Thirakkatha

 

Ranjith’s Thirakkatha is supposedly inspired by the relationship between Srividya and Kamal Haasan. I have zero interest in the love lives of celebrities but this is also a thoughtful look at the film industry, it’s a reasonably sane romantic drama except when it isn’t, and Priyamani steals the show.

Warning, spoilers ahead! There are some things that struck me so hard I don’t want to omit them.

Young gun director Akbar Ahmed (Prithviraj) is awarded for his first film hitting 100 days. He is given a trophy by industry legend Ajayachandran (Anoop Menon). Ajay’s internal monologue is all about himself and how he fought the odds to become a star. Certainly judging by some of the chatter amongst other guests, he is not universally loved. Akki is inspired to make his next film on the story of Ajay and his ex-wife, the star actress Malavika (Priyamani). She hasn’t been seen in years and nobody really knows much about her, despite all the gossip. Akki obtains diaries and letters written by director Aby Kurivilla (Ranjith himself) from his son Appu (Vineeth Kumar), and starts to piece their story together from both the private and public sources. The film unfolds through a series of flashbacks, interspersed with Akki telling the story as he knows it to his crew. When it seems that a story is all they have, they locate Malavika. Now terminally ill and alone, her life is a far cry from Ajay’s success and acclaim. What happened, and why?

Anoop Menon had to battle with some unflattering wigs and 80s attire that did an excellent job of obscuring his alleged charms, but Ajay’s determination is loud and clear. His break came playing a villain opposite Malavika and some producer’s nondescript son. He fell for Malavika at first sight, his heightened emotions helping him deliver a convincing performance. Whether shyly flirting with Malavika or pushing his career agenda, he didn’t back down when reminded of what people saw as his place. Ajay is obsessed with success and Malu was a lucky charm for his films. After a secret registry office wedding, Malu fell pregnant and planned to stop acting and be a mum. Ajay had been in a string of flops and was relying on Malu’s box office pull for their next movie to rescue his career. He told her she was ruining his life in favour of an unborn child and persuaded her to have an abortion, triggering events that ended their marriage. When Ajayachandran finds out about the movie, he tries to divert Akki to making a film with him rather than about him. Even Ajay’s wife thinks he’s a selfish bastard. Ajayachandran’s father was a makeup artist and people are snide about his lowly beginnings even now he is a legend. He became a big hero, but sometimes petty villain seems more his calling. Anoop Menon is most convincing as the selfish Ajay with his ambition and inferiority complex driving him. He benefits from a kind of halo effect in scenes with Priyamani, but seems lacking in the emotionally complex moments.

Malavika is a reluctant star, with a pushy ex-star stage mum (Mallika Sukumaran) and a loyal, almost silent assistant, Valarmathi (Surabhi). She’d rather get a job after graduating, but her mum hit Malu with a guilt trip of how she had to dance on film to raise her family and now the alcoholic dad is gone there is no money. Malavika is an assertive girl with everyone but her mother. I like the way she firmly shooed Ajayachandran away when she needed a moment between scenes. The flashbacks show all the drama behind the scenes as well as the vintage acting and dance styles of the early 80s.

Priyamani is just gorgeous, deftly showing Malavika’s star quality (the camera loves her), and her more pragmatic everyday personality. She berated Ajay for learning to kiss from watching local films, cheerfully telling him classic French films were the best reference. I loved Malu’s confidence in herself and her growing understanding of her power in the film industry. She has a drink with a producer but when he makes a pass she is comfortable and articulate turning him down. She doesn’t want to change who she is and she won’t be pressured or made to feel ashamed. Priyamani’s performance kept me invested in the story through even the most melodramatic plot contortions.

Major spoiler(s) – highlight to read:

Malu is told that during the abortion they found a growth that had to be removed. Later on her doctor friend Vasanthi tells her that Ajay lied – He requested that her tubes be tied so she won’t fall pregnant. It turns out this is not exactly true but that did nothing to quell my outrage. Firstly, bullying her into an abortion when she clearly wanted the child – BAD. Not telling Malu about the medical situation and not getting her consent or allowing her to have any part of the decision – BAD. Persuading the doctor to keep a cancer diagnosis from Malu so she would make another film instead of perhaps getting treatment that may have saved her life – BAD. Ajay believing that he was right because he wanted her to be happy and she would be happy when he was happy and he would be happy when he was a big star – BAD. Akki bringing Malavika to his place to recuperate although she didn’t know him at all, which is a nice gesture but once again there was no consultation with the actual patient, so therefore – BAD. The doctor who let Akki take a terminally ill stranger away just because – BAD. Everyone including Malavika apparently forgiving Ajay because he felt so sorry (for himself) – WTAF?!?

/rant

Ranjith is disparaging of some practices in his industry, calling out examples and mocking the results. Akki is very much the guy who got there because of his passion for film making. He’ll sign with a producer but he won’t let them dictate what he does. The line between life and story fodder is also explored through Akki as he grows closer to Malavika and has to decide how and if he will use her story for his career.

Prithviraj is low key and generally likeable as Akki. He is hampered a bit by the narrative structure that uses his character as an agent of voiceover, and from being in the modern day part of the story which is for me the least interesting. He works with a small group of trusted friends, running a restaurant with them in between films. Akki is prone to the unilateral decision, and most of his friends are followers. I was sometimes annoyed despite his good intentions just because he was so self-righteous. Akki and his capable girlfriend Devayani (Samvrutha Sunil) have a no fuss relationship and make a nice couple. As Malu and Ajay’s romance is explored, they realise maybe they need to think about theirs.

The songs (by Sharreth) fit better in the flashback. Onnodu is a random and quite uncoordinated song between prologue and titles, perhaps just there for the Prithviraj fans.

There is so much that I liked, but the flaws are equally striking. Some of the discussions about film making felt out of synch, but I liked the extra layer about interpretation and storytelling. Ranjith handled the multiple timeline structure more deftly in Paleri Manikyam, but the 80s flashback section is a highlight. 3 ½ stars! (BIG deduction for the medical ethics)

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Paleri Manikyam

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Haridas (Mammootty) is a detective and writer, on holidays in Kerala with his girlfriend Sarayu (Gowri Munjal). He is mildly fixated on an unsolved murder that took place the night he was born, over 50 years ago. A girl called Manikyam (Mythili) from his village of Paleri was raped and killed. Sarayu is a crime analyst and she offers to work with him on the mystery.

Haridas goes back to Paleri and does a lot of exposition by talking to the camera, and sometimes to Sarayu. He walks through events on the fateful night as he knows them, threading in amongst the action from that day. It’s a bit like a stage drama, with him as the narrator.

Her brother and father carry Manikyam to a nearby town for the police investigation. It’s obvious that her mother-in-law Cheeru (Shweta Menon) is lying about something and her husband Pokkan (Sreejith) seems by turn guilt ridden and vengeful.

Haridas and Sarayu discuss the initial investigation including that the post-mortem was rewritten and a crucial report went “missing”. Things keep getting murkier.

Pokkan and Cheeru seem shady, but it looks like someone was keen to get Pokkan out of the way and make sure Manikyam didn’t go to the village to watch the drama with everyone else. The powerful landlord, Ahmed Haji (Mammootty in the second of his three roles in the film) is an obvious suspect but no one seems to think the police will actually go there.

Soon there is a manhunt as the police follow their chubby, happy Labrador around the village. I did like that there was a small scene dedicated to the merits of various dog breeds as tracking animals, with the Telugu trained Labrador the clear winner. Maybe I’d believe that if it was tracking a biscuit…

Ahmed Haji’s flunkey Velayuthan (Vijayan V Nair) tries to escape the village, but insists he didn’t kill her. He says Pokkan killed his wife in a jealous rage on finding her with an ex-lover, and he helped cover up the murder by making it look like a suicide. Cheeru accuses Velayuthan of abducting Manikyam and eventually leaving her hanging for Pokkan to find on his way home. And then Superintendent Manalathu (Sasi Kalinga) coaches Velayuthan on who the third man is, naming Muthuvan Ahmed. There are conflicting stories everywhere, although Ahmed Haji seems to be a constant. So many people silently conspired to ruin poor Manikyam.

Haridas reveals he is an illegitimate son of Ahmed Haji. He only knew him as a name revealed on his 18th birthday. But he won’t back down from investigating just because of that connection. It’s interesting that despite Haji being such a feared figure, no one spotted the spitting image likeness of his bastard son. Or did they know, and say nothing? Haridas keeps digging, meeting people who had been living in the area when Manikyam died, including Keshavan the barber (now played by Srinivasan).

Haridas is researching for his own curiosity, not because he is passionate about justice for Manikyam. He wants to be the one who knows it all, and to put his own obsession to rest. No one seems overly outraged at Manikyam’s fate or disturbed by Cheeru’s fall from grace. I liked his account of the night his mum told him about his biological father, but loving your mum is not proof of moral compass ownership. Haridas is not so very different to his father – he is sleeping with a married woman and lying to his wife. He just does it in a more socially accepted way. I didn’t like Haridas as a character but Mammootty gives him such intelligence and a keen understanding of human nature that I couldn’t take my eyes off him.

Cheeru is devoted to her son Pokkan, but there is always something a bit evasive about her expression. It wasn’t a surprise to know that Ahmed Haji had demanded her for himself, but their story was not quite what I expected. She is excited and frightened by Ahmed Haji and their mutual attraction, and she has insane chemistry with Mammootty. Cheeru’s transition into prostitution is depicted as a matter of circumstances and lack of options rather than a huge moral failing. Shweta Menon is brilliant and makes the shifts in Cheeru’s emotional pitch and strength seamlessly.

I appreciated that the extended flashbacks gave Mythili an opportunity to do more than play dead. She created a vivid character and I could see why Manikyam’s death was still haunting the village in so many ways. It was all the more tragic seeing the happy new bride and realising what was happening around her. But I am not sure all the flashbacks to the actual rape were needed – it would have been as powerful and less voyeuristic to move on or show other angles of the story, or give more insight into how other characters reacted to the brutal event. I didn’t need to keep seeing it, and Mythili’s portrayal of her fear and pain was disturbingly realistic.

Gowri Munjal is effective and understated in her scenes, although Mammootty dominates the dialogue and focus. In fact in some scenes I was wondering if she was there, out of view, or he was happily declaiming alone. They have the chemistry of friends with benefits, not a raging passionate affair, and I liked her pragmatism about his lying ways. Sarayu’s marriage has drifted away and her partner lives overseas. Haridas doesn’t seem too fussed when her husband Goutham calls out of the blue, instead encouraging her to go hear what he has to say.

It’s almost pointless to say this, as it is the norm for Malayalam cinema, but Paleri Manikyam is visually lovely. I had to rewind a couple of times because I was too distracted to read the subtitles properly. Manoj Pillai has the camera duck and weave through the crowds of onlookers, letting the viewer spy on the goings on. At other times the visuals jump around from frame to frame, perhaps a representation of Haridas’ inner state. There are some lovely setups too including two boats passing each other, one with Manikyam as a corpse and the other with her as a bride just 11 days earlier. Ahmed Haji puts down a bottle only to have Cheeru fill that space in the shot; Cheeru as a refreshment to be consumed when he desired it.

There is a huge ensemble of actors playing varous people around the locale.  Writer-Director Ranjith adapted his screenplay from a novel which was in turn based on an actual event. He was so keen to find people who looked and sounded authentic, he ran training camps and chose three relatively unknown actors from the area. He also cast a heap (that’s a technical measurement) of established theatre actors. The standard is uniformly high. Sreejith is wonderfully expressive as the slightly slow and bewildered Pokkan, especially when he returns home a sad and broken man. I wondered what became of him. Musthafa is quietly fiery and a bit sarcastic as young Keshava, the barber who though Communism would overcome caste. The actor who played Manikyam’s brother was also excellent, his grief and anger palpable. The only unnecessary role was actually Mammootty’s third, that of his half-brother Ahmed Khalid. He could have been played by another actor without diminishing the story or Mammootty’s fine accomplishment.

The ending is downbeat and ominous, although many loose ends are tied up. See this for the intriguing structure and slow revealing plot given great voice by the talented cast. You’ll need some tolerance for the violence and the bleak view of a woman’s worth in those days (and ask yourself how much things have changed). 4 ½ stars!

Pranchiyettan and the Saint

Pranchiyettan and the Saint was one of a number of Mammootty films recommended to me after I watched Kutty Srank. It sounded quite different and since the film won a number of awards it quickly moved to the top of the pile. It’s a quirky film about the attempts of successful rice merchant Chirammal Enashu Francis (Mammootty) to get rid of his nickname and command more respect within his community. The film opens with Pranchiyettan paying his respects to his ancestors who appear as ghosts in the churchyard. Leading on with the spiritual theme, the icon of St Francis comes to life when Pranchiyettan goes into the church to pray and the subsequent story is told as a series of flashbacks as Pranchiyettan explains the circumstances around his visit to the church that night.

The first half of the film deals with Pranchiyettan’s attempts to become more recognised. In this he is ably abetted by Vasu Menon (Innocent) whose schemes inadvertently fail when reality doesn’t quite manage to live up to his vision. First there is a local club election which Pranchiyettan loses to his childhood rival Dr Jose. Next there is a welcoming ceremony for a celebrity which Pranchiyettan has sponsored, but again he is pushed out of the limelight and forced to take a back seat – literally. Finally he decides to try and buy a Padma Sri award and bribes some local politicians. But as may be expected, they take his money and run, leaving him in exactly the same position as before.

The film takes a lighter turn in the second half when Pranchiyettan meets a real life Padmashree (Priyamani). Although her name is the same as the award, Pappy is a feisty interior decorator with problems of her own. She gives Pranchiyettan a painting and ends up decorating his house so that there is an appropriate place to hang it. Finally Pranchiyettan tries to help his old schoolmaster achieve his goal of a 100% pass rate for his students by helping a young boy Pauli to graduate. In the course of this endeavour he starts to realise what is really important and seems to be on track to find contentment at last.

The film focuses more on relationships and characters rather than following a plot driven narrative. In fact it is more of a collection of stories although there is a progression of sorts with each sequence of events.  Mammootty is excellent as the nice guy who just can’t get a break. From his school days onwards he never had the sneaky gene that would have allowed him to fight back against people like the wily Dr Jose. He has remained true to his schoolyard love and seems stuck in the same mindset that he had as a student. He feels inadequate which he puts down to never finishing his schooling and tries to compensate with other achievements and public recognition. It seems doomed to failure, since his lack of confidence means he relies on other people’s ideas which don’t really seem to reflect his personality.

Innocent does a good job with the character of the ever helpful friend who comes up with more and more schemes to try and get Pranchiyettan the recognition he craves. There is plenty comedy between the two in their expressions and mannerisms as much as in the dialogue, and Ranjith has made their relationship feel very natural just like an old and good friendship should be. During the course of the various schemes Ranjith pokes gentle fun at exclusive clubs, corrupt politicians and the self-grandiose behaviour of dignitaries at reception functions. It’s all very ordinary and down to earth which makes Pranchiyettan a very appealing character.

Priyamani is lovely as the interior decorator Pappy. Her character has drive and purpose which makes her much more than just a romance interest. The only song in the film is pictured on Pappy and her conversion of Pranchiyettan’s home and it’s a refreshing change of pace in the film. She also upgrades his wardrobe at the same time and even gets him a new pair of glasses. I love these little attentions to detail and the very natural way that Ranjith allows his characters to interact. The final story with Pauli is marred a little by the inclusion of some comedy with a hapless tutor played (Jagathy Sreekumar). This really isn’t needed as the story already has plenty of much more subtle humour, and the actual drama of Pauli’s story is much more engaging.

My favourite character though is Pranchiyettan’s cook Ayyappan, played by Sasi Kalinga. He has a wonderfully expressive face and the humour from his character is very droll. Again it is the everyday normality of the characters and their actions which appeals and both Ayyappan and Supran (Tini Tom) as Pranchiyettan’s driver are used to very good effect. They play well off each other and Pranchiyettan to give a really believable dynamic. The other support actors are all very good in their smaller roles. Siddique appears only briefly as Dr Jose where he takes every opportunity to have a dig at Pranchiyettan. But he has affection for his old friend which comes across in some of the later scenes. Khushboo is perfect as Dr Omana, the wife of Dr Jose, and Sivaji Guruvayoor has a small role as the headmaster of Pauli’s school. The idea of St Francis as the confessor figure to whom Pranchiyettan spills out his problems is a clever idea and helps to link the different stories together.

The film relies heavily on Mammootty’s performance and without his presence I don’t think this film would have worked quite as well as it does.  But an excellent performance from him and the rest of the cast do make this an film very worth watching.  3 ½ stars.

Temple says:

If you’re one of those who believe all South Indian films are noisy, gory and lacking subtlety, this might be the film to set you straight. It’s a gentle character study with parallels to the life of St Francis of Assisi, who also plays a supporting role. St Francis was the son of a wealthy man, and became drawn to God and the Church following an illness.  Several of his attempts to promote the Church went awry as he didn’t really think things through. St Francis failed when he tried to make things happen, but seemed to succeed when he simply lived his values of acceptance, charity and humility. Mammootty gives CE Francis aka Pranchiyettan aka Pranchi a sadness that helps make his needy attention seeking more sympathetic. Ari Pranchi is the son of a successful man, and he also fails when he tries to force things to happen. When he follows his true heart the results are different, and this opens his life up. Despite the apparent mismatch between Priyamani and Mammootty, their romance is appealing as it plays more as a trusting affection and partnership. I really like Priyamani and while not all of her films have been great, I have enjoyed every performance of hers I’ve seen. Pappy learns to trust the solid businessman who can see a solution to her unsolvable problem but who isn’t too proud to take her advice in the areas she knows best. Their scenes are fun and heartwarming as Mammootty shows the awkward stirrings of flirtatiousness contrasting with the confident sass of Priyamani. And you know she transforms his home from tasselled pink brothel curtains to sleek monochrome modern lines. I mourned the loss of colour for a moment, but only as a viewer – living in the icecream coloured house would have done my head in and may have contributed to Mammootty’s sour expression at times. I hope she left some of the statues and icons of St Francis though. The story with Pauli was designed to show Pranchi’s generosity, but I could have done without all the ‘comedy’. Those scenes actually had the effect of making Pauli seem like an incorrigible little git and not worth the effort. But saints have more patience for such things. And the message, which is not subtle, is a nice one. Don’t stress about rewards and titles – live with generosity of spirit and help out where you can.

It’s a slight story in many respects but the structure of the narrative, the iconography and saintly presence, and the character development  make it engaging and memorable. Add great performances by Mammootty, Priyamani and supporting artists like Sasi Kalinga and I think it’s a winner. 4 stars!