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.

Virus (2019)

Based on a true story, writers Muhsin Parari, Sharfu and Suhas have taken the subject of the 2018 Nipah outbreak in Kerala and delivered a tense and suspenseful drama that is all the more powerful for its basis in fact. Although at times the effort to appear like a Hollywood disaster movie makes some of the screenplay seem a tad forced, for the most part this is a solid delivery of a fascinating story. The attempts to control the outbreak and the forensic analysis to discover the source of the virus are cleverly written to demonstrate the dedication and compassion of all involved, and it’s the realism and depth of detail that make this such an engrossing watch. Director Aashiq Abu has an all-star cast, but what really shines through is the story and ultimately the response of the hospital and government staff at the time who did such an amazing job of containing the infection and preventing mass exposure.

As someone who works in a hospital in Australia, the opening scenes in the casualty department of the hospital in Kozhikode appear completely shambolic with doctors and nurses struggling just to get near a patient let alone treat their problems.  But over the years I’ve worked in a number of hospitals in India myself and I recognise that the apparent chaos is actually all under control despite appearances to the contrary, and that somehow the doctors and nurses manage to see every single patient over the course of the day. In Kozhikode, as junior doctor Abid Rahman (Sreenath Bhasi) is starting his shift, the patients seem the usual collection of injuries, illnesses and infection cases, but then there is a young man admitted suffering seizures, hallucinations and who is rapidly getting worse. One of the nurses, Akhila (Rima Kallingal) tries to take care of the patient, Zachariah (Zakariya Mohammed) but her efforts and those of the medical team are in vain, and just as Zachariah’s condition deteriorates further, more patients start to appear with similar symptoms.

It takes some time for the pieces to start to come together. The cases are spread across two districts so the similarities between patients’ symptoms are not immediately recognised, but when Akhila herself becomes ill the situation suddenly escalates to a full-blown emergency with the main objective being to control the spread of the disease. The story from here unfolds gradually, following the medical staff as they treat patients and Kozhikode Distric Collector Paul Abraham (Tovino Thomas) and Health Minister Prameela (Revathi) as they start the search for the source. But we also see the hospital orderlies and cleaners who are willing to risk their lives to try and help stop the spread of the disease, and the impact these decisions have on their families too. Dr Suresh Rajan (Kunchacko Boban) confirms that the patients have contracted Nipah, which has no treatment, no vaccination and a 75% fatality rate, with the only option being containment and quarantine. For those who already have the disease there is little hope. Paul starts the process of tracking down the “Index patient’, aided by Dr Annu (Parvathy) and as each patient is admitted there are flashbacks to possible contamination moments which highlight the relentless spread of the disease through close encounters with possible carriers.

Nothing is omitted – the struggles to calm the fears of medical students and hospital staff are here as well as descriptions of the difficulties of disposing of the bodies of the deceased. These are still infectious and need to be incinerated safely which causes further distress to grieving families who aren’t even allowed the dignity of a funeral for their loved ones. There is a conspiracy theory thrown around that this could be a form of terrorist attack by germ warfare, but mostly the tension comes from a combination of the race to find the cause, and the plight of the patients and the doctors trying desperately to save them.

The film works so well because it is incredibly realistic and down to earth. The reactions are all natural and even the attempts to increase tension with the conspiracy theory and sensational TV interviews could all be plausibly grounded in fact. Every single character is beautifully drawn with each actor perfectly cast for their role, so that Virus often seems more like a documentary than a film. Taking each character and giving them plausible background is inspired – like hospital porter Babu (Joju George), initially seen negotiating for wages which have not been paid and whose wife and children are stigmatised while he is away. These details, even down to a broken strap on his backpack give authenticity to the story and draw the audience deeper into what is happening onscreen. There are so many excellent but fleeting performances. Soubin Shahir is good as a patient whose infection initially baffles the doctors as he seems to have had no contact with any of the confirmed cases, while Madonna Sebastian appears even more briefly as a junior doctor who contracts the virus. Poornima Indrajith, Asif Ali, and Sharafudheen all appear in critical roles while Savithri Sreedharan, who was so good in Sudani from Nigeria is brilliant in her few short scenes as the mother of the index patient. Zakariya Mohammed brings so much humanity to his role as the first identified case of the virus with an incredibly poignant closing scene delivering the perfect finale to a film that really is all about compassion and caring.

This is a brilliant depiction of real-life events and I found it compelling but chilling to realise that this outbreak actually happened. The film unfolds as if watching the events in real time and I was awed by the immediacy of the hospital and government response and impressed by the success of their quarantine. Aashiq Abu has done an amazing job with bringing this story to life onscreen and while Virus may be a factual telling of the story, it’s the characters that are most memorable and have the biggest impact. Highly recommended.

Maari 2

Balaji Mohan revisits the concept of the bad Don that everyone loves to hate, but this time gives the titular character a best friend and a heart of gold that unfortunately reduce Maari’s onscreen impact. The standard mass formula doesn’t help either and the story feels tired despite attempts to refresh it with Sai Pallavi as Maari’s love interest and Krishna Kulasekaran as bestie Kalai. Still, in terms of generic gangster flick it’s not totally terrible, and there are a few flashes of the ‘old Maari’ while Tovino Thomas is better than the script deserves as the film’s villain. Overall the film is entertaining enough for a one-time watch, but as a sequel Maari 2 doesn’t come close to matching the appeal of the original.

Maari 2 opens well with the 100thassignation attempt on Maari’s life after which the gang celebrate his continued survival in plenty of style with cake and a party. A few years have seemingly passed since the end of the first film, and Maari’s boss Velu has died, leaving the leadership of the gang open. This is where Balaji Mohan adds in the new character of Kalai (Krishna Kulasekaran), the son of Velu and Maari’s best friend since they were both kids. While everyone wants Maari to become the leader (which in itself is a major turnaround from the first film), he proposes Kalai takes charge while he remains in the background.

Maari is seen to be trying to do the right thing, even as he cracks the usual jokes and slaps around his henchmen, Sani (Robo Shankar) and Adithangi (Kalloori Vinoth). Despite the loud shirts, sunglasses and gold chains, this Maari is a totally different character, with one of the biggest changes being the attitudes of the people around him – the only people who hate him now are the rival gangs. Adding to this newfound popularity, Maari has a stalker in the form of auto driver Aanandhi (Sai Pallavi) who refuses to be put off her attempts to coerce Maari into a relationship, despite Maari’s truly appalling treatment. The reason for her devotion is revealed later in the film but appears simply as a blatant attempt to appear feminist-aware and completely misfires given the film’s general attitude towards women and Aanandhi in particular. 

Aanandhi states that she isn’t a “loosu ponnu”, but she veers uncomfortably close while her character initially appears mainly as a butt for numerous jokes. Although Aanandhi tries to give as good as she gets, she’s limited by her determination to make Maari fall in love with her, and as a result does look just like any typical mass film heroine. The hearty demeanour of the character and over-the-top attempts to gain Maari’s attention don’t work well either despite Sai Pallavi doing her best to make her character sympathetic. Where she does shine however is in the songs, and her dancing in Rowdy Baby in particular is simply superb. Her energy is amazing and she matches Dhanush step for step, in some parts even surpassing him for passion and commitment to the routine. Prabhu Deva provides the choreography and ensures that Rowdy Baby is the most memorable song of the film.

Tovino Thomas plays the villain Beeja, aka Thanathos. Although he is first seen in a prison cell, Beeja is portrayed as a more intellectual gangster, speaking in English and using the name of the Greek god of death as his alias. However, he’s still the crazy psychopath Tamil cinema loves to have as a mass villain, since he sports dreadlocks, a gold tooth and has scrawled the words “Kill Maari” all over the walls of his prison cell. No doubts at all then about his plans for the hero. Tovino Thomas is an accomplished actor, and in the first half of the film he does a better than average job of making Beeja a more menacing character than his overdone theatrical traits would suggest. Unfortunately, he is let down by the plodding dialogue and nonsensical storyline in the second half, while the final fight sequence doesn’t do much for either Tovino or Dhanush. The later channels his inner Salman Khan in a rather unnecessary shirtless fight scene, while Tovino’s character rolls over much too easily for someone who has made the death of his opponent his driving force for the last few years.  

Varalaxmi Sarathkumar makes yet another appearance as a respectable member of government, this time as IAS Officer Vijaya Chamundeswariin charge of law and order. It’s a role with a rather similar feel to her last appearance in Sarkar and she really only gets to look stern or concerned in roughly equal measures as she hunts for Maari as a potential witness. The rest of the support cast are fine in equally narrow roles, mostly reprising characters from the first film. Worth a mention is Aranthangi Nisha who has a small comedic role as one of the other auto-drivers also named Aanandhi. Most of the fight scenes are well choreographed by Stunt Silva, but there isn’t anything that stands out as particularly new or innovative. The music too from Yuvan Shankar Raja works well enough within the film, but apart from Rowdy Baby none of the songs are memorable after leaving the cinema. Om Prakash captures the colour and energy of Maari and his sidekicks and I did like his contrasts between the worlds of Maari and Beeja. Both are gangsters in the same area of Chennai, but Maari is always bright while Beeja revels in dark costumes and equally dark lighting.  

While there are a few flashes of the old Maari, for the most part he is a more considerate and thoughtful character this time round. This softening of the character is completed by the romance with Aanandhi and without the ‘gangster everyone loves to hate’ persona as a point of difference from other gangster flicks, Maari 2 is just another mass masala movie. Even Dhanush seems at times to be unsure exactly which role he is supposed to be playing as he switches between callous gangster, the infuriated target of Aanandhi’s advances, caring friend and concerned lover. It’s only in the first of these that Maari 2 really comes to life and these are without doubt the best parts of the film. Further déjà vu comes from numerous references to Rajinikanth films, particularly in the second half, and the overall unlikeliness of the story further reduces the impact of the film. However, if all that you want is a potboiler gangster story with plenty of fight scenes, some good comedy and the odd dance sequence then Maari 2 fulfils all of that and adds just a little bit more.