Oru Mexican Aparatha

Oru Mexican Aparatha

I don’t know much about Indian politics and even less about Indian politics in the seventies, but that didn’t stop me enjoying Tom Emmatty’s directorial debut, Oru Mexican Aparatha. In fact, the political agenda of both groups involved in this college based drama seemed mostly irrelevant, as the film is more about the clash of personalities rather than any large differences in manifesto or ideology, despite the mainly Communist theme. What stands out about the film are the strong performances from Tovino Thomas, Roopesh Peethambaran and Neeraj Madhav, who rise above a somewhat patchy screenplay to deliver a passionate tale of student elections at Maharaja College in Kerala.

The film starts with a flashback to the seventies and the time of Emergency when students were among those involved in protests against the government. The government responded with lethal force resulting in the death of Kochaniyan (Tovino Thomas), leader of the student political party SFY. The flashback is overly dramatic and a little hard to understand for someone who doesn’t know the history, but it is an effective way to introduce the idea of revolution and the passion associated with student ideals.

Back in the present day, SFY has all but been eliminated from Maharaja college as KSQ, led by charismatic leader Roopesh (Roopesh Peethambaran), holds sway. KSQ are a more conservative party and they have numerous petty ordinances including bans on long hair and wearing lungi’s on campus that they use to let the party faithful throw their weight around. Mostly though, KSQ just want to hold on to power and keep their status as big frogs in a rather small pond. Roopesh and his friends decide who will compete in the annual college cultural festival, which is a major source of discontent in the college and seems to be the spark that will start a new revolution.

Paul (also Tovino Thomas) is a first year who shares a shabby hostel room with his friends Subhash (Neeraj Madhav) and Jomy (Vishnu Govindhan). He’s reasonably apolitical but notionally belongs to the SFY party, mainly due to Subhash’s dedication to the Communist cause. Subhash is a committed party member and is determined to bring SFY back to power in the college, despite a general lack of support and an obvious uphill struggle.  His main manifesto appears to be a protest against the bullying tactics of Roopesh and the members of KSQ rather than a strong socialist agenda and apart from a few pictures of Che Guevara and a tendency to brandish red flags the group as a whole initially appear to have only a glancing acquaintance with communism. Paul and his friends are concerned with the usual college activities and their opposition to KSQ seems more to do with Sharks and Jets style rivalry rather than any serious political leanings.

Subhash on the other hand is a socialist and is committed to the communist party which gives him some legitimacy in his fight against KSQ. His strong political beliefs start to affect the other members of the group, especially when they are pushed around by Roopesh and his cadre. Once college elections are announced, what started off as a push-back against a group of bullies escalates into a full-blooded revolution as the walls of the University ring with chants of ‘Vote for Change’ and blue starts to make way for red around campus.

The first half of the film meanders, sometimes rather aimlessly, as the different characters are introduced. For the most part the friends spend their time drinking, chasing after girls, getting up to the usual college mischief whenever the opportunity presents and then drinking some more. Paul is chilled and laid back, and cares more about his budding romance with Anu (Gayathri Suresh) than changing the world, or even just his small corner in Kerala while Jomy is just trying to cope with studying in general. For a political drama it takes a long time for the politics to be introduced and many of the scenes revolve around the friends sitting and drinking but discussing anything of significance. The romance between Paul and Anu also seems rather pointless, while the inevitable break-up is bland and also serves no purpose. I was expecting a spark of some kind to set off political leanings in the group, but neither the romance, nor the break-up achieve anything other than dissatisfaction with the poorly realised character of Anu. Tom Emmatty seems to have an aversion to writing female characters since the few that do appear have little to do and even less impact on the story, to the point where their non-participation is noticeable and impacts negatively on the story. Perhaps making Maharaja college single-sex rather than co-ed would have been a better decision since the focus is all on the male characters anyway.

The second half is much better when the fight between KSQ and SFY begins in earnest and the candidates for the elections are decided. Roopesh Peethambaran is excellent as the scheming leader of KSQ who will stoop to any lengths to hold onto power. His facial expressions are perfect and capture his fleeting thoughts as he plots and plans in response to SFY’s attempts to gain voters, while ensuring that he does display some good qualities and an inner strength that explain his hold on power in the college. Tovino Thomas is suitably charismatic as he runs for college president and his transformation from apolitical student to passionate believer in SFY is very well done. It’s another stellar performance from Tovino after his excellent work in Guppy and it’s impressive just how different he appears here.  Neeraj Madhav is just as good as the idealistic leader of SFY who has to put aside his own political ambitions for the good of the party. Again he gets every nuance just right, and his indecision as he puts his friend in danger is realistic and convincing. Together these three along with Manu, Vishnu Govindan and Jino John bring campus politics alive and infuse the film with the spirit of the revolution so that the lack of response from the college authorities and even the local police doesn’t even register until the final credits start to roll. What it lacks in the beginning, the film more than makes up for in the final scenes with impressive performances from the main leads and excellent dialogues that reverberate with the fervour of revolution.

The story and screenplay of Oru Mexican Aparatha may not be consistent but the three main leads are, and it’s their passion in their respective roles that makes the film so exciting in the second half. More emphasis on the politics and less on the usual college escapades and drinking in the hostel would have made for a more even storyline but the drama of the second half and excellent characterisations make the film well worth watching. One to enjoy as a different take on college life and a reminder that a revolution can start anywhere.

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Badlapur & Theevram

As I was watching Sriram Raghavan’s Badlapur I was struck by a number of similarities to Theevram, a Malayalam film I’d watched just a few weeks before, so it seemed appropriate to write about them together. Both are films based on a story of revenge where the hero is forced into action by his perceived lack of justice, and both star an up-and-coming young actor surrounded by an experienced and proficient support cast. While Badlapur focuses on the obsession of revenge and the destructive consequence to Raghu (Varun Dhawan), Theevram is a more straight forward drama with Harsha (Dulquher Salmaan) playing a game of cat and mouse with Police Inspector Alexander (Sreenivasan) as he exacts his revenge. Both are good films in their own right but while I prefer Badlapur’s more ambiguous storyline, Dulquher Salmaan just pips Varun Dhawan in his portrayal of a man driven to the absolute extreme for revenge.

The story of Theevram is told in a non-linear fashion, and is actually based on a couple of real life murder cases. Sreenivasan plays a respected police officer who has an unfortunate dislike of autopsy although there is nothing lacking in his detective skills. He’s paired with a younger officer, the more impetuous Ramachandran (Vinay Forrt) and the two make a good team. The film begins with Harsha’s revenge and it’s not until later that we discover why he has been driven to this extreme. At the start we don’t know if he is a good guy or a serial killer, as without any explanation he systematically tortures and kills a man in his plastic coated cellar. His actions seem to be at odds with his day-to-day life as a piano teacher, however once Inspector Alexander comes to call it becomes clear Harsha was the victim of a crime. Most of the film is shot with dull and muted colours, but once a flashback sequence starts, explaining what has happened to Harsha to turn him into this cold and methodical man, suddenly the colours are full and rich. A rather obvious metaphor but one which is very effective.

Harsha’s wife Maya (Shikha Nair) was murdered by a company driver Raghavan (Anu Mohan) for her complaints about his speeding with her in the car. Her murder is pre-meditated and brutal, with Raghavan severing her head from the body to attempt to delay identification. He’s quickly arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment for his crime while Harsha struggles to cope with life without Maya. However, just as Harsha is starting to get on with his life, the circumstances of Raghavan’s family life allow the murderer to obtain an early release from jail. Very early. In fact he only spends 4 years behind bars before being allowed his freedom. Harsha and his friends Dr Roy (Vishnu Raghav) and Nimmy (Riya Saira) decide that Raghavan must die for his crime and set about planning the perfect murder.

Theevram rather controversially takes the view that murder for revenge is perfectly justified if the legal system has failed to properly punish the offender for his crime. Writer and director Roopesh Peethambaran delivers a story of vigilantism where the cold-blooded murder of a criminal is depicted as a good solution, and even acknowledged as such by the police. I can’t say that I agree with this view or with portraying Harsha as a hero for what he does, but the story is gripping and the plot cleverly developed. The contentious treatment of Raghavan is perhaps a way to start a discussion about such issues, and it’s interesting that he isn’t a completely black character. Raghavan does appear to try to look after his disabled wife and seems to be trying to turn over a new leaf after his release from jail. However his behaviour towards Nimmy suggests that the change may only be surface deep and he still has a poor attitude towards women.

Badlapur is a darker film where the lines between right and wrong are blurred and revenge is shown to be a weight dragging Raghu down. The first few minutes are brilliantly filmed, with a shot of a street, with people going their everyday business and the only sounds heard the traffic going past and snatches of conversations as vegetables are bought and gossip exchanged. However in the background there is a robbery, and as the two criminals leave the bank they force their way into a car parked outside where Misha (Yami Gautam) is just loading in her young son and her groceries. During the subsequent chase Robin falls out of the car, while Misha is shot and killed. While one of the robbers manages to escape, Liak (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) is left to face the music. After his wife’s murder, Raghu becomes a haunted and driven man, obsessed with finding Liak’s partner whom he believes fired the fatal bullet. However in reality the opposite is true. Liak was the man who, in the heat of the moment shot and killed Misha, although he never confesses, insisting that he was just the driver.

15 years later when Liak is diagnosed with terminal cancer Raghu is persuaded to plead for Liak’s early release in the hope that he will run to his old partner in crime. Raghu’s bereavement turns him into a cold, hard man who rapes and abuses Liak’s girlfriend Jhimli (Huma Qureshi) as part of his revenge. He’s so obsessed with the idea of finding the man behind his wife’s death that he lives a miserable life, alone and in fairly dismal circumstances. The tragedy has become what has defined the man and it seems as if only his plans for revenge keep him going.

Here, revenge is shown as something that corrupts. Raghu becomes more despicable than his enemy, killing Liak’s partner Harman (Vinay Pathak) and wife Kanchan (Radhika Apte) in cold blood. Liak himself is shown as a rather grey character, who seems to have more of a life than Raghu, despite spending most of it behind bars.

Dulquher Salmaan and Varun Dhawan both do an excellent job as young men devastated by their loss. The problem I have with Varun’s character is that it takes 15 years before he manages to achieve his revenge, and it seems unlikely that he could have maintained his rage so long. Varun tries hard but doesn’t quite manage to pull off playing a man in his forties although he does convey his preoccupation with finding Liak’s partner and his disconnection from normal life very well. Dulquher has an easier time of it, as his character only has to wait 4 years to exact revenge, and his protagonist is easier to dislike. Dulquher is also a man who has managed to move on with his life and although his world is duller without Maya, he would have been content to let Raghavan rot in jail if he’d just stayed there. His revenge is coldly plotted with great attention to detail but there seems to be little rage left – in fact little emotion at all.

Both films are made even better by their excellent support cast. Badlapur would have been less substantial and the revenge less ambiguous without the excellent Nawazuddin Siddiqui and his nuanced performance as the main antagonist. Sreenivasan doesn’t have such a consequential role, but his support and that of Vinay Forrt rounds out the story and ensures a satisfying plot. The films are brutal, both in the violence they depict and in the exposure of such deep despair but there are lighter hearted moments in both and it’s not all doom and gloom. There is just enough light to allow the shade space to deepen and both directors have paced their films well. The strength of both Badlapur and Theevram is in the portrayal of emotions and it’s heartening to see two young actors bring so much depth to their roles. I enjoyed both these films and recommend them for a combination of fine performances, strongly written characters and good storytelling. 4 for both.