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.

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.