September 8, 2016
Mohanlal, Nedumudi Venu, Samuthirakani, Anusree Nair, Vimala Raman, Baby Meenakshi
A bright young policewoman draws a connection between several seemingly unrelated ‘accidents’ in different parts of Kerala. Elsewhere a blind man is the only ‘eyewitness’ to a murderer’s escape from his crime scene. Priyadarshan’s Oppam brings together these two parallel threads to give us a thriller that starts off with immense promise but is gradually pulled down by its weak writing.
Sometimes though, even one positive element could make a film worthwhile, and when that element is Mohanlal in full flow, it is tempting to pretend that the film’s follies do not exist.
It so happens that Oppam has several more positives that sustain it for a while before you wake up to its minuses. There is that other Malayalam film legend Nedumudi Venu in a supporting role as a judge with a troubled past. It would take courage for any young actor to choose to share film space with these two greats but Baby Meenakshi does it with conviction and confidence as she plays the judge’s young ward with a tragic background, never once crossing the line from smart to over-smart or cute to irritatingly precocious as child actors often do.
Frankly, just watching Mohanlal playing a blind man without a single misstep and without caricaturing his character’s disability is worth the price of a ticket. Add to that a couple of memorable songs by the young composer group 4 Musics and cinematographer N.K. Ekhambram’s imaginative visuals of the film’s already breathtaking setting – Kerala – and as a viewer I found myself willing the film to be as good as the sum of these parts.
The long opening sequence alongside the credits, with M.G. Sreekumar singing Chinnamma adi for Lalettan’s character Jayaraman on a packed boat as it sails down an extensive expanse of clear water with lush greenery on all sides is to die for. The infectiously rhythmic Chinnamma adi and that later song picturised on Lalettan and Meenakshi, the more serenely melodic Minungum minnaminuge, are my earworms for the weekend.
Jayaraman is a lift operator in a posh apartment complex and every resident’s favourite Man Friday. One of the occupants of the building is the former Supreme Court judge and retired Chief Justice of the Kerala High Court, Justice Krishnamoorthy (Nedumudi Venu) who is ridden with guilt at the memory of what he fears might have been a wrong conviction he handed down many years back. He entrusts Jayaraman with his secret and the care of a child he is bringing up (Nandini played by Meenakshi). When Jayaraman is later accused of a crime, he is forced to solve the case himself while struggling to save his own life and Nandini’s from a serial killer.
When the suspense saga initially unfolds, it is both disturbing and exciting. Mohanlal and Nedumudi Venu lend gravitas to the grim situation they find themselves in. Priyadarshan combines Ekhambram’s generous use of a wide-angle lens and low angle shots with the clarity in the sound design and the background score to conjure up an ominous atmosphere in the housing complex and elsewhere. The tension is further heightened by our worries for the kind-hearted Jayaraman. There are also some well-conceptualised red herrings scattered about to distract us from what is really going on.
All this is effective despite some needless interludes that spoil the flow such as an unfunny comedy track involving Mamukkoya, awkwardly handled interactions between the locals and Sikh families in Moorthy Saar’s building, and a loud Punjabi-Malayalam song that rivals the worst we’ve been seeing in wedding-obsessed north Indian films since Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge earned big money in the 1990s. There is an absolutely unnecessary, almost puerile scene in which Jayaraman gets an expression of romantic interest from the building’s freelance housemaid played by Vimala Raman, who of course looks 2-3 decades junior to Mohanlal. Apparently no mainstream Malayalam hero’s ‘hero-ness’ is complete unless we are provided evidence that he is attractive to at least one woman young enough to be his daughter.
Oh yes, and if we are to go by a very pointed conversation about age in Jayaraman’s home, we must believe that he is in the vicinity of 40. Considering that Mohanlal is 56 and looks well above it, this is a laughable aside.
Still, the first half of Oppam is absorbing. (Caution: spoilers ahead) By the second half though, it becomes clear that the mystery at the heart of the film has little heft and there is only so much that intimidating atmospherics can do to save a feeble screenplay.
Too many scenarios are contrived to take the story forward. For instance, why on earth would an old man who fears for his life remain in his flat when the entire building has deserted their homes to attend an event? Considering his connections in high places, why does he not seek police protection for himself and his ward from a potential murderer?
I get that Jayaraman is fiercely independent despite his blindness, that he has a heightened sense of hearing and smell which makes him an extraordinarily gifted individual. I am willing to buy into his Superman-like multi-tasking abilities and strength: he is a lift operator in the evening, runs a shop during the day, plays the violin and piano, sings masterfully, does social work, and is a skilled fighter. Let experts on music, martial arts and visual impairment analyse that. What is hard to digest though is that an intelligent man like him would choose to confine himself within a near-deserted school building with a child who is being targeted by a serial killer, instead of escaping from there.
I get that the murder of an influential individual would place pressure on the police to quickly solve the case, and I get that in such circumstances police have been known to frame innocents simply to make a show of closing the file, but why would a colleague who has a seemingly credible theory about the homicide not share her concerns with the team right at the start before they get so deeply embroiled in their framing efforts that they would not be interested? I get that police departments in India are overworked, poorly trained, lack resources, lack inter-jurisdictional cooperation and are ridden with corruption, but is the Kerala Police so stupid that they do not sense a serial killing when the killer leaves behind a signature plus there is a glaring link between all the victims, and only one woman in the entire force notices?
Oppam might still have survived all this, but its fatal flaw is that it is needlessly stretched after the murderer’s identity, his motive and his next target are revealed, and he discovers that target’s location. Samuthirakani as the villain Vasudevan is suitably enigmatic and menacing at first, but suffers from zero characterisation. That threatening finger and the raucously laughing silhouette are more silly than scary. The needlessly elongated final 45 minutes become boring and almost inane after a point. The climax features a couple of chilling moments, but they are not enough compensation for the director’s transparent effort to manipulate us by over-extending it.
Oppam is technically polished, visually appealing and features a fantastic performance by Mohanlal. It is also pointlessly long-drawn-out and after a while, pretentious in its effort to scare.
Rating (out of five): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Posters courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oppam