August 5, 2016
Chandra Sekhar Yeleti
Mohanlal, Gautami, Raina Rao, Viswant Duddumpudi, Anisha Ambrose, Urvashi
A debt-ridden senior supermarket employee gets involved with a street ruffian, with unforeseen consequences.
A little girl befriends a slumkid and is surprised by how those around her respond to him.
A doting housewife on a tight budget is offered a way out of her financial troubles and dull life, but is disappointed by her family’s reaction to the opportunity.
A brilliant, level-headed college student starts living beyond his means when he falls for a beautiful, rich young woman, but is taken aback by her take on their relationship.
Multi-strand films work best when they are bound by a solid common theme, irrespective of whether the threads run parallely or eventually tie up, and irrespective of whether that tie is strong or tenuous. Ask Paul Haggis, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu or right here at home, Anand Gandhi. There is no such theme in writer-director Chandra Sekhar Yeleti’s Vismayam, unless you count a laboured point about discovering ourselves and humanity through unexpected learning experiences and miraculous occurrences, as implied by the title, which means awe/wonderment or bewilderment among other things in Malayalam.
That thematic link is so unconvincing that it feels like a contrivance. Even Yeleti does not seem committed to it. The entire film seems driven instead by the goal of revealing what connects the four individuals pivotal to the four stories, as if this were a thriller. The revelation comes through an inexorably long, melodramatised climactic scene in which you can guess the connection from a mile away, but the director stretches and stretches that mile beyond endurance.
The climax is not the film’s only problem though. Vismayam’s grand ambitions are backed by poor execution. Despite the heft in the story of the supermarket manager played by Mohanlal, the remaining segments are insubstantial, silly and further pulled down by mediocre acting.
Mohanlal is M. Sairam, a middle-class man in Hyderabad constantly struggling to make both ends meet. When the prospect of a promotion looms on the horizon, his desperation drives him to indulge in uncharacteristic behaviour. Here is the thing though: the results of our actions have a life of their own, the world is unpredictable, human beings are volatile, and we should never assume we can steer anyone but ourselves especially when we adopt a path of evil. Question is: When matters go out of hand, and Sairam finds himself pulled deeper and deeper into a quagmire, will the situation bring out the best or the worst in him?
As Sairam, Lalettan reminds us why he is considered one of contemporary Indian cinema’s best actors. His performance embodies the inner conflicts of an inherently good person torn between idealistic philosophies and practical constraints. It is always a joy to watch him in a film where he is unfettered by overtly commercial considerations.
The story of Sairam in Vismayam might have worked wonderfully as a standalone film. The manner in which events spiral out of control is believable, even the supporting cast is well chosen and the director has complete command over his written material here.
The same cannot be said of the remaining three. Veteran Gautami as the housewife Gayathri is hampered by inadequate writing. There are some laughs to be derived from the shenanigans of her shopaholic, freebie-aholic friend Lakshmi (played by Urvashi – why oh why don’t we see her more often and in more significant roles?) but the comedic touch unintentionally lends a somewhat frivolous note to Gayathri. Besides, Yeleti is obviously disinterested in an important concern raised by Gayathri’s former teacher, about a brilliant female student losing herself in an identityless existence as a housewife.
The strand about the little girl Mahitha and her poverty-ridden friend has great potential, but suffers because Raina Rao is a limited actress, the proceedings lack logic and the unrelenting effort to drive home the extent of Mahitha’s kindness is tiresome. Okay, we get it – she has a golden heart and a sweet face. What next? Move on, for Chrissake!
The worst of the quartet though is the one involving Abhi (Viswant Duddumpudi) who is smitten at sight by pretty Aira (Anisha Ambrose). Duddumpudi lacks a screen presence. The far more charismatic Ambrose is the victim of a poorly fleshed out character whose motivations are never revealed to us. Their story is senseless and puerile.
Since Abhi hides his financial circumstances from Aira and since Aira is open with him about her feelings and her goals right from the start, it is unfair that an effort is made to subtly paint her either as a classist snob or a tease or at best a superficial creature. Without putting it in words, by drawing us into Abhi’s life while skimming over Aira, Vismayam builds her up as a certain ‘type’ of woman who is derided by our society and cinema, the ‘type’ who enslaves a hapless, innocent man with her beauty, then abandons the bechara fellow for a better deal or for her ambitions – OMGoodness, how dare a woman have any! The film also appears to view the mere fact of being wealthy with suspicion. None of this is stated clearly. Yeleti reveals himself though with the juxtaposition of Aira against Gayathri: the spirited, well-off youngster with a professional dream for herself versus the middle-class, sacrificing Mommy who turned her back on her impressive academic track record and now has dreams only for her husband and children.
Yeleti has made Vismayam simultaneously in Malayalam and Telugu. The Telugu version is called Manamantha. Both have been released across India this week. There is also a dubbed Tamil version titled Namadhu. This review is based on a viewing of the Malayalam film.
Vismayam is yawn inducing and flimsy, patriarchal, populist and contrived. For a film that views the moneyed classes with suspicion, it seems hypocritical that it repeatedly bows to Mammon through numerous product placements. The bow to Narendra Modi too is unmistakable. That elongated finale is the low point in an already dreary narrative. Sairam (an MCP though he is) and Mohanlal make it tolerable. Without them it would have been insufferable. It is almost as if the writer-director wrapped up the portions involving his male superstar, then handed over the reins – of the casting, writing and direction for the rest – to someone else. Yawn.
Rating (out of five): **
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vismayam_(2016_film)