Wednesday, February 21, 2024

REVIEW 796: FAMILY

Release date:

Festival: January 2023

Theatrical: February 22, 2024

Director:

Don Palathara

Cast:

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

Language:

Malayalam 

 


(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

 

Saturday, February 17, 2024

REVIEW 795: BRAMAYUGAM

Release date:

February 15, 2024

Director:

Rahul Sadasivan 

Cast:

Mammootty, Sidharth Bharathan, Arjun Ashokan, Amalda Liz, Manikandan R. Achari

Language:

Malayalam 

 


Rahul Sadasivan’s Bramayugam comes to theatres two years after Bhoothakaalam in which he deftly wove themes of mental health, care giving, substance abuse and other pressing concerns into a supernatural/psychological horror drama. Bhoothakaalam starring Revathy and Shane Nigam was terrifying and thoughtful in equal measure, but the burden of expectations is not the reason why Bramayugam does not match up to it. The reasons are simpler.

 

Behind the gloss and beyond an in-form Mammootty, Bramayugam is not scary despite its promising atmospherics. It is also flimsy for a considerable stretch of time until it begins to lay out its caste politics. The film’s allegorical take on caste proves to be muddled and insensitive.

 

Bramayugam (The Age of Madness) is set in 17th century Malabar where Thevan (Arjun Ashokan), a starving folk singer, chances upon a decrepit mansion belonging to a Brahmin family. The grouchy caretaker (Sidharth Bharathan) is unwelcoming. Both are placed low on the ladder of the caste system, and the elderly master of the house Kodumon Potti (Mammootty) belittles the latter for being disdainful towards the visitor, welcoming the young man warmly instead. 

 

Kodumon Potti rarely has guests. This could be because his home is in what appears to be a land far far away. Or perhaps not. Thevan soon realises that all is not as it seems in this decaying homestead where mysterious sounds are heard from areas declared off limits for him. It is not long before we learn that he is a pawn in a game in which the dice is controlled by an unexplained force. 

 

Sadasivan gets Bramayugam off to a good start by creating a sense of mystery in the forest where we meet Thevan. This tone is sustained till the end with the aid of Shehnad Jalal’s camerawork, Jothish Shankar’s art direction and Jayadevan Chakkadath’s low-key sound design. 

 

Bramayugam is defined by its magnificence, ranging from scenes of desolate natural beauty to the eerie innards of Kodumon Potti’s home. Even shots of a man cooking in a darkened kitchen look ominous here, as are close-ups of the handful of characters in this sagaThe decision to make this a black-and-white film further enriches the imagery and adds to its folklorish feel. 

 

Giant landscapes are framed in Bramayugam in such a manner as to dwarf the people in the story and intimidate the viewer, in a style I’ve come to love in recent years in chilling Scandinavian thrillers. The resemblance is confined to the look. Bramayugam threatens to turn frightening, but never actually does. After a while, the spectacle is window dressing for a thin story that picks elements from Indian mythology– a yakshi here, a chaathan there – without saying anything novel until it reveals its flawed hand in the matter of caste. 

 

Initially, Sadasivan makes an insightful point when he shows Kodumon Potti luring Thevan with a pretence of egalitarianism before entrapping him. However, with this episode of truth telling, the film is being as deceptive as Kodumon Potti himself, because Sadasivan’s larger point turns out to be that dominant communities are no more power hungry than those they’ve historically oppressed, and the sole difference between them is that one lot hold the reins in a social system while the others are its victims for now. This is an uninformed blanket statement. On the one hand, it’s true we’re currently witnessing the outcome of a once-oppressed people transforming into oppressors – read: the genocide in Gaza being committed by Israel, the country formed in the 1940s as a homeland for white European Jews after the Holocaust. It is just as true though that this has not been the journey of all persecuted communities. Notice how countries formerly colonised by Europeans have not run around the world colonising other countries since they themselves got Independence. Notice that post-apartheid South Africa is vocally advocating for Palestinians. Notice the scores of white Jewish people, including Holocaust survivors, protesting against the genocide. Know too that Israel’s conduct is a result of numerous factors including but not confined to white racism that prompted post World War II Europe to consider the brown people of Palestine dispensable, and Europe and North America’s oil interests in the Middle East. 

 

Bramayugam’s script does not explore the theme of oppression with depth. Instead it chooses to whitewash oppressors. The writing also betrays a troubling upper-caste view of caste on two fronts. 

 

(Spoiler alert) The earliest clue that a certain character is not the Brahmin individual he claims to be comes from his food habits. It’s not that this person eats meat, but the savagery with which he eats it that is supposed to be a hint. Portraying meat-eaters as crude, equating meat-eating with animalism and associating unsophisticated meat consumption with Muslims and ‘the other’ has become a hallmark of the right-wing ecosystem and right-wing Hindi cinema in the Modi era (PadmaavatPanipatTanhajiAdipurushAnimal). Bramayugam employs the same symbolism in the context of caste in the Malayalam language. 

 

Bramayugam’s thesis seems to be that Europeans were able to colonise India due to power struggles among Indians. While disunity in the subcontinent did help Europeans, the problem with Bramayugam is that it implies an equivalence between Brahmins and Dalits in this regard, and trains its accusatory finger primarily – metaphorically – at the downtrodden. For a metaphor to work, it must work all the way, but in Bramayugam what we are shown, literally, is white intruders taking advantage of  a ‘half caste’ and a lower caste person being at loggerheads after escaping a demonic tyranny, while the first victim of the battle among Indians in the narrative was a Brahmin. More to the point, a Brahmin we don’t meet at all, as a result of which we don’t get to determine whether he was good, bad or evil, while we get to see the evil in the rest of the social order. 

 

It’s also strange that in the almost-all-male world that Sadasivan builds in Bramayugam, the only female presence is a beautiful, blood-sucking seductress.

 

Amalda Liz as the yakshi is just an eye-catching body and face on display. Manikandan R. Achari gets similar dismissive treatment in the opening scenes. This is the second film in three weeks to reduce this gifted actor to a prop. The other was Malaikottai Vaaliban. Women are objectified in cinema worldwide, Malayalam cinema is objectifying this man probably because most writers are unable or unwilling to envision a black-skinned actor as anything but exotica. 

 

Only three roles count in Bramayugam. Mammootty and Sidharth Bharathan deserve as much credit for the film’s menacing air as its visual landscape does. In the Indian arena, it takes courage for a star as big as Mammootty to take on a role that is meant to be as repugnant as this character is, but he does it with evident relish. Both actors also benefit immensely from the embrace of Shehnad Jalal’s cameraArjun Ashokan’s performance is not quite as immersive as theirs here, but he does a fair job. 

 

Bramayugam is a great-looking film based on a script that quickly runs out of steam, until it revs itself up to take a terribly skewed stand on caste and colonialism.

 

Rating (out of 5 stars): 1.5   

 

Running time:

139 minutes 

 

Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Thursday, February 1, 2024

REVIEW 794: MALAIKOTTAI VAALIBAN

Release date:

January 25, 2024

Director:

Lijo Jose Pellissery 

Cast:

Mohanlal, Katha Nandi, Sonalee Kulkarni, Manoj Moses, Danish Sait, Hareesh Peradi, Sanjana Chandran, Manikandan R. Achari

Language:

Malayalam 

 


Malaikottai Vaaliban features some of the most sensational images and sound ever created for the Indian screen. Sadly though, it is proof that visual and aural stimulation alone do not guarantee greatness. Writer-director Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new venture is a feast for the eyes and ears, but it is also stretched to nearly three hours with a plot and character graphs undeserving of that length. This unfortunate combination gives the film its defining characteristic: its soullessness. 

 

Starring Mohanlal as the eponymous protagonist, Malaikottai Vaaliban is a tale of a legendary warrior in an unspecified age gone by. Vaaliban travels across the land in an unassuming bullock cart with his foster parent, Ayyanar (Hareesh Peradi), and the latter’s son, Chinnappaiyyan (Manoj Moses). When they reach a village or town, Chinnappaiyyan announces their arrival with loud proclamations about Vaaliban’s past exploits. At the first stop that we see, Vaaliban vanquishes a local muscle man with more ease than Sunny Deol uprooting a handpump from the ground or Superman stopping a speeding train with bare hands. His confrontations get increasingly more challenging, but none equal an enemy he encounters who combats him through underhand means. 

 

With deliberate ambiguity about the time and place in which this story unfolds and the ethnicity of those among whom it is set, Pellissery makes it clear that he wishes to transport us to a mythical world where cultures, races and even geography cannot be pinned down. Most of the characters speak Malayalam, but at at least one arid location, there are faces in the crowd that look more like the weather-beaten visages found in the Thar or Kutch or in the dustbowls of Haryana. The dancer Rangapattinam Rangarani has a Tamil-sounding name but facial features more familiar in west or north India, her attire and jewels seem inspired by Maharashtra, and she is played by the Marathi film star Sonalee Kulkarni. Katha Nandi who is cast as Chinnappaiyyan’s lover Jamanthipoova is Bengali and looks it, while the Kannada cinema actor Danish Sait steps into the role of Vaaliban’s foe Chamathakan. In most films, this mix ‘n’ match might have been random, but in Malaikottai Vaaliban it feels deliberate considering everything else going on here.   

 

At one point in this Malayalam language ecosystem, characters break into a Hindi song. The story also includes a brutal European coloniser king with a name rooted in present-day UK but speaking a language from mainland Europe. 

 


This heterogeneity is attractive for a while. The cast is immensely likeable and immersed in the theatrics required of them as they surrender themselves to Pellissery’s vision headlined by the all-round splendour emanating from the screen. Those grand shots of vast barren terrain, a rust coloured stole with a sequinned trim being dragged dramatically on the ground, the golden lights of a crowded bazaar in the night, a primary character introduced through shadow play, a crimson-dominated palette that matches the blood splashed across a stone wall at one point, a Colosseum-like arena (more Game of Thrones than Gladiator) and bird’s eye views of human bodies dancing, fighting, advancing towards each other – they are all framed with loving attention to each dot, line and tint on cinematographer Madhu Neelakandan’s colossal canvas, complemented by Gokuldas’ art direction and costumes by Sujith Sudhakaran and Ratheesh Chammravattom

 

Malaikottai Vaaliban’s soundscape – with sound design by Renganaath Ravee and music by Prashant Pillai – is just as fabulous. Its signature refrain resembles a male mob letting out their breath in a collective whoosh. 

 

Each of these elements is spectacular as an independent entity, but when woven together, the overall package feels self-indulgent after a while with too much use of slow motion, too many aerial shots and too little substance in the script written by P.S. Rafeeque and Pellissery. People here are treated less like people and more like props, epitomised by the sinful under-utilisation of Manikandan R. Achari in a bit part as a jailed slave.

 


As the thinly sketched characters begin to weigh the narrative down, these embellishments are exposed as just that: embellishments, trying to convince us that there is more to Malaikottai Vaaliban than its luminous epidermal layer. Truth: there is not. I kept willing myself to be drawn into the story being told, but an overwhelming sense of tedium made that impossible. 

 

Like Deepak D. Menon’s painterly portraits of scenery, including one that “should be framed for museum display” as I wrote in my review of Padavettu (2022), a zillion moments in Malaikottai Vaaliban ought to be frozen as stills for the walls of prestigious galleries. A shot of concentric circles of humans in this film is surpassed in its beauty in recent Malayalam cinema only by Rajeev Ravi’s compositions for Thuramukham (2023). Malayalam films are known for delivering world-class camerawork even on tiny budgets, but these three films, regrettably, prioritise/d visual appeal over characterisation. Malaikottai Vaaliban is the cinematic equivalent of a gorgeous, lifeless mannequin rather than the pulsating life form that a quality film always is.

 

Pellissery has created abstract art earlier too, but unlike the seminal Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakam (2023), here we get abstractness for the heck of it. His influences and references in Malaikottai Vaaliban are as disparate as they come, ranging from Westerns to samurai cinema, conventional Indian action drama  the sort with outlandish stunts performed by omnipotent heroes exemplified by Rajinikanth  and even Tinkle Comics. The predatory Chamathakan, for one, comes across as a human cousin of the jackal Chamataka from my favourite Tinkle series, Kalia the Crow. Pellissery also replicates a scene from that most famous of Spaghetti Western-inspired Indian films, Sholay: the one in which Gabbar forces Basanti to dance on shards of glass to save Veeru. 

 

A game of Spot The Cultural References is not stimulus enough to stay awake through Malaikottai Vaaliban though. The only character whose skin we are allowed to look past is Ayyanar, but by the time that happens, the film is in its finale. 

 

Vaaliban says at one point: “What the eye has seen is the truth. What has not been seen is a lie.” The lines that ensue and a disclosure by a prominent character indicate a Rashomon Effect not visible within the space of this single film but over a span of at least two. Yes, there’s a sequel (the announcement comes in Malaikottai Vaaliban itself). I’ll explain vaguely to avoid spoilers: until the point in his life at which this film ends, Vaaliban had believed a certain something that he was told; we believed what he believed; but the events in this film are being recounted after he learnt the truth, which will now be revealed to us in Malaikottai Vaaliban 2. Sort of. I think.

 

Interesting idea, but it comes too late in the day to save Malaikottai Vaaliban 1. So am I looking forward to Part 2? Not really. There’s not enough coffee in the world...  


Rating (out of 5 stars): 2   

 

Running time:

155 minutes 

 

Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Monday, January 29, 2024

REVIEW 793: NERU

Release date:

December 21, 2023

Director:

Jeethu Joseph 

Cast:

Mohanlal, Anaswara Rajan, Priyamani, Siddique, Santhi Maya Devi, K.B. Ganesh Kumar, Sreedhanya, Jagadish, Aditi Ravi, Nandhu

Language:

Malayalam with English 

 


Sara Mohammed (Anaswara Rajan) is an artist who is blind. When Sara is home alone one day, she is raped by a stranger. She gathers her wits about her during the assault, and much to the surprise of the police, is later able to identify the attacker despite her inability to see. 

 

It is an intriguing concept, and with Jeethu Joseph directing Mohanlal in the role of Sara’s lawyer Vijayamohan, it is hard not to have sky-high expectations after their team-ups for Drishyam 1&2

  

Neru (Truth) is not in the league of the Drishyams – its writing is not as refined. It also does not match up to the naturalistic genius or finely tuned politics of that other fantastic recent Malayalam legal saga, Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s Nna, Thaan Case Kodu (2022). And its courtroom drama dips into several tropes of the genre – a down-and-out lawyer re-donning his robes for what seems like a lost cause, a bumbling lawyer (Nandhu) whose clumsiness serves to underline the leading man’s skills, and so on. Still, the question of whether Vijayamohan will ultimately trump his insecurities and triumph over his rivals, the pleasure of seeing Mohanlal in a part shorn of macho posturing, Sara’s resilience, her parents’ supportive attitude and Anaswara’s measured performance make this a special film in its own right. 

 

Mohanlal’s filmography has for decades been dominated by hyper-masculinity and omnipotent heroes. So when he chooses to play a man who wears his vulnerability on his sleeve, the character’s significance extends beyond the boundaries of this storyline. 

 

Neru is about a system teetering on the precipice of letting a woman down, a system redeemed by a few good souls. Vijayamohan had withdrawn from practising law after a setback years back. He remains a respected legal expert. The rapist, Michael Joseph, is the son of a Mumbai-based industrialist. Realising that the public prosecutor is messing up the case and that the accused’s wealth can buy almost anyone, the senior policeman Paul Varghese (K.B. Ganeshkumar) goes out of his way to help Sara. Paul and a zealous young advocate, Ahaana (Santhi Maya Devi), persuade Vijayamohan to don his robes again, thus setting up a confrontation between him and the reputed, unethical defence lawyers Rajashekhar (Siddique) and his daughter Poornima (Priyamani).

 

Written by Santhi Mayadevi and Jeethu, Neru benefits from the duo’s background. Santhi is a lawyer in addition to being an actor-writer, Jeethu has a knack of getting the best out of one of Malayalam cinema’s biggest ever stars. Their joint effort results in a film that remains engaging till the end even though the culprit is revealed at the start. The suspense in the script lies elsewhere. 

 

Neru is a showcase primarily for Mohanlal, as such films tend to be, but the writers have had the good sense not to entirely neglect the other actors and characters. Though Sara is not developed as fully as Vijayamohan, she is for a change conceived as a regular person, not a helpless simpering woman nor a warrior queen avenging her rape in the way women survivors do in fantastical worlds routinely created by men writers. She is tough even if hurting, spirited even if traumatised. She is also an illuminating example of a survivor who is doubted because she kept her cool, although if she had not she would undoubtedly have been asked, “Well, where’s the proof?”

 

It is a relief to see Mohanlal in a part that allows him to focus on his craft instead of a swagger. He gives a moving rendition of a lawyer who acknowledges his courtroom phobia and ultimately comes into his own. When Vijayamohan says, “I lost that touch. I am not confident anymore,” the actor ensures that the pain in his character’s voice is under-played yet palpable. Mohanlal makes Vijayamohan’s transformation almost indiscernible in the way only he can when at his best. 

 

Priyamani’s character is just outlined, but her striking personality leaves a mark on Neru. It is nice to see her given visibility in this narrative, but she deserves a better-written role. 

 

Surrounded by accomplished and charismatic veterans, the seven-year-old-in-films Anaswara not only holds her own but lends tremendous maturity to Sara. 

 

Obviously it is essential to ask why Indian cinema routinely gives centrality to Vijayamohans and not Saras, to men who are allies of women rather than to women survivors themselves. Usually, male leads in these films become saviours and the films themselves are guilty of a condescending gaze on the woman. The reason why Neru escapes that label is that it views Sara through a lens of empathy and solidarity, not pity, and gives space to her story and her strength – even if not primacy. The film also gives her greater interiority than most such films do and does not patronise her.

 


Neru
 trips up on the latter front towards the end though, when Sara stands before Vijayamohan with hands folded and head bowed, and the camera zeroes in on this exchange. 

 

Symbolism is crucial to cinema. In Indian culture, a NamaskaramNamasteNamaskarNamaskara is a traditional greeting, but the physical gesture with palms meeting has various meanings here and elsewhere – humility, resignation, supplication, worship or gratitude. In a cinematic universe replete with male saviours, in an industry that routinely marginalises women in stories and discards women actors while creating circumstances conducive to megastardom and longevity for men like Mohanlal, Sara pressing her palms together and lowering her head is more than a thank you.

 

To avoid even a hint of a saviour vibe it was vital for Vijayamohan and Sara to be shown as equals, and for Mohanlal-Anaswara to stand shoulder to shoulder at all times. In that moment, they do not. 

 

The bow in Neru harks back to a Dalit folding her hands before a Brahmin ally, a policeman, in Article 15 (Hindi, 2019) or another Dalit folding her hands before an upper-caste ally, a lawyer, in Jai Bhim (Tamil, 2021). Both were empathetic films. In each case, the gesture – a fleeting one – was made by a member of a subjugated group, aimed at a member of a dominant group played by the marquee name in the cast, and when juxtaposed against the larger socio-political context in which these films were made, subtracted, even if marginally, from their anti-dominance messaging.

 

Just like the passing mention of a past relationship between Vijayamohan and Poornima. Their link is superfluous to Neru’s plot, and is yet another example of a standard practice among male stars in India who seek to prove their eternal magnetism by ensuring that a woman partner is featured in every story to be played by an actor vastly younger than they are rather than a woman of their own generation. In this case, Priyamani is almost a quarter century younger than Mohanlal. 

 

These asides are completely unnecessary in an otherwise entertaining, sensible film. 

 

Neru approaches the theme of rape largely with understanding, although it could have done without the heightened maudlin music and repeated – albeit brief and not titillating – flashbacks to the assault on Sara. One scene sticks out like a sore thumb: the one in which Vijayamohan greenlights an idea that allows the unscrupulous Rajashekhar to be alone in a room with Sara, thus leaving him free to taunt and re-traumatise her. This decision is inconsistent with Vijayamohan’s sensitivity towards his client in the rest of Neru and his progressively improving presence of mind up to that point. The episode is obviously written for theatric effect, and is thoughtless considering that real-life activist lawyers lay considerable emphasis on prioritising a survivor’s mental well-being over all else whereas Vijayamohan’s move is viewed with an uncritical eye by the script. The scene took me back to an even worse one in Pink (Hindi, 2016) in which Amitabh Bachchan’s character badgers his own client, a sexual assault survivor, in the witness stand to make a point in court. 

 

Malayalam cinema tends to do language mixes well, epitomised by last year’s Thankam and Ariyippu in 2022. Neru is not brilliant like them, its dialogues in the courtroom are sometimes stilted, but the Malayalam-English blend at least fits the setting, characters and actors perfectly, barring the English lines written for Rajashekhar that don’t sit well at all with Siddique. 

 

Legal wranglings, extra-legal machinations and the surprises thrown up by Vijayamohan’s probe sustain interest in Nerueven with its flaws. This film is not Jeethu’s best, but may turn out to be his most important if it heralds a new phase in Mohanlal’s career. Neru is hopefully an indicator that after cringe-worthy outings arguably epitomised by Monster (2022) and Alone (2023) the actor has finally sensed the winds of change blowing through Malayalam cinema, as the other Big M did some years back. If my reading of his participation in this film is accurate, then it’s a turning point not just for his career but for his industry too, more so because Neru follows close on the heels of the excellent Kaathal in which Mammootty played a gay man in a heterosexual marriage. 

 

The two M’s are as mainstream as mainstream can be. It’s a joy to see them join hands with filmmakers who are resisting the wave of male fury currently sweeping across commercial Indian cinema of most languages. Neru belongs on the list of Malayalam films defying the national trend. 

 

Rating (out of 5 stars): 2.75   

 

Running time:

152 minutes 

 

Poster courtesy: IMDB 

Still of Anaswara courtesy: Neru’s trailer 

Sunday, January 28, 2024

REVIEW 792: FIGHTER

Release date:

January 25, 2024

Director:

Siddharth Anand 

Cast:

Hrithik Roshan, Deepika Padukone, Anil Kapoor, Karan Singh Grover, Akshay Oberoi, Ashutosh Rana 

Language:

Hindi 

 


“PoK ka matlab hai Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. Tumne occupy kiya hai. Maalik hum hai (PoK stands for Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. You have occupied it. But we are the actual owners),” says Hrithik Roshan’s character in the midst of raging fisticuffs with a Pakistani terrorist in the new Hindi film Fighter

 

For the record, the dictionary defines maalik as: owner, master, lord, proprietor, husband. In the subtitles given in the trailer, the producers opt for “owner”. 

 

“We are the actual owners.” Never before has a Hindi film spelt out its proprietorial attitude towards Kashmir in such black-and-white terms.

 

Director Siddharth Anand’s Fighter – based on a story by Anand and Ramon Chhib, with a  screenplay by Chhib and dialogues by Hussain Dalal and Abbas Dalal – pretends to be a romance, the saga of an Indian Air Force (IAF) officer whose over-confidence cost him the life of someone dear to him as a result of which he denies himself the right to love and be loved again. Behind that emotive, humane camouflage though, Fighter is just another loud, jingoistic affair in which India and Pakistan battle over Kashmir while the voices of Kashmiris are entirely erased. 

 

That’s precisely what 2023’s Shah Rukh Khan starrer Pathaan (2023) did too, so what’s new with Fighter, you may ask? 

 

Not very much. For one, this abhorrent line on ownership in Fighter is delivered by an A-list star who has not overtly aligned himself with BJP-RSS off screen in the way so many of his Hindi film colleagues have. Pathaan played it safer on this front, to create the false impression of being a progressive film (read my review here) although it was just old wine in a bottle of deceptive dialogues, insidious and intentional ambiguity about the religious identity of the protagonist and the primary antagonist, cleverly disguised pandering to majoritarian sentiments and SRK’s charm. 

 

Second, Fighter is pegged on actual news developments: the suicide bombing in Jammu and Kashmir’s Pulwama district in 2019 that killed 40 members of the Central Reserve Police (CRPF), and the IAF’s retaliatory air strike on an alleged terrorist training camp in Balakot, Pakistan.

 

In tenor and spirit nevertheless, Fighter really does feel like Pathaan 2, while Pathaan itself felt like War 2. That Pathaanand War (2019) were also directed by Anand is no coincidence. Reminder: Roshan was the co-lead in War, which might have been nothing more than a noisy, slick action flick if it weren’t for its condescension towards the Muslim patriot played by Tiger Shroff.

 

In Fighter, Roshan is Shamsher Pathania a.k.a. Patty, an ace fighter pilot who is in the bad books of his boss (Anil Kapoor). The latter believes Patty is prone to prioritising personal glory over the interests of his team. Patty is part of a crack team of IAF pilots that includes Minal Rathore (Deepika Padukone) a.k.a. Mini. Obviously these two are drawn together like magnet to metal, but Patty’s past keeps him from openly expressing his feelings for her. 

 

In Chapter 1 we get hackneyed introductory scenes stressing Roshan’s sexiness in a white towel and in pilot’s uniform, and Padukone’s sexiness in uniform, followed by extensive passages of bonhomie between all the members of Patty and Mini’s team. There’s light-hearted teasing, songs, a couple gazing at each other across a space filled with people while music plays in the background, incremental revelations about the enigmatic hero’s painful back story that, as it turns out, lacks novelty, and other familiar elements that are often used in Indian films to superficially establish a sense of fraternity and a pivotal romance. In the background is the Pakistan government and a deadly terrorist – a snarling chap with a bloody red eye called Azhar Akhtar (Rishabh Sawhney) – who they recruit to target Kashmir.

 

Chapter 2 deals with Pulwama and Balakot. 

 

Despite the hyperbolic cartoonishness of Azhar Akhtar and the blatant cover-up that Fighter pulls off on behalf of the Indian government in Pulwama, despite the surfeit of clichés and decibels, the film until this point is carried on the shoulders of Roshan’s good looks, the sparks between him and Padukone, Satchith Paulose’s exquisite cinematography in stunning locales, the adrenaline high that comes from watching pilots in combat in skilfully executed action scenes and the sadness of knowing that those CRPF jawans were indeed murdered in real life. 

 

None of this is enough though to save Chapter 3 from its deafening volume, silliness, unoriginal storytelling, formulaic characterisation, inexorable length and the lies that begin in Chapter 2. 

 

First let’s deal with the cover-up. When the Pulwama terror strike occurred, corporate-owned news media largely avoided asking the obvious questions raised by the public on social media and some experts regarding the massive intelligence failure involved. Many have even ignored the statements by Satyapal Malik who was Jammu and Kashmir’s governor at the time of the Pulwama attack – Malik has said at multiple forums that the attack resulted from the incompetence” of the Indian establishment, the Union Home Ministry in particular, and the CRPF, while also calling out the Prime Minister himself for his response. 

 

Obviously, Fighter does not have the guts to show any of this. Like every government-pleasing Hindi film since 2014, Fighter is disinterested in introspection, fixated on chest-thumping and backs the position that all acts of courage and all innovation in India have been initiated in the past 10 years. Mirroring the bombast of Uri: The Surgical Strike’s “Hindustan ab chup nahi baithega. Yeh naya Hindustan hai. Yeh ghar mein ghusega bhi, aur maarega bhi (India will no longer remain silent. This is a new India – it will not only enter your house, but it will kill you there),” in Fighter we get a politician, one assumes the PM, surveying the coffins of dead CRPF jawans and saying: “Picchle pachaas saalon mein kisi sarkar ne unki inn harkaton ka muh-thod jawaab nahin diya. Lekin ab bas. Unhe dikhana padega ke baap kaun hai (For the past 50 years, no government has given them a befitting reply. But now…enough. It’s time to show them who’s the boss).” 

 

Fighter kills whatever emotional resonance it had until the Balakot episode by following it up with endless screaming, ridiculously conceived confrontations between the IAF and Pakistani terrorists, and dialoguebaazi that peaks with the “maalik hum hai” line and Patty yelling a threat at the top of his voice that India will turn Pakistan into – wait for it, it’s every aggressive nationalist’s wet dream – “India Occupied Pakistan”. It’s not that Hindi filmdom is incapable of delivering credible battlefield sequences involving India and Pakistan. For a recent example within the commercial Hindi space, refer to Vishnu Varadhan’s Shershaah starring Siddharth Malhotra. 

 

In this segment, the sole Muslim on Patty and Mini’s team, Basheer Khan (Akshay Oberoi), has that inevitable conversation about Islam with a terrorist that has by now been made mandatory for loyal-to-the-vatan Muslims in propagandist Hindi films. 

 


And in the end, Fighter trivialises itself with a steaming hot song ‘n’ dance by the sea that has zero connect with the flavour of the rest of the narrative. Yes of course all those body-baring outfits on Roshan and Padukone are titillating, but the entire package is too imitative to be impactful and is anyway terribly out of place in a film in which it was preceded by bloodshed, a beloved character’s mutilated body and immeasurable heartbreak. In fact, the inclusion of this song, Ishq Jaisa Kuchh, indicates a lack of commitment on the part of the filmmaker to his chosen theme. 

 

Like the entire ensemble cast, Roshan’s acting in Fighter is as okay as it can be in such a film, barring a scene in which, while shouting something like “Main aa raha hoon” in a life-and-death situation, he adopts a trademark tone reminiscent of his character in Koi... Mil Gaya – a tone that few directors have managed to completely control in his dialogue delivery. 

 

Padukone does better but make no mistake about this: she plays an ordinarily written supporting character who ultimately amounts to little more than the leading man’s romantic sidekick and sensual drapery, in a film designed as a showcase for Roshan. 

 

Uri was dangerous because it peddled its agenda with a blend of originality, finesse and craft. WarPathaan and Fighter are recycled versions of each other and of the entire multitude of war-mongering deshbhakt films of the present era. Fighter actually has some good things going for it to begin with, but gradually squanders those positives by resorting to lazy storytelling to fulfil its agenda. Yawn.

 

Rating (out of 5 stars): 2   

 

Running time:

167 minutes 

 

Visuals courtesy: IMDB