Friday, May 3, 2024

Amar Singh Chamkila: Brave in its stand on religious despots, lazy when it clubs harassment with fun and equates censorship with all criticism (Review 800)

Release date:

April 12, 2024


Imtiaz Ali


Diljit Dosanjh, Parineeti Chopra, Nisha Bano, Anuraag Arora, Anjum Batra



When a song overlaying a film’s opening credits describes the hero in deliciously mischievous terms – as “sexeela, ttharkeela Chamkila” (sexy, horny Chamkila) – the promise of an unapologetic sense of humour with a distinctive earthy flavour is unmistakable.


This lively number lifts the curtain on director Imtiaz Ali’s Amar Singh Chamkila, an eponymous biopic of the iconic Dalit folk-pop singer from rural Punjab whose murder in 1988 was never solved. The film platforms career-defining performances by the actor-singer Diljit Dosanjh as Chamkila and Parineeti Chopra as his wife and singing partner, Amarjot Kaur, alongside a fabulous soundtrack combining A.R. Rahman originals and Chamkila’s works. 


Delightful though the musical prologue is in many ways, it also briefly signals a troubling element that recurs later in the narrative, by casually clubbing instances of harassment with the amusing albeit crude eroticism that runs through the film. Shots of men and boys watching bathing women without their consent and peeking into rooms where women are changing their clothes roll out on screen in a manner that suggests an equivalence between such male voyeurism and the consensual, clandestine sexual liaisons also depicted during that early audio-visual montage. 


This mindless, poorly developed take on Peeping Toms and consent diminishes an otherwise well-crafted, mostly thoughtful, entertaining film on a man whose raunchy music enraged religious bigots and terrorists in Punjab, until he was assassinated at the age of 27. 


Too many biopics by filmmakers worldwide are PR exercises for their subjects. Amar Singh Chamkila is not one of those. Imtiaz Ali and his co-writer Sajid Ali along with their editor Aarti Bajaj present Chamkila as an enterprising, canny, courageous, yet sometimes dubious man.


Chamkila in this narrative stands up to caste chauvinism, strives hard to rise above his poverty, calls out the hypocrisy of conservatives when confronted about his no-holds-barred compositions, and in the long run, snubs his nose at censorious religious fundamentalists and extremists. The same Chamkila also lies, deceives more than one woman, and rationalises his lies. 


Sometimes writers gloss over such discomfiting aspects of a protagonist’s personality or journey in a bid to further a political agenda or to safeguard their financial interests, sometimes they do it to pander to fans or extra-Constitutional censors, very often they do so because it is simply too challenging to write a script that neither canonises nor vilifies an icon but portrays them as is. What sets Amar Singh Chamkila apart from most biopics is that the Alis don’t bury or sidestep the leading man’s flaws. It is what it is. 


This is a risk and one that ends up giving the film its layers and credibility. 


The script also risks spotlighting pro-Khalistan violence. Hindi films set in 1980s Punjab tend to confine themselves to police atrocities against Sikh civilians, Operation Bluestar and the pogrom that followed Indira Gandhi’s assassination in Delhi. This partial picture ultimately does a disservice to the minority group that it seeks to protect. 


As I wrote recently in my column in The Economic Times about liberal filmmakers largely avoiding a scrutiny of members of oppressed communities: “The fear is not only that one might be misunderstood, cause offence and hurt, but also that irrespective of the chronicler’s intentions, such stories could be misused by hate-mongers to further demonise an already beleaguered people.” However, “The counter to demonisation is not deification, or whitewashing. The counter is normalisation and unprejudiced truth-telling.” Amar Singh Chamkila provides a much-needed illustration of how this can be done – it recounts a passage from actual history in which members of the Sikh community themselves suffered at the hands of the enemy within, while doing so it does not stereotype Sikhs, it does not over-stress or de-emphasise any characters religious identity, and it does not tar the entire community with one brush.


This, to my mind, is the film’s most noteworthy achievement.  


It is because of the gutsy, quality writing in these areas that the Alis’ take on Chamkila’s lyrics is disappointing. The bulk of the songs he’s shown singing with successive women collaborators and, finally, Amarjot, are hilarious in-your-face accounts of sexual encounters in conservative societies. There are endless stories of men lusting after their brothers’ wives and those wives surreptitiously hooking up with their brothers-in-law. I had a good laugh listening to them because of their frankness, their impish tone, the articulation of women’s sexual desires, and the way they blow the lid off the pretence and propriety that our country values above the truth. However, the film also fleetingly refers to songs humourising voyeuristic men. The former are fun, the latter are creepy – if this is indeed Chamkila’s body of work in its entirety, then well, it should not be brushed under the carpet. The issue is that the Alis’ own confused gaze enters the picture here.


In the film’s weakest portions, the script conflates Chamkila’s funny, audacious material with lyrics about intrusive, non-consensual, criminal male conduct. Women in rural Punjab are shown celebrating Chamkila through the joyously wicked number Naram Kaalja complete with sexually assertive lyrics and suggestive dance moves. That they would endorse his songs about covert, consensual sex in a society that demands coyness from women is believable, but the script does not stop to ask if they also approve of him making light of unwanted men peering into women’s bedrooms and bathrooms, nor do they touch upon legitimate concerns about such works. 


Instead, that task is left to an English-speaking woman journalist in Western clothing, the conceptualisation of whom indicates the writers’ disdainful, uninformed, clichéd definition of feminism. It is even implied that this stereotypical character was an instrument of Chamkila’s jealous rivals.


There’s a technique that storytellers employ when they wish to feign neutrality while taking a stand: they depict a confrontation between two people, ensure that the one they are batting for is a sympathetic character, and write more convincing arguments for this person in debates unfolding on screen. The American sitcom Last Man Standing is one of the wiliest examples of this cinematic device. Actor Tim Allen on the show plays a conservative who upholds Republican Party values that his wife (Nancy Travis) opposes. Each time they clash, the writers write weak political arguments into her lines that make his views – and conservatives at large – come off as smarter and more credible than progressives, as exemplified by her woolliness. Last Man Standing does this while appearing to give both of them equal room and strength. It is no coincidence that Allen, who is one of the show’s executive producers, is a Republican Party supporter in real life. 


The charmless, confrontational, joyless, jeans-wearing feminist with fuzzy logic using big words like “objectify” in a conversation with a guileless, rustic singer is Amar Singh Chamkila’s Nancy Travis. Chamkila himself is the film’s Tim Allen.  


Chamkila and his oeuvre are undoubtedly complicated. By simplistically positing feminists, terrorists and Sikh conservatives on one side, ranged against him, the script loses the opportunity to address certain questions that struck me while watching his female admirers in this film. Did the religious establishment target Chamkila because he wrote of women as sexual beings with wants and needs? Was the patriarchal clergy rattled by his popularity among women and afraid it could spark a female sexual Rennaissance in rural Punjab? 


Caste too is not examined with any depth here. Amar Singh Chamkila assumes significance as a rare Hindi film with a Dalit protagonist, but the script does not even look into the possibility that at least some of the resentment towards Chamkila may have come from members of oppressor castes unable to digest the rise of a Dalit. 


Multimedia packaging is used throughout to remind us that Chamkila and Amarjot were living breathing creatures who once walked this earth. Scenes with Dosanjh and Chopra sometimes turn grainy, and sometimes transition into or share space with footage of the real Chamkila and Amarjot, interspersed with watercolours, animation, old newspaper clippings, graphic-novel-like illustrations, photos of the actual couple and stills of the stars playing them. This mosaic of images adds to the period feel and gives the film the air of a docudrama. They complement Sylvester Fonseca’s restrained camerawork and production designer Suman Roy Mahapatra’s recreation of 1980s Punjab to make Amar Singh Chamkila a rich and varied visual experience. 


Two components of this mix are superfluous. English transliterations – sometimes of Punjabi lyrics, sometimes of Hindi translations of Punjabi lyrics – repeatedly flash on screen. They are terribly distracting. I had to force myself to ignore them so as to catch the English subtitles. And the captions that pop up at regular intervals serve no purpose at all. 


Chamkila and Amarjot dominate the plot, but satellite figures too are meticulously characterised. One of my favourite scenes involves Surinder Sonia, the artiste with whom Chamkila performs his first duet. The attitude she throws as a star of the stage in rural Punjab, her contempt for this unknown man, the high ground she takes about his lyrics, and the lightning-speed change of heart when the audience reacts positively to him are captured impeccably by the lovely Nisha Bano. 


I wish this film had been as much about Amarjot as it is about Chamkila, but given that she is a supporting character, Chopra invests her everything in the diffident young woman who blossomed on stage. In her hands, Amarjot exudes shyness belying a steely will and an occasional roguish grin. Chopra adapts her body and body language to the role. Most astonishingly, she has also sung for Amarjot in the film, holding her own against her co-star who is a superstar singer. 


Dosanjh was born to play Chamkila. He displays incredible range and immaculate timing here. He knows he is likeable and releases that charm in measured doses to jostle with his character’s lowest ebbs, even as he embodies the determination, desperation and savvy that made Chamkila a legend. 


Imtiaz Ali’s film, like the man it seeks to immortalise on screen, is a melange of black, white and grey: brave in its stand on religious despots, lazy when it clubs harassment with fun and equates censorship with all criticism. It is also beautifully acted and uses music in the best way a film can, making it a memorable tribute to a folk hero who had so much more to give the world. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 3.5   


Running time:

146 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 


RELATED LINK: Read my column in The Economic Times on minority representation in cinema published on April 13, 2024

Sunday, April 21, 2024

Do Aur Do Pyaar: There are no villains in this gentle, thoughtful take on infidelity and love (Review 799)

Release date:

April 19, 2024


Shirsha Guha Thakurta 


Vidya Balan, Pratik Gandhi, Ileana D’Cruz, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Thalaivasal Vijay, Rekha Kudlig


Hindi-English with a bit of Tamil 


“Who was at fault?” is usually the question asked when we hear stories of marital infidelity. While this black-and-white approach may work in cases where the power balance completely favours one partner, sometimes it makes more sense to ask: what went wrong? 


Debutant director Shirsha Guha Thakurta’s Do Aur Do Pyaar starring Vidya Balan and Pratik Gandhi is not in the business of finding villains. Instead it examines the circumstances that cause its protagonists to cheat on each other. 


Balan here plays Kavya Ganeshan, a Mumbai-based dentist whose husband Aniruddha Banerjee (Gandhi) runs his family enterprise. Kavya married Ani without the blessings of her conservative Tamilian parents. Over a decade later, her father (Thalaivasal Vijay) still disapproves of the man that the extended family continues to describe as his “Bengali son-in-law”. 


Unknown to Kavya’s folks in Ooty, the couple have drifted apart although they live in the same house. They have both been having long-term affairs with other people, except that the word “affair” sounds casual and sordid, whereas Kavya and Ani seem committed to their respective extra-marital partners: Vikram played by Sendhil Ramamurthy, who is a respected photographer, and Nora (Ileana D’Cruz), a talented artiste whose acting career is just taking off. 


A turn of events on a visit to Ooty takes the quartet in an unplanned direction. 


The Hindi film industry has so far favoured either maudlin hyperbole or ribald comedy while portraying unfaithful spouses. Comedy has been a route adopted for adulterous husbands (cases in point: No Entrythe Masti franchise) – adulterous wives, it seems, are serious business (Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna). Do Aur Do Pyaar is neither trivial and sexist like the former bunch, nor weepie like the latter. It is a slice-of-life exploration of infidelity and love, that is never heavy-handed in its approach to these themes and in considerable stretches, is light-hearted, even funny. 


Do Aur Do Pyaar is a remake of the American film The Lovers, written and directed by Azazel Jacobs. I do not understand why Bollywood requires inspiration from abroad when every nook and cranny of this massive, complex country is teeming with original stories, but given that a decision was taken to remake this ordinary (albeit domestically acclaimed) American film, I am happy to report that Do Aur Do Pyaar is a vastly superior work. The Lovers provides just a skeletal premise that writers Suprotim Sengupta and Eisha Chopra have expanded into a substantial script featuring dialogues co-written with Amrita Bagchi. 


The Lovers was solely focused on the excitement that subterfuge brings to relationships. The leads were dull characters. Their feelings changed abruptly and inexplicably. Their partners were poorly developed, charmless creatures. The husband’s lover in particular was hysterical, possessive and unlikeable. In contrast, Do Aur Do Pyaar is a wistful and layered study of the human psyche. There is a plausible progression in Kavya and Ani’s feelings for each other and their lovers. In fact, if it weren’t for the prominent acknowledgement of the original in the opening credits, I doubt I would have noticed the sole similarity between the two storylines. 


One point that gives me pause is that the Indian film has lowered the ages of its protagonists by at least a generation. The Lovers is about an elderly couple with a college-going son, whereas Kavya and Ani are young. Whatever the excuse may be for the edit, it is a sad reminder that the Hindi industry is by and large disinterested in seniors as leads. 


Do Aur Do Pyaar is defined by its non-judgemental attitude towards its four main characters. Each is loveable in their own way. The prevalent social stereotype of the evil doosri aurat is discarded here in favour of compassion. I wish Nora had been given as much maturity and calm as Vikram, but at least she is never viewed with anything but empathy through Guha Thakurta’s lens.


Most conversations in Do Aur Do Pyaar sound natural, barring one crucial lengthy exchange between Kavya and her Dad in which he dispenses simplistic wisdom and she psycho-analyses her relationships in a vocabulary that borrows American cinema’s pop psychology clichés. That discussion disregards some of what went before and what follows. While I understand that the writers felt the need to resolve Kavya’s stormy ties with her father, it does not make logical sense that this feisty woman who had accused him of being cold and expressed the belief that her mother was scared of him, would in the climax turn to him for relationship advice. 


Kavya in that scene asks how he and her Mum have lasted so long. You just keep showing up every day, he replies glibly. Really? Did the frightened Mrs Ganeshan have a choice to not show up? Was she financially secure enough to leave him? If she had done so, would the family have supported her? The Kavya we have known until then would have challenged him on these points, would not have deemed the longevity of a joyless marriage an achievement, and is more likely to have asked Mom (Rekha Kudlig), “Why on earth did you not dump him?” – the response would, in all probability, have been far more illuminating. 


The scene as it stands feels like a cop-out, and a bid to reassure conservatives in the audience that although the hero and heroine strayed, the film itself favours socially prescribed territory. Do Aur Do Pyaar challenges traditionalism and many patriarchal norms until then and thereafter, but disappoints in this incongruous passage by batting for marriage over happiness. 


(No spoilers ahead, but some people may disagree) 


If this had been the finale, the film would have been ruined. Thankfully there is more to come. 


Romantic dramas across the world have stereotypical notions of “happily ever after”. Guha Thakurta and team skip that trap, leaving us with a rare – and rewarding – open-ended climax. 


A lot is said without being said in Do Aur Do Pyaar. Kavya’s adaptable food habits, for instance are as much an instrument of flirtation as a comment on the person she is below the feisty demeanour. Ani’s begun poshto is a metaphor both for affection and for the mundanity that replaces the early sparks in a romance. Beneath the quiet surface are roiling sentiments and resentments. And anything, yes everything, in Do Aur Do Pyaar can transform into fuel for a sense of humour when you least expect it. 


Guha Thakurta and her editor, Bardroy Barretto, keep the shifts in mood flowing smoothly. 


DoP Kartik Vijay’s pale palette lends a coldness to his frames irrespective of the habitat in which the couples wander. His camera miraculously manages to make grimy Mumbai come off as a sister locale of stunning Ooty, with both places reflecting the moods of their inhabitants as much as the beauty that nature has bestowed on at least one of them. 


Subhajit Mukherjee’s background score reminded me a teensy bit of Brokeback Mountain’s music – and I’m not complaining. I don’t see myself seeking out the soundtrack outside the four walls of this film, but within the span of the narrative they serve their purpose well. 


The Hindi industry is a long way away from acknowledging India’s language diversity in a script that truly reflects reality, but considering how insular Hindi filmmakers tend to be, Do Aur Do Pyaar is a baby step forward. The mere smattering of Tamil dialogues while the leads are in Ooty is not enough, but is still better than Hindi films set outside the Hindi belt that feature characters speaking in Hindi alone. For shining recent samples of the language authenticity found in scripts from the country’s other film industries, watch Thankam and Ariyippu.


Balan is delightful in Do Aur Do Pyaar, mutating from flirtatious to fiery to pained and conflicted in a matter of seconds. Her fluid expressions power the fluidity of the plot. 


Gandhi does hesitation and diffidence to perfection. He is so adorable that it’s easy to imagine why a distant wife may still reflexively reach out to fix the glasses sliding down Ani’s nose. 


D’Cruz and Ramamurthy never allow their gorgeousness to distract from Nora and Vikram’s vulnerability. When they hurt in Do Aur Do Pyaar, I did too. 


The title of this film translates to Two Plus Two Equals Love. Now don’t be a wet blanket and go looking for mathematical precision in that equation, because Do Aur Do Pyaar does add up. This is a consistently engaging, often amusing, always thoughtful, low-noise account of the ebbing tide in a waning marriage.


Rating (out of 5 stars): 3   


Running time:

139 minutes


Visual courtesy: IMDB 

Monday, February 26, 2024

All India Rank: “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you” (Review 798)

Release date:

February 23, 2024


Varun Grover


Bodhisattva Sharma, Samta Sudiksha, Geeta Agarwal, Shashi Bhushan, Sheeba Chaddha, Neeraj, Ayush Pandey, Saadat Khan




Tum ladkon ke akal mein phaphoond laga hota hai kya?” (Have you boys got fungus on your brains?) Sarika Kumari asks her classmate Vivek Singh in the new Hindi film All India Rank. It’s the sort of throwaway line that indicates the user’s comfort with the tongue. 


The ease with which Sarika slips phaphoond into the right context makes it my word of the week, though nasudda hogs the limelight in All India Rank since Vivek is asked the meaning at one point. (I won’t tell you his answer.) 


It is no surprise that All India Rank has the feel of a film written by someone who takes pleasure in language. It is after all the directorial debut of Varun Grover who rose to fame and acclaim with his lyrics for Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), then sealed his reputation by writing Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (2015). Grover has also written this film, which was premiered last February at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam and is now in Indian theatres. 


Sarika (Samta Sudiksha) in All India Rank is one of the foremost supporting players in the story of Vivek (Bodhisattva Sharma), a teenager from Lucknow who arrives in Kota in 1997 to prepare for the IIT entrance test. Kota is the Mecca of coaching classes for IIT aspirants or, as Vivek’s father R.K. Singh (Shashi Bhushan) puts it, it is “coaching ka Haridwar”. 


Vivek has been dragged by Singh Senior into a race he does not care for, while Sarika runs with passion and for herself. A parent forcing his dreams on a child and the pressure to gain admission to one of India’s most sought after educational institutions are only the backdrop against which All India Rank unfolds as an observational, almost meditative portrait of what can best be summarised as “a year in the life of Vivek from 1990s India”. 


The desperation and despondency of some of the leads in other Hindi films dealing with career choices, India’s education system and so on are not to be found here. All India Rank is not 3 IdiotsTamasha or 12th Fail. The pressure-cooker existence of the impoverished Manoj from All India Rank is a far cry from Vivek’s situation – the latter has relative privilege as the only child of lower-middle-income parents. Vivek is unhappy at being pushed into a profession he does not want, but he does not get depressed, unlike Ranbir Kapoor’s character from Tamasha. Viveks exist too. 


All India Rank is semi-autobiographical. Grover himself is an IITian, but the film is left open-ended, perhaps to make a point that it can hardly be viewed as a climax if a disinterested kid gets into a coveted college. All India Rank is not about a triumph, it is about a journey. 


Grover’s film, edited by Sanyukta Kaza, has a calm vibe and an air of innocence. Its low-key sense of humour is written into both the conversations and the pleasant music (lyrics by Grover, original songs and background score by Mayukh-Mainak). The unhurried demeanour and unmelodramatic presentation of even its most dramatic moments convey an impression that little happens here. In truth, it is packed with thoughtful character development and discreet socio-political commentary. 


In a sense, Vivek is an unlikely protagonist. He is unexcited by IITs but he doesn’t fight his Dad too much, he dabbles in rebellion but soon gets back on track, he’s nice but slightly bland. He grows in his own way though. In any case, even a seemingly bland individual is the hero of their own story, and even such a person has his moments, as we see with Vivek. 


Besides, the boy is surrounded by interesting people – the feisty Sarika, their friend who pretends he’s not studying when in fact he does, parents who evolve, an easygoing mother (Geeta Agarwal) and a man who sees his son’s entry into IIT as a passport to elevating his own social stature. 


The newcomers and veterans in the cast are uniformly endearing and real. Geeta Agarwal and Shashi Bhushan infuse warmth into Vivek’s parents’ close bond. Sheeba Chaddha is capable of being harsh as spikes on screen, but in All India Rank she brings an unexpected softness to Kalpana Bundela, the queen of IIT coaching in Kota, who keeps the mood light in class.  


Among the film’s winning qualities is the authenticity in the recreation of the era in which it is set, through dialogues, Prachi Deshpande’s meticulous production design and revisitations of old songs. In 1997, telephones with whirring dials were the norm and the Nirma detergent powder advertisement was a reigning pop culture reference. The detailing of the time is charming. 


This was the decade in which economic liberalisation, Mandal and the Babri Masjid demolition permanently altered India’s DNA. The script does not spell out any of this, but slivers of the politics of that era and of the present are an unobtrusive presence in the writing. 


Azaadi” in the 1990s was not yet a word that could land you in jail, but as we see in the film, queasiness over Urdu was very much the norm and Indian was already a country that valued its national symbols more than its people. 


I’ll leave you to spot the messaging that dots the film, including the manner in which the writer-director tests the liberal viewers’ obliviousness to anti-minority stereotyping in Hindi cinema by seeming to present a stereotype, then turning it on its head. No spoilers here – you will hopefully recognise that episode when you see it. Compare it to the mischief played by the writer-director of last year’s OMG 2, who placed three minority community members in his all-Hindu universe in a north Indian temple town, wrote all three of them as jerks, and picked one of them to torment a schoolmate over his penis size, thus setting off a chain of events that almost destroyed the boy. 


In the past 10 years, much of Hindi filmdom has bowed and scraped before the right-wing through works that demonise religious minorities, marginalise the influence of minority cultures on India, and erase every achievement of non-BJP governments and prime ministers. All India Rank stands out from this obeisant crowd with almost indiscernible defiance. Don’t go looking for a sermon or lengthy exposition. What we get instead is a word here, a brief chat there, a quote on a wall, a passing image on TV – Grover worships at the altar of the God of small things in All India Rank


The film is not about any of this though, just as it is not about IIT. Grover leaves us free to note his politics if we wish, or to enjoy All India Rank as a sweet little film about “a time of innocence, a time of confidences”, to borrow from the American songwriter Paul Simon’s Bookends (1968). 


Unlike most coming-of-age sagas, All India Rank does not feature any grand awakening or drastic change in the central character’s plans by the close. Yet, it tugs at the heart. The film is like photographs we take of regular days, pictures that don’t commemorate a birth, death, graduation or anniversary but instead freeze frame the spaces in between when most of life occurs. Those are the days that get us to our milestones, and our stories are incomplete without them. 


In choosing to make All India Rank – and make it in precisely the way he does – Grover subscribes to the Paul Simon school of thought. “Preserve your memories, they’re all that’s left you.” (Bookends again)


Rating (out of 5 stars): 3   


Running time:

101 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Manjummel Boys: Thinly written, inconsistent but ultimately rewarding survival drama (Review 797)

Release date:

February 22, 2024




Soubin Shahir, Sreenath Bhasi, Deepak Parambol, Chandu Salimkumar, Khalidh Rahman, Ganapathi S. Poduval, Balu Varghese, Abhiram Radhakrishnan, Arun Kurian, Lal Jr, Vishnu Reghu 


Malayalam with Tamil 


Jeevithathil stuck aayitulla paara.” That’s how one of the key players in the new Malayalam film Manjummel Boys, describes a precariously poised, giant boulder that he sees while wandering around Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu with a gaggle of man-children. His words are appropriately poetic and thoughtful for the setting, in a departure from the gang’s unruliness and loudness until then. The contrast is emblematic of the effect that nature can have on even the most restless of humans, and offers an insight into what Manjummel Boys might have been if it had lived up to the potential of its premise all the way. As things stand, this survival thriller cum coming-of-age saga is outstanding in part yet thinly written and inconsistently toned for the most part. 


Manjummel Boys features an ensemble of boisterous buddies – all of them men, all barring one of them young, all of them old enough to be deemed terribly immature for their age – in a decade before cellphones and social media had flooded our world. Manjummel is the name of a locality in Kochi with which the ‘boys’ christen themselves. Their wayward existence is disrupted by a tragic turn of events during their hill station sojourn that tests their spirit and their relationships. 


The film is written and directed by Chidambaram who notched up a hit with his directorial debut Jan-E-Man. The latter smoothly and effectively combined a sense of humour with grim themes such as depression, separation and death. Manjummel Boys aims at a drastic shift in mood from light-heartedness at first to utter gloom tempered by hope, but without the same finesse.


The narrative kicks off by introducing us to the rambunctiousness and camaraderie of these men-who-are-still-boys. The friends are captured making merry at a wedding, engaged in fun and games including a bout of tug of war, hanging out, planning an out-station trip, and at last, actually making that trip. This goes on for what feels like an endless stretch replete with clichés that are rampant in Malayalam male bonding chronicles. In these passages, they shout at rather than speak to each other, noise is used as a substitute for substance and storytelling verve, and precious length that could have been spent on character development is squandered away. 


For the record, it is not essential for survival flicks to create character arcs before the high drama of the central plot takes over. The point here is that Chidambaram does spend a lot of time with the ‘boys’ before disaster strikes, but does not make effective use of that period. Later, it becomes clear that their activities in that portion foreshadowed their actions in the second half, and showcasing their layaboutery early on was a way of stressing their strength of character later on. Too bad that this was done through repetitive, formulaic scenes shorn of depth. 


There are lots of familiar faces and names in this crowd: Sreenath BhasiSoubin Shahir (who is also one of the producers), Deepak Parambol, Ganapathi S. Poduval, Arun Kurian, Balu Varghese and Abhiram Radhakrishnan among them. Half these characters would have been indistinguishable from each other if they weren’t played by recognisable actors.  


After much yelling and posing around at scenic spots, towards the end of their stay in Kodaikanal the group decide on a last-minute stop before heading home. Their destination is Devil’s Kitchen a.k.a. Guna Cave, nicknamed after the Tamil cult classic Gunaa (1991) starring Kamal Haasan and Roshni that was shot there. The men continue to act idiotically, but now Chidambaram thankfully also finds space for calm as Shyju Khalid’s camera roams around in awe of the mountains, running its eye over and between rock faces, deep into caves and high above the land, examining the dramatic arrangements of trees and rocks engineered by natural forces. 


The tiresome scenes that preceded Manjummel Boys’ arrival at Guna Cave become a distant memory when an accident caused by the men’s irresponsible conduct turns their holiday into a nightmare. The shock of that turning point, the suspense and technical accomplishments of the film from then on – intelligent sound design by Shijin Hutton and Abhishek Nair, and intelligent use of Sushin Shyam’s music complementing the cinematographer’s imaginative exploration of the location – compensate for the continuing limitations in the writing. 


In short, Manjummel Boys is an uneven experience. On the one hand, the shooting of the Guna Cave area and the treatment of the twist are impeccable. On the other hand, the scripting continues to be patchy and unsophisticated. The first flashback to the characters’ childhood leading into their  behaviour in desperate circumstances in Kodaikanal is well done. But it gets predictable when it happens again, and then again when their seemingly purposeless shenanigans before the interval come of use in rescue operations. 


The last half hour is packed with nail-biting tension despite this. 


Manjummel Boys is challenging for another reason. Malayalam and Tamil are fitted naturally into the script, but there were no subtitles played in the hall in Delhi where I watched it. While this could have been the multiplex management’s mess-up (even when producers subtitle their films, theatres in Delhi very often don’t bother to play the subs), a question remains for the makers themselves: since Manjummel Boys’ primary language is Malayalam, why are Malayalam subtitles not embedded in the print itself throughout the Tamil dialogues (in the way they are in one portion depicting characters in Tamil Nadu regaling the visitors from Kerala with lore surrounding Guna Cave, its recent history and mythology)? In its present shape, the film is inaccessible not only to non-Malayalam speakers in that particular hall, it is tough even for Malayalam speakers who do not know Tamil.


The Malayalam film industry does not often visit the survival genre, and on those rare outings it has a mixed tracked record. Helen (2019) and Malayankunju (2018) are recent examples that got it right. Like these two, most survival films tend to be intense studies of human nature. They need not be. Manjummel Boys’ problem is that it is not satisfied with action and suspense alone. It wants to be profound but can only partially pull it off. For one, the tribute to Gunaa has not been thought through. If the iconic Tamil film was merely the motivation that spurs the ‘boys’ of Manjummel to visit Guna Cave it would have made sense. However, pointed references are made to Gunaa through song and dialogue that gradually draws a parallel between the pivotal relationship in the earlier film and the willingness of the ‘boys’ here to give up their lives for each other in the end. But Gunaa was not about a healthy love or friendship, it was about unhealthy obsession and delusion. Kamal’s character in that film was mentally unwell, he abducted a woman with whom he believed he had a divine connection, and ultimately preferred death over life without her. To evoke nostalgia for the lovely music of that film is all very well, but the concerted mindless effort to evoke nostalgia for the ‘love’ and ‘sacrifice’ in Gunaa makes Manjummel Boys both intellectually pretentious and intellectually lightweight.


Text on screen post-climax reveals that Manjummel Boys is based on the true story of a bravery award winner called Siju David. Knowing that what happened at Guna Cave in Manjummel Boys actually happened in real life adds a layer of chills to the better half of this flawed, partly rewarding film. 


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.5   


Running time:

135 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB  

Wednesday, February 21, 2024


Release date:

Festival: January 2023

Theatrical: February 22, 2024


Don Palathara


Vinay Forrt, Divya Prabha, Mathew Thomas, Nilja K. Baby, Abhija Sivakala, Jolly Chirayath, Prathapan K.S., Jitin Puthanchery, Sajitha Madathil




(This review was written and first published in February 2023 right after Family had its world premiere at the International Film Festival of Rotterdam)


In the higher reaches of the mountains of Idukki, in a village thick with verdure and hypocrisy, a man called Sony makes everyone’s business his own. This magnificent, densely forested region with its contemplative atmosphere is ideal for a story in which a lot transpires below the surface but an entire community noiselessly conspires to sweep its skeletons under a carpet.


Sony (Vinay Forrt) is the heart of the local populace. It would not be accurate to describe him as a busybody since the people rely on his help. He is always around in good times and in bad – attending weddings and funerals, chipping in with household chores, counselling the youth, drawing them into community service, supporting a bereaved family, volunteering when the parish priest asks – which is all so great that it’s hard to pin down the reason why it is so acutely discomfiting right from the start to watch this man roam among them.


When Sony sees a pregnant woman (Divya Prabha) executing a physical task in her courtyard, he rushes over to take over from her. When another woman (Abhija Sivakala) needs to pluck the fruit off a tree on her grounds, she does not hire workers – Sony does the job. If your kid is struggling at school, who do you turn to for tuitions? Answer: Sony. If you suffer a tragedy, who walks an extra mile for you? Sony. Genial, solicitous Sony whose actions go above and beyond the community spirit that is the norm here.


A gnawing suspicion soon arises though. Is Sony helpful because he is genuinely kind-hearted? Or are there other possibilities? Perhaps his concern and consideration are excuses to gain proximity to you. Perhaps he is that guy who strategically earns your trust so that you won’t notice when you glimpse questionable conduct, but if you do, you will be bullied into shutting up by those who prefer to look the other way. Family is not, however, about him alone.


Written by Don Palathara and Sherin Catherine, directed and edited by Don, Family in its entirety is a portrait of a repressed, conservative society. The location, blanketed with thick greenery and a resounding quiet, is in itself a metaphor for the silences that blanket uncomfortable truths. The film also engages with the very different reactions to a man and a woman who are deemed to have brought shame on the kutumbam. It is purportedly about one place at a certain time, but it’s really about Everyplace Everytime, whenever and wherever in the world folks have colluded to keep the secrets they are ashamed of “in the family”.


In the very first scene, an important character tells a boy that a leopard won’t attack a person unless threatened. The wild feline in the forest instinctively follows a code that Homo sapiens themselves do not. Family spotlights a very human penchant for attacking to oppress rather than for nourishment or self-defence, and a community’s willingness to provide camouflage even if it means endangering its own by letting the predator run free. 


Family’s writer-director team choose to mirror their characters’ mindset and behaviour by leaving most things unsaid and unseen. Renganaath Ravee’s sound design and Basil C.J’s music exemplify their vision. When the latter’s score initially floats in, it takes a minute to distinguish it from the sounds of nature that dominate most of the film.


The poetry in its minimalism and unbelievably perceptive observations make Family a breath-taking experience.


Given one of the most beautiful locations on Earth, DoP Jaleel Badusha mines it for maximum effect even while employing a subdued palette. The exquisite shots emerging from his explorations of the area (in addition to an unexpected scene boasting of some rather impressive CGI) elevate Family to a meditational experience.


The spare narrative caused me some confusion in the opening half as I tried to figure out who is who and related how to whom among the smaller roles. In those moments, I wished the camera had spent just a bit more time with each one and had looked squarely at them – instead of the angles from which they were shot – so that their faces were imprinted on my memory, but even through those passages, my sense of disquiet about the bigger picture remained.


The camera in the film gives off a vibe of being both an aloof bystander and a knowing insider. It rarely moves close to an individual and some of the most horrific acts in the storyline occur off screen, but what happens in the viewer’s line of sight consistently serves as a warning bell. Note the vantage point in a scene in which a man is shown in conversation with another. There is a certain type of man every woman has met: the fellow who invades your space without actually touching you, his hands hovering too close to the area around your chest or thighs as he speaks, all the while maintaining a pretence that he is unaware of your unease and hyper-alertness. As a woman, it chilled me to the bone that I was witnessing the exact same scenario on screen here, with one crucial difference: in place of a woman was a boy.


It is clear from Don’s filmography that he is fascinated by and immensely knowledgeable about both Christianity and his native Idukki. Christian rituals, customs and imagery are everywhere in Family. The film’s  account of local Malayali Christian practices is as educational as it is entertaining. Of particular interest is a pre-wedding function that features an older man on stage play-acting dressing up the young husband-to-be. At one such event I recently attended in Kerala, the groom’s uncle was such a lively, funny guy who kept us, his audience, in splits, that the moroseness of the guests at the ceremony in Family seems hilarious in contrast.


In his most prominent film roles so far, Vinay Forrt has played characters whose shortcomings were tempered by a layer of innocence bordering on naiveté. Vimal Sir in Premam, Sreenivasan Masha in Thamaasha and David Christudas in Malik were all flawed, not terrible. In Kismath, on the other hand, his character aimed an aggressive nastiness at the hapless leads. Vinay’s challenge in Family is to steer clear of both these spaces. Sony masks his worst side in a package of affability and thoughtfulness, although no one can be sure that that is what he does. Vinay is pitch perfect in giving Sony a barely discernible unsettling presence without being in-your-face repulsive. This is a deeply involved actor acing his most difficult role yet.   


Divya Prabha is just emerging from a year in which she won all-round acclaim playing the beleaguered Reshmi in Ariyippu (Declaration) that was premiered at Locarno. She joins an ensemble cast of wonderfully naturalistic artistes to play the conflicted and hesitant Rani who is yet brave enough to articulate a prickly question that no one has asked so far in Family


Don Palathara has built his career on making films on his own terms, giving mainstream clichés a wide berth yet not fitting entirely into the middle-of-the-road nature of the new Malayalam New Wave. His Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam a.k.a. The Joyful Mystery has been his most high-profile work among Indian film-goers so far. In terms of cinematic idiom, Family more closely resembles his fable-like 1956, Madhyathiruvithamkoor (1956, Central Travancore). Along with his co-writer, he gives this film a lived-in feel, an air of: we have been here, met these people and know what they hide in their closeted minds. The director is present in this village, making mental notes, enabling viewers to drink it all in, not as outsiders staring at a screen but as co-travellers standing beside him and seeing through his eyes. He is not looking in on alien beings to tell an exotic tale in Family. He is not othering the minority community whose story he chronicles, he is normalising them, using the specifics of their culture and conservatism to drive home a universal point.


Family does not follow the revved-up beats conventionally demanded by commercial cinema, it follows the rhythms of life. And it’s a masterpiece.


Rating (out of 5 stars): 4.5   


Running time:

111 minutes 


Visual courtesy: IMDB 


This review was originally published under the headline Poetic minimalism brilliantly used to capture a society sweeping its skeletons under a carpet” on Firstpost in February 2023