlal’s best efforts and terrible shirts. I find that the over-the-top comedy aspect detracts from the more serious side of the story when it starts to delve into the issues of mental illness, and a lot of the antics Dr Joseph engages in are just irritating. However it’s not supposed to be an exploration of mental illness and I don’t find the attitudes of the other characters annoying in the same way. The patronising and condescending manner of Dr Joseph in his ‘comedy moments’ is horrible though and I don’t like way his character sleazily tries to woo Sreedevi at the same time as’ accusing’ her of mental illness. And yet, when the action takes over and the jokes stop, Dr Joseph is much more likeable and I wish that Mohanlal had played him as a straighter character for the whole film.

Shobana on the other hand is amazing as Ganga. She plays the character so well and thoroughly deserved the awards she won for her performance. Vinaya Prasad as Sreedevi doesn’t get as much screen time but she plays the quiet and unassuming character with the appropriate dignity and reserve. The two uncles Thampi and Unnithan together form a ‘comedy-light’ track and it’s generally well done and fits into the story without detracting from the main action. However the comedy track involving the tantric expert Brahmadattan Nampoothirippadu (Thilakan) is a little too slapstick for my taste and just isn’t very funny. Suresh Gopi is fine as the rather utilitarian husband dealing with the unexplained happenings in his ancestral home, but he is frequently overshadowed by Shobana and Mohanlal. The other minor characters are all good in their roles and I really like the actress who plays Unnithan’s wife. She had some great comedy moments and was very natural in her role.

I haven’t said much about the dancing which was the whole point of watching this film initially, but the highlight is the final climax song. It does give away the identity of Nagavalli though so skip it if you don’t want to know. Otherwise click here for the best depiction of Nagavalli I’ve seen.  The whole sound track by M. G. Radhakrishnan is lovely too and this is another beautiful and moving song from the film.

As seems to be the case with most Malayalam films, no matter what the subject matter, the film looks beautiful. The house used for the shoot appears to be a labyrinth and the various characters often have to run up and down stairs, along corridors and through innumerable doors to get to the scene of the action. Nothing ever seems to be shot against a blank wall, but instead is filmed against doorways, windows or beautiful shots of the country side. While no actual ghost is seen, there are shadows and suggestions all made more chilling by the use of claustrophobic corridors and shapes glimpsed through far doorways. The décor of the house is also well thought out with the couple’s room having the feel of one where the occupants are only there for a short time. And of course I also noticed the clocks.

I love the music and the whole feel of the film. It’s a great story by Madhu Muttam and Fazil has done an excellent job with his direction to bring it to life. My only complaint is with Mohanlal’s overly jocular psychiatrist and I can manage to live with that since the rest of the film is so well presented. No matter how many times I watch it I still get totally involved in the story again and eagerly wait for that wonderful dance. 4 ½ stars

Temple says:

I really like ghost stories, and Indian cinema has some good examples of spooky, understated and haunting (ha!) films. I like a lot about Manichitrathazhu, and totally agree with Heather on the beauty of the house and location that add so much to the atmosphere, and the excellent dancing in the denouement. Shobana is a compelling and beautiful heroine, and gives Ganga a great deal of emotional depth and energy. There is much more to Ganga than the dutiful wife who mutely follows her husband’s lead, and Shobana brings her to life. But Mohanlal really spoils it for me. I disliked his characteriation of Sunny Joseph on first sight and thought he failed miserably to balance the unconventional prankster with the more serious practitioner and friend. Watching it again, and knowing how it ends, there is no suspense left to distract from the shortcomings of how things happen. This may be considered sacrilege but if I could play mix’n’match, I would replace Mohanlal with Rajnikanth (in the Tamil version, Chandramukhi) who at least has enough charisma to overcome a fairly silly character. And I would probably want Vidya Balan (Bhool Bulaiyaa) or Anushka Shetty (Nagavalli, the Telugu sequel to Chandramukhi) in the supporting cast with Vinaya Prasad as long as they left the dancing to Shobana! I initially watched the film on the strength of one dance sequence and that is still the most memorable element for me. The songs from the Tamil and Hindi versions are also worth a look even if you don’t fancy the whole film, especially the final classical styled songs that feature Vineeth.

Manichitrathazhu is a pretty looking film, has some excellent atmospheric scenes (although it never caused me the slightest goosebump), and the soundtrack is pleasant. I recommend watching it, but unlike Heather I don’t think it stands repeat viewings unless you have a serious interior design fetish, a very poor memory or a very high tolerance for Dr Sunny.  3 1/2 stars.