Guppy (2016)

guppy-poster

Guppy is the beautifully filmed début from writer/ director Johnpaul George featuring Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas in the lead roles. The story is set in a small sea-side community in Kerala, and the scenery is stunning with vibrancy of colour in every frame. Cinematographer Girish Gangadharan makes the most of the beautiful location and with excellent music from Vishnu Vijay the film appears magical even before the wonderfully iridescent CGI guppies appear on-screen. The story follows the day-to-day life of Michael (Chethan Lal) aka Guppy and the problems that develop when an engineer comes to the colony, but mainly it’s the story of a young boy, his struggles to help his disabled mother and his relationships with the various people he interacts with on a routine basis.

Michael is known to everyone in his community as Guppy after the small fish he sells to supplement his income. He also works at a tea stall beside the local school where the owner Pappan (Alancier Ley) seems to be something of a father figure for Guppy as his own father is dead. His mother (Rohini) had a stroke after her husband died which left her paralysed from the waist down and Guppy looks after her as well as he can. His major goal is to buy an automated wheelchair for her so that she can get around when he is not there – and his fish sales are a vital part of that plan. The guppies are bought by local government officer Lalichan (Sudheer Karamana) as part of an initiative to help reduce the mosquito population by placing the fish in areas of standing water in the hope that they will devour the mosquito larvae. Despite knowing all about Guppy’s home situation and the plans for his earnings, Lalichan keeps half of the money for himself and only pays Guppy a small amount for each fish – a petty corruption but a common theme in his various deals with pretty much everyone throughout the film. It’s not just Lalichan either. Everyone in the community seems to inflate prices and expect bribes suggesting such corruption is normal and expected, even in such a small and remote village. Most disturbing is the acceptance of the practice as normal – shocking from my perspective that this is perceived as common practice and that no-one is even remotely bothered by it.

The first part of the film paints the picture of Guppy’s life – looking after his mother, working to raise money for her new wheelchair, breeding and selling guppies and hanging out with his friends.

There is a romantic interest in local schoolgirl Aamina (Nandhana) who wears a veil and is kept close to home by her grandfather Upooppa (Sreenivasan) which means all the local boys hang around at every available opportunity, trying to catch a glimpse of her. The other members of the community all have a role to play too and each slice of community life adds depth to the depiction of life in a small seaside village in Kerala.

Guppy’s relationship with his mother is beautifully depicted and there are some great moments, such as how he deals with his mother’s snoring, the way she prepares his fish food for him every morning, and the care Guppy takes each day in giving his mother her bath. Chethan Lal is excellent here, his emotions are perfectly displayed and the mix of joy and wonder when he feeds his fish, and excitement as he nears his goal of buying the wheelchair are superb. This is my favourite part of the film as each interaction gradually weaves the pattern of Guppy’s life, and although there are difficulties, there are also moments of happiness and camaraderie with his mother and friends.

Guppy is well liked in the community. His initiative in breeding the guppies is admired and his devotion to his mother is also appreciated by everyone who knows him, so it’s a shock when newly arrived engineer Thejus Varky seems to immediately take a dislike to Guppy. The engineer has been brought to the village by aspiring politician Onachan (Noby Marcose) and village officer Krishnan (Dileesh Pothan) to build a bridge over the railway but he doesn’t appear in time for the grand celebration prepared for his arrival. Which is a pity since it is rather special! Who could resist Michael Jackson, Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth singing a Christmas song together?

Thejus is an odd character who immediately stands out from the rest of the village due to his motorcycle, his unusual dress sense and his bushy beard. Although Tovino Thomas is excellent in his portrayal of an egotistical and rather arrogant engineer, the character of Thejus doesn’t seem totally plausible – even after his full story is revealed later in the film. Thejus can be charming, as when he meets with his friend Krishnan or in his dealings with his landlord in the village, but all too often he is haughty and appears to look down on the villagers he has come to help. He is easily frustrated by the railway crossing supervisor Upoppa and rudely snubs his offers of tea and a place to sit, while his vendetta against Guppy is strangely childish and immature. Guppy’s reaction is a little more believable, given that an adolescent may be expected to act in an occasionally irrational manner, but this part of the film seems rather more contrived and filmy. However, the tension between the two is well-developed and despite a few unrealistic twists, the conflict between Thejus and Guppy becomes compelling.

What works well in the film is the story of Guppy and his mother. Guppy’s struggles to raise enough money for a wheelchair are realistically dealt with. I love that he first sees a fully automated wheelchair when watching the film Bangalore Days – up until that point he has no idea that such things existed. The love between Guppy and his mother is beautifully depicted and blends seamlessly into the general warmth of the whole community. The conflict between Guppy and the engineer is less successful but there are still some excellent scenes, particularly between Thejus Varky and Chinappa (Poojappura Ravi), the older man who runs the guest house where he has set up his tent, and his interactions with both Onachan and Krishnan. All the actors are good in their roles and their performances ensure that the occasionally convoluted storyline doesn’t get too bogged down with all the detail.

The excellent cinematography is another reason to watch the film. Even though the CGI fish are obviously not real, they are still wonderful to look at, and Johnpaul George weaves guppies into the story in many ways. The fish appear as painting on the walls, in lightbulbs in Guppy’s house and as decorations on his friend’s vehicle as well as swimming around in the drainage canal behind the school. The whole look of the film is just as colourful – whether it’s the brightly painted village, the stunning seascapes or the vibrant villagers, it all looks beautiful and instantly makes you want to move to a seaside village in Southern India!

What doesn’t work quite so well is the sheer number of characters and some of the extraneous plotlines that don’t really add anything to the main story. Each character seems to have to have their own small story and while some are quite fun, most only serve to divert attention away from Guppy and his story. However it’s hard to quibble too much, since the characters are generally fascinating and it gives even more of an opportunity to take in the beautiful scenery.

This is a lovely little film that takes a different look at adolescence, neatly giving Guppy rural innocence but enough street-smart knowledge to ensure that he can match wits with the likes of an engineer. Well worth watching for Chethan Lal and Tovino Thomas, plus the excellent support cast, and to savour yet more stunning images of Kerala. 4 stars.

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Sapthamashree Thaskaraha

PosterIn his second film Sapthamashree Thaskaraha, Anil Radhakrishnan Menon takes a number of ideas from various Hollywood heist movies and expertly gives them an Indian flavour with a collection of memorable characters and an appropriately Keralan setting. It’s an entertaining film with more comedy than I expected in a crime thriller, and as with North 24 Kaadham it’s the clever characterisations that stand out. The story is well written with some clever twists and engaging dialogue while the heist itself, although improbable, is not completely impossible. Anil Radhakrishnan Menon keeps the action tense during the heist scenes but manages to add in plenty of genuinely funny moments too, while the excellent cast work well together to make a better than average movie.

The film starts with one of the ‘seven good thieves’ of the title disclosing his crime in a church and his rambling confession becomes the narrative for the film. The priest in the confessional is ably played by Lijo Jose Pelissery, more commonly found on the other side of the camera, but he does an excellent job here as the fascinated recipient of Martin’s (Chemban Vinod Jose) recollections. It’s not just a bare rendition of events either, as there is some excellent comedy woven into these scenes and both the priest and Martin add snippets of background information as they go along.

The seven thieves meet in prison where they are all sharing the same cell. This does seem a little strange to me given the variety of their crimes, although perhaps the common theme is that they all have relatively short sentences. Martin is a fairly inept thief, mainly involved in petty crimes and hindered by his assistant Gee Varghese (Sudhi Koppa) whose incompetence in the art of crime is reflected in his wardrobe choices. Martin’s journey to jail introduces another two characters, Narayankutty (Neeraj Madhav) and Krishnan Unni (Prithviraj) who both stand out as different from the other prisoners on the bus. Narayankutty is intimidated by the other inmates, and as his back story is revealed it becomes obvious that he’s basically a computer geek with little awareness of the real world. He was convicted of supplying a camera secreted in a soap box to a couple of peeping toms, although it’s clear that he never thought about why the two men wanted such a thing. However his talents ensure he is invaluable to the team later when his computer expertise is vital for their convoluted robbery plans. Neeraj Madhav seems perfectly cast as the nerdy Narayankutty with his generally bemused attitude and facial expressions underlining his naiveté while his attempt at distraction during a bodybuilding contest is just hilarious.

Three of the prisoners have a connection to Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a wealthy local businessman who has acquired his money through a series of illegal extortions and schemes. Krishnan Unni attacked Pious when he was involved in the death of Krishnan’s wife Sarah (Reenu Mathews) and it’s for this assault that Krishnan is serving time in jail. Prithviraj has the longest and most detailed backstory here and his character is also the brains behind the operation, but despite this the film doesn’t make him the central hero and Prithviraj doesn’t appear as the ‘star’. For much of the film Krishnan Unni is just a member of the gang, albeit the one who organises the heist and delegates roles to each of the other thieves.

Nobel Ettan (Nedumudi Venu) is in jail after his family owned chit fund collapsed owing a significant amount of money. He lost everything, including his son to suicide, after being conned by Pious who also stole most of the fund money. Nobel’s plight is the reason that the thieves unite against Pious, although the lure of big money is probably the major factor in their decision. The final connection to Pious is through ‘Leaf’ Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), a driver and hit-man for Pious until he sustained a head injury that left him mentally incapacitated. Despite his confused state Vasu remembers where Pious keeps his money and that’s enough information for the rest of the gang to start making plans to rob the crooked businessman on their release from jail.

The final two gang members are Salaam (Salaam Bukhari) and Shabab (Asif Ali). Salaam is a Hindi-speaking magician who has many useful skills and an acrobatic girlfriend Paki (Flower Battsetseg) who is also drawn into the plot. Shabab is mainly shown to be a capable fighter with a strong sense of justice whose finest moment comes when he lures Pious’ brother Christo (Irshad) into a fight with a group of tiger men. There is something very satisfying about watching a group of men with tiger faces on their bellies turn round and suddenly become menacing after having been dancing only moments before.

After their release the thieves set up shop in Nobel Ettan’s house and organise their plan to break into the Charity hospital where Pious and his family keep their ill-gotten loot.  Luckily Noble Ettan’s daughter Annamma (Sanusha) works at the hospital, and with her help and the skills of the seven thieves the intricate robbery starts to take shape.

The first half is relatively slow as the various characters are established, but the film doesn’t drag due to a good mixture of action and comedy in the back stories. Some of the stories are longer than others, and Prithviraj’s does include a song which isn’t entirely necessary but does fit well into the narrative.

The second half has just as much comedy but also increased moments of tension, particularly during the robbery itself where Ammanna’s nervous participation provides a good contrast to the antics of Martin outside the hospital. However there are a few sequences which drag on a little too long, such as repeated shots of the church procession, which break up the momentum and reduce the impact of the heist scenes. It’s the individual performances and characterisation of each of the thieves that make the film so watchable. Each has a reason to be included and all of the actors fit perfectly into their roles. Nedumudi Venu for example is blissfully unaware of his wife and daughters’ displeasure when he brings the released prisoners to his house, making it even more plausible that he was easily fooled by Pious and swindled out of his business while Sudheer Karamana includes repetitive mannerisms and childlike behaviours that make Vasu a more convincing character.

Joy Mathews as the main villain is nicely smug and vindictive with no redeeming features, which makes it easy to enjoy his discomfort and that of his equally nasty brothers at the end, and in true Robin Hood fashion, all the thieves have enough good qualities to ensure that the audience will be on their side. It’s simplistic but works due to the quality of the cast and good writing of their characters.

There are only a few songs in the film penned by Rex Vijayan and they are mainly used as background while the gang scurry around getting everything they need for the heist. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography is excellent and I love his use of bars, windows and other framing effects to heighten the claustrophobic atmosphere and increase tension as the film reaches its conclusion.

There is much to like in Sapthamashree Thaskaraha. The mix of different characters works well to keep the story moving forward as each takes part in the robbery. The set-up gives a clear insight into each character and the final heist is a good mixture of clever plot, heightened tension and a good dash of humour to wash it all down. I loved the final twist – of course there’s a final twist – which reminded me of British films such as Shallow Grave and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which are also comedy/thrillers that end not quite as expected. Highly recommended – 4 stars.