Sunday, December 31, 2017


Release date:
December 22, 2017
Aashiq Abu  

Aishwarya Lekshmi, Tovino Thomas, Leona Lishoy 

“Sex is not a promise.” I cannot believe I just heard these words from a heroine in a mainstream Mollywood venture. Aparna Ravi a.k.a. Aps in Mayaanadhi (Mystic River) is a far cry from the coy virgins of past Indian films for whom sex was usually a mistake that almost inevitably led to a pregnancy.
This is not to say that other women in Malayalam films – or Indian cinema at large – have not gotten between the sheets with heroes in the past. Just this year, one of the most comical sequences in Angamaly Diaries involved a woman visiting the male protagonist in hospital to offer more than just sympathy. Their sexual escapades were designed as a source of amusement though, and the woman in question was not the heroine. In too many other Indian films, sex between a leading man and woman who are not married to each other has become a sort of mandatory signifier of coolth used by conservative filmmakers to mask their conservatism and/or establish how with-it they are. Exhibit No. 1: Aditya Chopra’s painfully self-conscious “look at me, look how progressive I am” Befikre from Bollywood in 2016. Exhibit No. 2: Mani Ratnam’s aiming-to-be-modern but ultimately conformist O Kadhal Kanmani from Kollywood in 2015.
Hear this, dear Indian filmmakers: showing your heroine having sex is not an indicator of your film’s liberalism, giving your heroine agency is. The difference between aspiring to be feminist on this front (or faking it) and genuine conviction is in evidence in Mayaanadhi.
Aashiq Abu’s new film stars Aishwarya Lekshmi as Aparna and Tovino Thomas as her on-again, off-again boyfriend John Matthew a.k.a. Mathan. Aparna is an acting aspirant who has been earning a living by emceeing and modelling while she works towards a break in films. Mathan was her senior in college and is now a professional racketeer. Each has a challenging family background, his is far more troubling than hers.
Mayaanadhi is a romance disguised as a crime thriller. When the curtain goes up, a series of events unfold that force Mathan into hiding. While he stays low key to escape the police, the film explores his long-standing relationship with Aparna, which is now in the doldrums since she no longer trusts him for reasons that are completely his fault.
Aparna is a bright, determined, professionally ambitious woman who knows her mind in all matters except Mathan. They have been friends as much as lovers – a magical combination that is hard to recover from. Though her head tells her he spells trouble, she remains as fond of him as she is attracted to him. The film stays with them as he desperately tries to get her back in his life while she is torn between her affection for him and her desire to get over him.
There is so much to recommend in Mayaanadhi. The attractive Aishwarya Lekshmi, for one, a model-turned-actor who is effortlessly glamorous on screen. She made her film debut earlier this year in the only awkwardly written passage in the otherwise excellent Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela. In Mayaanadhi she is handed a vast canvas and wonderfully nuanced writing to display her considerable acting chops.
Tovino Thomas has had a year that most actors can only dream of. If in Oru Mexican Aparatha he was a gritty and grim political activist, in Godha he was a man-child, and here in Mayaanadhi we get the full blast of his versatility as he aces Mathan’s irresistible boyish charm and longing for his Aps.
(Spoiler alert) That scene in which Mathan lightly accuses Aparna of “talking like a prostitute” and instantly regrets his words is a fine example of great writing meeting great acting. Her reply, in sharp contrast to his unevolved reaction to their rendezvous, reminded me of Shruti’s response in the morning-after scene in Band Baaja Baaraat (Hindi, 2010) in which Bittoo expresses regret for their sexual encounter, as if it is a catastrophe that he as a man must take responsibility for. (Spoiler alert ends)
For its non-traditionalism, smooth flow, credible characters and situations and so much else, the true stars of Mayaanadhi are director Aashiq Abu and his frequent collaborators, writers Syam Pushkaran and Dileesh Nair. Their lead pair come across as real people with real dilemmas. Neither of them is flawless, but unlike in most commercial Indian cinema, the man’s mess-ups in the relationship are not casually justified or glorified. And it is a joy to see a woman who is strong but not in a cliched filmi fashion: her strength is believably human and not divine.

Team Mayaanadhi draws us into Aparna and Mathan’s story so effectively that we ache for them. The film’s atmospherics are compelling. DoP Jayesh Mohan ensures that Mayaanadhi is visually exquisite. His colour palette is dominated by whites, blacks and steely grays in the outdoors, almost as if Kerala in this film is experiencing an icy winter it never does in reality. This cinematographic choice serves to build up a sense of immense sadness and a feeling of foreboding around the fate of Aparna and Mathan’s romance.

There is also a largeness and grandeur to his outdoor frames, but the director’s narrative style is such that when Aparna and Mathan are together on screen, nothing matters but these two. He also wisely eschews song and dance numbers that are characteristic of commercial Indian cinema. Nothing, absolutely nothing, is allowed to distract from the ruminative mood of the narrative and the twosome around whom it revolves.

Till the interval, I remember being curious about the mystery behind the crimes we witness in the film’s opening scenes. Those questions recede into the background by the second half, by which time I found myself more preoccupied with what to expect for Aparna and Mathan as a couple.

There are plenty of other people around them, including some characters with stories that are striking even though their time on screen is limited. The actor Sameera played by Leona Lishoy, her autocratic brother (Soubin Shahir) and Aparna’s emotionally needy mother all leave an impression, yet somehow the film seems mysteriously depopulated. This is the most remarkable aspect of Mayaanadhi: Abu builds his narrative in such a way that his satellite characters are not neglected but his lead couple are lost in their own thoughts and their own world, and I found myself lost in them.

This is what gives Mayaanadhi its fine balance between being relatable and yet being an epic romance. It is a befitting December release in a year that has witnessed some great works from Malayalam cinema.

Rating (out of five stars): ****

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
136 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:

Monday, December 25, 2017


Release date:
December 22, 2017
Pradeep M. Nair

Prithviraj Sukumaran, Durga Krishna, Sudheer Karamana, Alencier Ley Lopez, Saiju Kurup, Leena, Anarkali Marikar

Imagine being in love and being denied the right to choose the person you want to spend your adult life with. Imagine the ache of a lifetime spent wondering what became of her or him. Imagine your career taking flight sans the one you want to fly with.

Director Pradeep M. Nair’s Vimaanam (Airplane) is a good, old-fashioned (I mean that in a nice way) tale of friendship, romance and the pain of separation in a conservative milieu where families resort to politicking and even violence to keep young lovers apart. Prithviraj Sukumaran here plays the renowned aeronautical engineer, Professor Venkateshwaran, who receives a call one day from a girl identifying herself as “Janaki’s daughter”. The mention of that name gets the lonely old man emotional and he decides to head for his hometown in Kerala where this Janaki is waiting.

Much of his train journey is spent in a flashback to a time decades earlier when Venkateshwaran was Janaki’s Venkati. They grew up together and now spend their youth in each other’s company, initially blissfully unaware of the prejudice and negativity that will ultimately tear them apart.

Janaki (Durga Krishna) is a pre-degree student from a well-off Hindu family, the daughter of a powerful lawyer whose word is law in a home where his wife cowers before him and his child is punished for not cowering. The hearing-impaired Venkati, on the other hand, is the offspring of a Christian-Nair marriage who has grown up with financial struggle and now, as a high-school pass-out, earns a living as an automobile mechanic to support his widowed mother and sister while working on the side to fulfill his dream of building a plane with his bare hands.

The structure of Vimaanam is such that we pretty much know how the flashback will end from the moment it begins. The joy though is in the treatment of Venkati and Janaki’s journey. Prithviraj and Durga imbue their characters with innocence and clear-heartedness that is alluring. Despite the anger, bias and scheming all around them, they somehow manage to remain pure and clean. Their seeming incorruptibility makes them protagonists you root for (even when they break the law at one point, in pursuit of his dream). I wanted him to make that plane, I wanted her to have her freedom, I wanted them to be together.

The story is told from Venkati’s standpoint, but this is not a conventional male-centric romance. Janaki takes centrestage with him and if I have a grouse it is that while we get to know her, her family, Venkati and his allies, the screenplay neglects his mother and barely shows us his sibling. 

Comparisons are inevitable between Vimaanam and the 2015 Parvathy-Prithviraj-starrer Ennu Ninte Moideen about a Hindu woman and a Muslim man in love in 1960s Kerala. At the risk of being reviled by fans, I confess that although ENM’s theme itself was gripping, I found the film inexorably stretched to manipulate the audience. Vimaanam gets its tone just right most of the time and its occasional descent into maudlin, melodramatic territory (the airport scene, for one) is forgivable because its drama and scale are at no point allowed to dwarf the intensely personal portrait of the couple at its core.

The other inevitable comparison would be with this year’s Vineeth Srinivasan-starrer Aby, the release of which Vimaanam’s makers unsuccessfully tried to stop in court. Aby was about a mentally slow, socially awkward young man without an aviation background who builds an aircraft in his hometown. Both are reportedly inspired by the same true story. The thematic similarity notwithstanding, Aby was tedious whereas Vimaanam pulsates with dreams and regret.

The film’s achievement is that although it has been made on a lavish scale in spectacular locales with eyecatching visuals by DoP Shehnad Jalal and top-line VFX (barring the clouds in the final frame), it never diverts its gaze from Janaki and Venkati. Despite the grand aerial views of cliffs and sands and the vast ocean, it remains from start to finish an intimate saga of heartbreak.

One complaint: while Jalal shoots his hero well, he is needlessly determined to emphasise his heroine’s looks. Yes yes, we get that she has large, attractively droopy eyes, but there was no need to give us so many close-ups of those eyes from so many angles, all with the purpose of capturing her looks rather than her sentiments. Interestingly, he pulls away and gives that lovely face space whenever his attention shifts from the physical to the emotional.

Both actors bring their A game to this film. They have a warm on-camera equation. Despite being a debutant, Durga Krishna shares the weight of the film with Prithviraj and carries it on her shoulders with confidence that is not intimidated by his experience. He effectively alters his physicality to signify the advancing years. Although he is too much of a man to look like the boy he is supposed to be in the flashback, he gets halfway there through what appears to have been considerable weight loss in addition to his body language.

In their later years, he gets good ageing makeup, hers leaves her looking much younger than she could possibly be when we meet her as an old woman. Considering the money that has clearly been invested in this enterprise, it is also disappointing to see the lack of detailing in this department.  Hands and the sides of necks age too, you know. The makeup team missed that point.

Vimaanam’s supporting cast is led by the always excellent Alencier Ley Lopez playing Roger, Venkati’s mentor and co-conspirator in the business of making his first plane. Sudheer Karamana too turns in a neat performance as the hero’s comrade in arms. It is particularly nice to see the two let their hair down for the scene featuring the song Meghakanavinu. The usually dependable Saiju Kurup though opts for overstatement in his role as one of the spokes in the Janaki-Venkati romance.

Gopi Sundar’s songs work well when they are woven into the narrative. Meghakanavinu in particular is entertaining and unusual in the way it uses two female voices and the sounds of the tools in Venkati’s workshop in its instrumental arrangements. Here too, we get evidence of the director’s intent to stay equally focused on his male and female leads. He is working, she is assisting him and his team, but the song is hers with the others singing in chorus in the background. It is an atypical musical choice that subtly reflects the filmmaker’s mindset.

The song that should have been dispensed with is Vaaniluyare, melodic though it is. It is one of those stereotypical numbers to be found in commercial films across Indian film industries where the hero and heroine sing and dance at archaeological sites and locations of exquisite natural beauty. Though Durga’s grace and considerable dancing skills are in evidence here, Prithviraj’s personality is not a fit. Besides, while there is a certain kind of film in which this kind of diversion works, Vimaanam is not that film.

What it is is a brooding depiction of great achievements overshadowed by great sadness and a sense of emptiness, when your being remains forever chained to a past not of your making. Prithviraj as Venkati and Durga Krishna as Janaki embody yearning and heartache. Whatever the film’s missteps may be, I found myself cheering as Venkati’s first plane took off, but most of all, I really really wanted to see Janaki with him. Sweet simplicity is not easy to achieve on screen. That’s what Pradeep M. Nair delivers with Vimaanam.

Rating (out of five stars): ***

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
147 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: