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.

Unda (2019)

Unda

Unda is an understated police drama set in the northern regions of India during an election. Reportedly based on a true story, the film follows a group of policemen from Kerala who are sent to safeguard voting in a remote rural area of Chhattisgarh supposedly under attack by Maoists. Mammootty sheds his star persona in the role of a police sub-inspector and is joined by an excellent support cast of assorted police, local villagers and Indo-Tibetan Border Police. With an under-prepared and inexperienced group of men facing challenges far beyond their previous experience, the film explores the differences that divide India as well as exploring the similarities that should provide unity.

The film starts in Kerala with the police team led by C.I. Mathews Anthony (Ranjith) packing up their equipment and heading north by train. But their problems start when they arrive and find their transport to the camp has been delayed. When it does turn up, instead of buses the men are put into open trucks and taken to the local ITBP camp. But here they find that there isn’t room for all of them, and SI Manikandan (Mammootty) is sent off with his small group of men to a cabin in the woods near to a small village. Once there, the men are confused by the situation and totally oblivious to the differences between their own state and the area they find themselves. Local ITBP officer Kapil Dev (Bhagwan Tiwari) does his best to explain, while his Commandant (Chien Ho Liao) is simply frustrated by their lack of knowledge. To add insult to injury, the team have no supplies. Expecting to pick up ammunition and weapons on site, Mathews and his team are dismayed to learn that all they will have is the equipment they brought. Although they send an emergency request home, it seems unlikely that anything will reach them in time, and there are rumours of Maoists throughout the area.

The police are a disparate group and argue amongst themselves as they are frightened, far from home and disadvantaged by their inability to speak the language. Despite having been a police officer for many years, Manikandan has never had to fire his gun or deal with the kind of sustained tension he has to endure in the camp. His men have their own issues too. One of the police officers has a young wife who is about to have their first baby, while another is constantly on the phone to his new fiancée. Jojo (Shine Tom Chacko) is going through an acrimonious divorce caused by his infidelity. Although he keeps calling his wife, it’s not until he is faced with death that he manages to apologise for his treatment of her, and of course by that time it is far too late. Biju (Lukman) is dealing with prejudice from his colleagues because he comes from a lower caste. Although it’s passed off as ‘joking’, the hurt and alienation that the abuse causes is well portrayed and hopefully will raise some awareness that prejudice is never a ‘joking’ matter.

While Kapil Dev tries to teach the men how to survive in Chhattisgarh by turning off the lights late at night, avoiding mines in the area and keeping a low profile, the local villagers also prove a point of contention. After using up all their water by washing, the police seem totally oblivious to the hardship they have caused. When the local headman Kunalchand (Omkar Das Manikpuri) comes to explain their situation, the police are suspicious and suspect him and his family of being Maoists. But as Kunalchand later complains after his son is taken away by the ITPB and he himself is beaten by masked men, the authorities accuse the villagers of being Maoists, and the Maosits accuse them of collusion with the security forces. Whatever happens, Kunalchand and the villagers will never win and the harsh reality is that they are gradually being forced out of their homes.

When trouble comes, it isn’t Maoists who bring death and destruction – for all the talk, no Maoists are ever seen. Instead it’s corrupt politicians and their thugs who cause the biggest problem and who almost succeed in overcoming the badly outnumbered police force. The lack of support from their own leaders, corruption in the local government and lack of experience of the men themselves all conspire to put the police team in a very precarious position indeed. But it’s their own personal demons that are the biggest barriers they need to overcome.

Unda is a slow burn of a film. Most of the action consists of normal everyday activity such as patrolling the area, getting the camp ready for election day and Mankikandan’s trips back to the ITPB base to follow up on his desperate request for more bullets. Even when there are explosions or gunshots in the night, it’s the reactions of the men that are the focus of the film, rather than the activity in the woods surrounding the camp. In many ways this is more a film about India, but one contained within a tale about a group of Keralan police in a more Northern state. The big issues of language, caste, tribal rights, corruption and terrorism are all brought in to the screenplay as the small group of displaced policemen try to carry out their duties in the most hostile circumstances they have ever faced. The breakdown within the members of the group as they are subject to the constant threat of death from the Maoists and to the contempt of the ITBP is a key point, as is the camaraderie that develops between them as a result of their circumstances. This intermingling of personal issues with the weightier ones of politics and social justice is well done and although there are a few missteps, for the most part the screenplay by Khalid Rahman and Harshad works well. There are well-written moments of comedy and a good blend of personal and group-related drama. Overall, Unda is a good solid drama, well written with excellent performances and directed with a steady hand by Khalid Rahman. Well worth watching and highly rcommended.