Wednesday, August 14, 2019

REVIEW 720: THANNEERMATHAN DINANGAL

Release date:
Kerala: July 26, 2019
Delhi: August 9, 2019
Director:
Girish A.D.
Cast:

Language:
Mathew Thomas, Anaswara Rajan, Vineeth Sreenivasan, Irshad 
Malayalam


Just months back we first encountered him playing the most level-headed, only non-belligerent sibling in a fractured family. If the role of Franky from the iconic Kumbalangi Nights gave actor Mathew Thomas a dream debut, Thanneermathan Dinangal’s Jaison is a fantasy follow-up. There he was a crucial part of a fabulous ensemble, here he gets to be a solo hero in a perfectly written part.

Jaison is a muddled adolescent stumbling through life but showing unexpected maturity when we least expect it. Unlike most teen films, this one is not steeped in adult stereotypes of teenagers, it feels as if the story, situations and dialogues were drawn out of the skulls of real youngsters. The result of this understanding and complete lack of condescension is a highly credible, hugely funny film, another glowing addition to the great year that 2019 is proving to be for Mollywood.

The pimply post-pubescent Jaison is dealing with twin problems when we meet him at the start of Thanneermathan Dinangal: one, his affable classmate Keerthy (played by Udaharanam Sujatha’s Anaswara Rajan) does not reciprocate his love for her, and two, he desperately wants to crack his studies but struggles with exams. Enter: Problem 3 in the person of the new teacher Ravi Padmanabhan (Vineeth Sreenivasan) who gains instant popularity among the students and staff but picks on Jaison without reason at every available opportunity. Sweet relief from stress comes for the boy at the food shop next to the school where he routinely gathers with his close buddies for snacks (“puffs”, to be exact), watermelon juice, gossip and heart-to-heart conversations.

Thanneermathan Dinangal literally means Watermelon Days, an ode to their favourite drink. The film is as light as the fruit, but do not for a moment underestimate its nutritious value. Writer-director Girish A.D. and his co-writer Dinoy Paulose are bang-on with their depiction of the closing chapters of Jaison’s school years, that phase of pre-adulthood which in retrospect usually seems oh so carefree although in the here and now every problem feels like a matter of life and death, or as Jaison puts it melodramatically at one point, a “jeevitha prashnam”.

The earnestness and possible hyperbole of a youthful imagination are best represented by the characterisation of the loud, somewhat kookie Ravi Padmanabhan who everyone but Jaison considers fantastic. It is never clear whether the older man’s eccentricities and cruelty are real or a figment of Jaison’s nightmares. Similar is the effect of the chase scene close to the end.

The rest of the film, the classroom scenarios at St Sebastian’s Higher Secondary School, the banter between Jaison and his closest boy friends, his troubled equation with the school bully and his blossoming relationship with the remarkably sensible Keerthy are portrayed with absolute realism and biting humour in equal measure.

Like most Malayalam films of the pathbreaking New Wave, Thanneermathan Dinangal too tells a male-centric story through a male gaze (c’mon Mollywood, fix this lacuna fast) but the women are not lightweights. In fact, the sensitivity in the writing of the central young couple is what truly makes this particular film stand out.

Mainstream Malayalam cinema set among school and college goers tends to sexualise girls of all ages, normalise stalking as a form of courtship and dismiss women as haughty traitors as soon as they reject romantic overtures from a significant male character. If they are not mothers, sisters or irrelevant wives, the women of such films are treated as exotica, a distant other or juicy flesh that men salivate over. These are not merely accurate portrayals of gender segregation. From their antagonistic and/or lascivious tone towards women it is evident that they are products of minds that have not risen above the extreme gender segregation in Malayali society, minds that therefore can never see a woman as a regular person just like a man. Thanneermathan Dinangal is a lesson in how you can portray a problematic reality with humour yet without glorifying or humourising the worst of it.

Yes, Jaison and his gang are girl obsessed, but that is not a crime. Yes, at one point one of them does speak of how a friend has been “sniffing after” a particular girl, but for the most part their language is not crude. Most important, the film itself never degrades the women or behave as if they are showpieces. In fact, in Jaison’s defence of Keerthy and refusal to badmouth her beyond a Lakshman Rekha, in his non-threatening, non-obnoxious, childish pursuit of another schoolmate and in Keerthy’s open appreciation of his non-pesky behaviour towards her, we get a reminder that liberal minds emerge from even the most conservative social settings. Listen up, makers of awful films like Chunkzz and even critically acclaimed, troubling ventures such as Annayum Rasoolum and Premam. Listen up, ‘cos THIS is how it’s done.

The messaging is so unobtrusive that Thanneermathan Dinangal is likely to be widely viewed as a non-serious entertainer. That would be a mistake because Girish A.D.’s film is stomach-achingly comical but also serious as hell.

None of this would been possible without the casting director’s brilliant choices, incredibly solid performances by Mathew Thomas and Anaswara Rajan, and the impeccable supporting actors – including the established artistes among them – who appear to have walked right out of a real school and on to the sets of Thanneermathan Dinangal. Vineeth Sreenivasan, for his part, is clearly having a lark playing the film’s most enigmatic, only OTT character.

Messrs Girish and Paulose’s sharp writing meets Shameer Muhammed’s concise editing and the naturalistic cinematography by Jomon T. John and Vinod Illampally to create a film in which every second, every word spoken, every shot is precious.


As unassuming as the storytelling is the soundtrack – Girish knows precisely when to ask music director Justin Varghese to step in and when to get him to stay low key. The end result of their collaboration and the darling leads’ chemistry is that jaathikkathottam (nutmeg groves) will forever now be an aching symbol of romance and teenaged innocence. 

Thanneermathan Dinangal is one of the best teen sagas to emerge from Indian cinema across languages in recent times. What an adorable, huggable film this is.

Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
U 
Running time:
137 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost:




Tuesday, August 13, 2019

REVIEW 719: KALKI

Release date:
Kerala: August 8, 2019
Delhi: August 9, 2019
Director:
Praveen Prabharam
Cast:


Language:
Tovino Thomas, Samyuktha Menon, Saiju Kurup, Hareesh Uthaman, K.P.A.C. Lalitha, Shivajith Padmanabhan
Malayalam


As if it isn’t heartbreaking enough that Nivin Pauly did that obnoxious film Mikhael this year, Tovino Thomas goes and does this one.

To be fair, Mikhael’s loudness is child’s play in comparison with Kalki’s repugnant celebration of extreme violence. This is a film that uses crushed bones, twisted joints and sliced off body parts as a tool for both humour and moralising, in what must rank as one of the most disgusting cinematic odes to bloodshed ever seen.

Imagine what Kalki must be if one of the dominant motifs in its sound design is the gurgling and bubbling of blood just as it begins to pour out of bodies ripped apart by various characters including the ‘hero’.

Imagine this moment, designed as comedy, when a policeman with a sobre demeanour carries a blood-spattered chainsaw to this ‘hero’, explains that one of the villain’s legs has now been cut off and asks permission to cut off the second leg too since they are paying rent for the tool anyway. The boss gives his assent.

If that ‘hero’ had been played by Mammootty or Mohanlal, perhaps one could live with it. After all, the two M’s have allowed their careers to rest largely on ugly machismo and physical invincibility in the past couple of decades. The disappointment here arises from the fact that the protagonist is young Tovino Thomas whose stardom has been built primarily with thoughtful films like Godha, Mayaanadhi, Virus and Luca.

In a town called Nanchenkotta in Kalki, an upright policeman called Vyshakhan commits suicide, unable to take the humiliation meted out by the criminal overlord Amarnath and his flunkeys who rule the region. Amarnath has ties to the senior politician Vijayanandhan whose extremist party DYP has driven out the Tamils in the area. With elections approaching and alliances being sewed up, all lines are crossed until a new S.I. takes Vyshakhan’s seat. Played by Thomas, this policeman remains unnamed till the end, identified simply as K on his badge and nameplate and as Kalki by the soundtrack.

You get an idea of where this film is headed in his introductory scene when he sets a hooligan on fire while a signature song is screeched out in the background. This is the sort of raucous number packed with silly English lines that a certain kind of Malayalam filmmaker seems to think is a signifier of super coolth.

Like Mikhael’s laughable referencing of Christian mythology, Kalki too takes a shot at intellectualism. So of course the title comes from the name of the tenth and final avatar of the Hindu deity Vishnu: the swordsman Kalki who is expected to descend on the world to end Kalyug, a dismal, destructive phase of human existence. There is potential for such great storytelling with a modern-day interpretation of Kalki, but writer-director Praveen Prabharam (who has co-written this film with Sujin Sujathan) is not one for nuance and deep thought. And so his Kalki is so bloody and lawless that the only distinction between Amarnath’s gang and him is that he stands with a marginalised people, the laudable ends being offered as justification for his condemnable means. If cinema reflects reality, then Kalki is a reflection of a real-life Kalyug that upholds a 56-inch male chest as a virtue.

In one scene, K virtually lists as a plus point in his favour the fact that he is in the home of one of his enemies but has not raped the women of the family. This is Prabharam’s version of Ishq’s horrifying second half.

As is the case with male actors in all such Malayalam films, Tovino Thomas deadpans and poses around throughout Kalki. So do all the men playing the antagonists. The only actor who gets something out of this script is Saiju Kurup in the role of an idealist.

The lovely Samyuktha Menon has not much to do here. She appears to have been cast in the role of K’s bete noir’s daughter only because her pairing with Thomas in Theevandi drew acclaim. From the little that we see of her Dr Sangeetha, she seems like a feisty creature, but we get to see so little. The women of this film are mere sidelights in a man’s world.

Everyone in Kalki is relegated to the background as K / Thomas strides across the screen framed in stereotypical low-angle shots, playing with his Ray-Bans, the earth stopping to listen to the crunching sound of his slippers touching the ground, all while ear-splitting music overwhelms the narrative.

Even K is not the central figure of this film though. The central figure is DoP Gautham Sankar who captures in excruciating detail Amarnath stabbing his first victim and ripping his torso by dragging the dagger all the way down to the stomach in an action that we soon discover is his MO, a meat cleaver severing a man’s nose, a head being smashed against a metal pillar, and more.

You too, Tovino Thomas?

Rating (out of five stars): 1/4

CBFC Rating (India):
UA
Running time:
141 minutes 

This review has also been published on Firstpost: