Ozhimuri

ozhimuri-movie-poster

In some ways Ozhimuri was a hard film to place. Many of the plot summaries around made it sound like a fairly dry film about legal and social change in Kerala with the cessation of matrilineal inheritance. The posters tend to position it as a cute romance, which is not the focus, or push a love = violence angle which is unpalatable and also not really the point. Ozhimuri is not a heavy message film, nor is it a simple “boy with angry dad meets girl”. It’s a beautifully engaging story of three generations of family, the tensions and unexpected similarities between family members.

Director Madhupal uses a concise montage to set the scenes with images of females, human and divine, sitting at the feet of males, then older images that show the reverse. The titles use scenes at a big religious festival (My goodness! Those children must be terrified!), and meandering through beautiful countryside to embed the story in rural and traditional culture.

Meenakshi (Mallika) files for separation, citing harassment. Despite being described as a “dead dog” at the age of 55, she wants her independence. But she wants some property of means of support, having been made to sign hers over to her husband. Thanu (Lal) doesn’t seem to want his wife but will not relinquish any property. The legal argument then hinges on whether she is entitled to get alimony. His young female lawyer Balamani (Bhavana), who you might expect to support a woman seeking independence, joins the chorus of naysayers telling Sharath (Asif Ali) to persuade his parents to stay together. He tries to persuade Balamani of his father’s cruelty, and as they spend time together their own relationship deepens. Kali Pillai (Shweta Menon), is a strong influence on all aspects of Thanu’s life, and not in the usual doting ma and son way. Described as a queen, with the gait and power of an elephant, she is a strong if remote figure.

Madhupal uses flashbacks to great effect, both filling in the past and showing different perspectives on incidents. Things that seem black and white become ambiguous, and characters also become more complex and realistic. One of the most rewarding things about watching Ozhimuri was the way more is revealed, completely changing my view without ever being untrue to the characters.

Lal plays Thanu and Thanu’s dad Sivan. Thanu is a hard case but as things are revealed the influences driving his behaviour make him if not sympathetic then relatable. Sivan is a rumbly giant of a man, sentimental and simple. Lal plays Sivan with a twinkle in his eye and Thanu with a perpetual sour twist to his mouth. There is more than just anger driving Thanu. He has mother issues, and he hates and fears strong women. What we would call a street angel and house devil, Thanu is a doting father in his own way and has his father’s softness underneath his mother’s harshness. Lal is compelling throughout. I felt sad for jolly Sivan, and for the boy who would grow up without his warm hearted dad. Lal plays Thanu in such a way that he gained my empathy without resorting to trite sentimental tricks.

Meenakshi is the unsung hero of the film for my money. Mallika brings dignity and grace to Meenakshi, showing her as a woman who endures rather than fights, but who is strong and resilient in her non-confrontational way. She genuinely sees the good in people and tries to keep that in mind. She comes to know what she wants out of life and understands finally what her mother-in-law had tried to teach her. And so she acts. Everyone asks Meenakshi why she wants a divorce but nobody seems to want to really listen, they just want to tell her what she should do. She remains calm and obdurate, using her strength for herself for once. It’s hard to see a woman apparently defending her abuser, but as things progress Meenakshi becomes less of a victim and more a complex woman who made some choices then and is making different choices now. Mallika and Lal have a volatile chemistry that take their characters from domesticity to physical violence in a heartbeat, and they never break that connection or seem out of synch.

Shweta Menon is charismatic and arrogant as Kali Pillai. You can see in Thanu that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. Even if he didn’t hold a grudge about his father, they would clash and they both had violent streaks. Kali is all about tough love, showing her concern for Meenakshi by constantly picking faults and telling her what to do. She doesn’t like seeing her son overturn the natural order of things and treat his wife like a slave and her pride is wounded by his lack of respect for her. But she never gives up on him really and still tries to protect him in her own way despite their estrangement.

The obvious option would be to have Balamani (Bhavana) represent Meenakshi and go all Girl Power, but instead she is representing Thanu. She is quite socially conservative and believes divorce is bad for families regardless of the situation at home. I liked Bhavana a lot, and she nailed the characterisation of a pretty young professional who is a bit tired of the boys club around her but doesn’t feel the need to rock the boat. Her down to earth conversations with her grandmother are both funny and sad as grandma explains the role of women. Hint – it has a lot to do with breeding. She and Sharath talk about their own families and future plans, and while sometimes it comes across as clunky exposition they help draw out the subtleties of the divorce case.

Asif Ali is extremely likeable as Sharath, the good son who sees his father as Bad and his mother as a victim. As things become less clear cut, he also has to confront his own resemblance to his father and what that might mean. He gets hit with some big truths and I loved that he never made a big deal out of it or insisted anyone choose sides. He absorbed the new knowledge, struggled a bit, then moved forward. He was open to Balamani’s ideas and treated her as a valued friend as well as an eventual lover and future wife. And hurrah for a film where people can have consensual sex and not be hit by a meteor or any other form of judgement.

This is just a gorgeous film to watch. I had some initial concerns because of the topic but I didn’t find the violence was sensationalised or dwelt on beyond what needed to be shown. The performances are all top notch and Madhupal and writer Jeyamohan provide an excellent visual and narrative structure.

For anyone who laments the lack of strong female characters in Indian films, see this. If you’re interested in a sympathetic but not apologetic portrait of family dysfunction, see this. If you like beautifully made films with realistic characters and great production values, see this. 5 stars!

Advertisements

Shutter (2012)

Shutter poster

Shutter is an intriguing début film from noted theatre actor and playwright Joy Mathew. The story sounds simple; a married man ends up locked in his own empty shop with a prostitute for a night and a day, but Mathew has developed rich and detailed characters with a complex story that says much about society and the double standards applied to men and women. There is suspense and plenty of drama as Rasheed (Lal) has to face his own hypocrisy and struggles to deal with the possible consequences of his actions. Although the film starts slowly and does take some time to fully introduce the characters and eventual situation, it is well worth the extended set up as the film features excellent performances from Lal, Vinay Forrt, Sreenivasan and Sajitha Madathil along with the clever storyline. Shutter is an excellent slice of social commentary and one I highly recommend as a memorable and thought provoking film.

The story follows Rasheed as he visits his family in Kozhikode during a break from his work in the Gulf. In the short time he is home, he manages to upset his eldest daughter Nyla (Riya Saira) by insisting she stops her studies and gets married, and alienates his wife (Nisha Joseph) by snubbing her relatives. Not bad for just a few days! However his views are not extreme and seem fairly typical for a man of his generation. While his belief that studying is wasted on girls is one that I personally find outrageous, it’s one that seems common in India even to-day. So Rasheed’s bluster to his friends that Nyla will do as he says and get married, even though she is underage, sounds plausible and typical of an Indian father, while the half-hearted objections of his friends also ring true.

Rasheed also owns some shops which are just in front of his family home. He rents one out to an auto mechanic and is renovating another, while in the evenings he invites his friends into the empty shop for a night of drinking. While on a trip to a bottle shop with his friend Suran (Vinay Forrt), Rasheed spots a prostitute Thankam (Sajitha Madathil) and decides to bring her back to the shop when they cannot find a hotel room. Suran locks them in while he goes to find food but fails to return following series of unfortunate events which leave him with his own predicament to solve. The story then follows Rasheed’s moral dilemma as he quickly realises what he has done and what will happen if he is discovered in the shop with a prostitute. To make matters worse he can see his house from the small window, which serves as a constant reminder of his wife, his family and everything he might lose as a result of his rash decision.

While Rasheed goes through his moral crisis, Thankam is a brilliant contrast to his misery and despair. She has a relaxed, take life it as it comes attitude, and her constantly ringing phone and cheery attitude infuriate Rasheed. Naturally Thankam can’t see his problem as she just needs to keep in contact with her clients and her only difficulty is that she may have to cancel appointments if she can’t escape the shop. For Rasheed every call risks discovery and he desperately tries to silence her conversations any way he can. The difference in their attitudes is summed up when Thankam lies down for a short nap, while Rasheed paces around the increasingly claustrophobic room with tears and sweat dripping down his face. I like that Thankam isn’t yet another beaten down woman who has turned to prostitution in desperation, but rather is portrayed as a businesswoman for whom the night is just one more transaction, albeit one that doesn’t go quite to plan.

Parallel to the main story, a film director Manoharan (Srineevasan) is shown trying to tie down dates for his lead actor and secure financial backing for his next venture. Unfortunately Manoharan is having some difficulty with this and adds to his problems when he leaves his script behind in Suran’s auto. This pulls Manoharan into Suran and Rasheed’s world and the two stories blend together seamlessly. Vinay Forrt is just superb in his role as the anxious and somewhat naïve auto driver who doesn’t know how to get his friend out of a locked shop without letting the cat out of the bag too. Sreenivasan is perhaps a little too understated for much of the film, but he provides a more stable and rational character and another different viewpoint of the situation.

Glimpses of the outside world through the shutter heighten the stuffy closeness of the shop, while Suran’s travels in his auto and Sreenivasan’s conversations in a car with his friend provide a counterpoint. Despite the illusion of freedom and travel, neither can solve their problems, while Rasheed, stuck in his small room without freedom of movement can achieve self-realisation and come to terms with the issues he faces, even if his main problem is one he cannot resolve himself.

There is so much I like about this film. I love the characterisations and the depiction of ordinary, everyday people with their conventional concerns. I like the  way Joy Mathew takes a simple story and layers more and more complexity to each character to finish with a rich and satisfying plot. The underlying social issues are expertly brought into the forefront of the story and I hope raise plenty of questions and lead to discussions around the inequalities portrayed. The performances are all outstanding and Hari Nair’s excellent cinematography adds to the drama and tension without over shadowing the very human story. It’s wonderful and definitely not a film to miss. 4 ½ stars.

Salt N Pepper

Salt N Pepper poster

I liked Aashiq Abu’s Salt N Pepper for lots of reasons, many being things the film isn’t. It is a romance but it’s not the usual gorgeous young things plunging into insta-love. People have their emotional baggage but no one is so traumatised by rejection or ill fortune that they have to become vengeful killing machines. People cook, eat, and share what is important in their lives. Friends do the wrong thing sometimes, but might also do the exactly right thing and either way, life goes on.

One day Kalidasan (Lal) receives a phone call from Maya (Shweta Menon), who mistakenly thinks she has called a restaurant to order a particular dosa. He cuts the call and when she rings back to chase up her order, he tells her off. Once the rancour settles and the misunderstanding is cleared, Maya and Kalidasan speak often. They are both a little older, have their own lives and careers.  While they each want love and companionship, they lack confidence in their ability to attract and keep a partner.

 

Salt-n-Pepper-it begins

Both are foodies, and their conversations develop around cooking and local delicacies. Manu (Asif Ali) comes to stay with his uncle Kalidasan. Manu is enthusiastic, likeable and not one to overthink the consequences. Maya’s closest friend is the confident glamour girl Meenakshi (Mythili). When Kalidasan and Maya decide it is time to meet and see if their burgeoning relationship might take off, they both make the same decision, born out of their insecurities. They send stand-ins. Manu and Meenakshi meet, pretending to be Maya and Kalidasan and their chemistry is evident. Manu pursues “Maya” for himself and Meenakshi is keen on him too. So when Maya and Kalidasan each decide to stop the pretence and meet for real, what will happen?

Lal’s performance brings the solitary Kalidasan to life. He is a man who has grown accustomed to his circumstances even though he sometimes wishes there was a bit more to it. Usually a sensible and organised man, his occasional drunken antics range from appealingly silly dances to temper tantrums. Lal puts it all together to add depth and shade to the character, and has bit of teddybear charm behind the growly voice. Kalidasan has some self-awareness and is not afraid to offer a heartfelt apology or reflect on his own behaviour so he remained sympathetic despite, or sometimes because of, his almost adolescent outbursts.  Despite his reserve, Kalidasan has a handful of good friends and he warms to Manu immediately, making him a welcome addition to the household. He seems like a nice, slightly quirky, guy.

Shweta Menon is perfect as Maya, a dubbing artist. Maya cooks partly to connect with her memories of her mother. She connects with Kalidasan when he recounts the story of a cake made to celebrate a soldier’s return to his wife, and they make their own versions. Shweta Menon gives us a heroine who is a woman not a giggling stick insect in minimal clothing. She is articulate, attractive but not glam, and wants love not transient lust. Like Kalidasan she has a few close friends. They sit on the roof terrace and get drunk, telling stories and making plans. Maya usually hides her feelings but sometimes the façade cracks and she is a sensitive, hopeful girl that wants a nice guy to love her as she is. Maya is an independent lady and she navigates the various challenges at her workplace and home every day. She knows she has to do things for herself, even when it seems difficult.

Asif Ali and Mythili are both good in their roles and I liked Manu and Meenakshi despite their occasional selfishness and dimwitted behaviour. I wasn’t as convinced by their relationship developing as I was by Maya and Kalidasan but there was enough substance there to make it seem likely. Maybe my personal preference for not pretending to be someone else and dislike of lying and sneaking around is tinting my view. Manu is a manchild, and Asif Ali had the right blend of innocent enthusiasm and delusions of hotness. I have to say he seems to kiss with the finesse of a St Bernard pup which was a worry. Mythili played up the glam and Meenakshi came across as that girl who had always been pretty and popular and had total confidence. This pair were featured in a romantic duet that not only put them in bed, but also in matching sarees. Or maybe his ‘n’ hers togas.

One of my favourite scenes is Kalidasan going to meet a prospective bride and returning single but with their excellent cook, Babu. Baburaj plays another in that long line of filmi stalwarts, the cook/confidant/general factotum. Babus’ observations give an insight into Kalidasan and while their relationship is often tested by Kalidasan’s demands, the mutual respect and affection shines through. I enjoyed seeing Kalpana as Maya’s landlady Mary. She is one of my favourite filmi aunties and while her role is small, she is expressive and fun to watch. I liked the running jokes that Maya’s moods were a result of the project she had been dubbing for. Apparently family soaps make you child-intolerant. Vijayraghavan plays Kalidasan’s colleague and friend, and doles out some sensible observations at the right time. Everyone has a backstory and enough detail to make them plausible.

There are some refreshingly low key moments. When a director (Dileesh Pothan ) propositions Maya, she makes it clear he is dreaming. He is not a creepy rapey villain, but a guy who likes lairy shirts, fancied a shag, and thought he saw an opportunity. (The subtitles said ‘togetherness’ but my ears heard ‘sex’. I wonder why.) If this was a typical mass film, he would have spent the next hour or so plotting Maya’s downfall, but as it happens he chose a completely different approach.

The film is set in Trivandrum and looks to have been filmed on location. City life permeates the action as Maya and Kalidasan move between the hectic streets and their residences, even unwittingly crossing paths. Kalidasan’s house is gorgeous but fusty, full of family mementoes and old fashioned furniture. His car is a character in her own right (and even gets a credit). Maya has crisp modern textiles and a light airy room, a space she has made for herself. It’s easy to believe in these people and their lives.

I largely enjoyed the humour and the relaxed interplay between characters.  However the whole Mooppan subplot is completely unnecessary and went nowhere. The Joan’s Rainbow cake sequence is one of the few false notes in the film, largely due to the endless simpering by yet another awful European extra. I did like the different cake construction and decorating style that Kalidasan and Maya chose. (If I was judging, Maya’s cake would be the winner.) Ahmed Sidique’s character was annoying and pointless. Considering the film runs under 2 hours, Abu spent too long on these tangents.

There are only a few songs, and they range from the appetising Chembavu which lists food after food, through a few inoffensive ballads (all by Bijibal), to the indescribably naff closing song by Avial. It seems Keralan “alternative rock” is not my thing – although I enjoyed the video for the segments with the actors playing starry versions of themselves.

Director Aashiq Abu has created a film romance that is smart without being too clever, has warmth without excessive histrionics and is populated by likeable people who possess (varying degrees of) common sense. 4 stars!