Kerala: March 3, 2017. All India: March 10.
Tovino Thomas, Roopesh Peethambaran, Neeraj Madhav, Gayathri Suresh, Sudheer Karamana, Kalabhavan Shajon, Megha Mathew
Debutant director Tom Emmatty’s Oru Mexican Aparatha (translated in the subtitles as: A Mexican Enormity) is inspired by the bloody rivalry between Kerala’s student political outfits. Depending on which side of the divide you inhabit, it is possible you may either be irritated or emotionally drawn to this film that makes no bones about its Communist inclinations. It may be a good idea to set your party leanings aside though and watch with an open mind, because despite its openly propagandist portions and weaknesses, this is an interesting ride.
The film begins with a sepia-tinted flashback to 1970s Kerala where the Communist student leader Kochaniyan (Tovino Thomas) is martyred at Maharaja’s College. Kochaniyan is a key member of the fictional SFY – no prizes for guessing what that acronym alludes to.
Fast forward to this century, and Thomas now plays the happy-go-lucky, alcohol-swilling, girl-chasing, mischievous student Paul who belongs to SFY but has no particular career ambitions in politics. His friend Subhash (Neeraj Madhav) is far more earnest about his involvement with the party. Soon, Subhash is appointed by the parent organisation to revive SFY at their college. This is a massive mountain to climb, since SFY is now virtually dead at Maharaja’s and the rival KSQ – another barely disguised acronym – prevails with intimidation and physical assaults.
The film’s opening half eases viewers into the impending intensity with equal parts humour and grimness. We learn that, when left to themselves, Paul and most of his friends would prefer to down booze, indulge in loose talk about girls, acquire girlfriends and fool around rather than study or devise political strategies. They are rudely awakened from their immature indulgences by KSQ’s high-handedness, led by the violence-prone Roopesh (Roopesh Peethambaran).
The story then quickly descends into Machiavellian schemes and ultimately bloodshed, as both groups work towards winning the coming college elections.
The pre-interval portion of the film, more light-footed than the second half, is often entertaining but also – sadly – often unwittingly betrays the filmmaker’s prejudices. For instance, a believable view of college life in Kerala would perforce feature gender segregation and stalking. Oru Mexican Aparatha does that without suggesting that this is acceptable behaviour, by at first highlighting the silliness of the male students concerned. However, it soon goes down a path now predictable in Mollywood – mirroring notions widely prevalent in society – by assuming that a woman who is friendly but not attracted to the hero must of course be a cheat and a user.
In a film that clearly fancies itself to be progressive, such casual misogyny is disappointing.
Insightful though Oru Mexican Aparatha is on other fronts, its patriarchal worldview is unmistakable. When the population of female characters in your story is so small that their numbers do not exceed the fingers of one hand, you might introspect about why you do not automatically see women as full-fledged beings instead of mere adjuncts to the male existence, either potential lovers or traitors or mute supporters (yes literally, without dialogues). Sure this is Paul’s story and therefore every character’s identity is defined in relation to him, but even considering that circumstance, the tertiariness of women in Oru Mexican Aparatha is off-putting.
Still, at a time when individuals across the country are chickening out of declaring their adherence to any party other than the one currently ruling at the Centre, it is unusual to see Emmatty’s unapologetic openness about his affection for the Communists in his film, and the lack of pretence regarding his references to real life. The plot also offers several unexpected twists, keeping even a cynical viewer like yours truly engaged.
Although Oru Mexican Aparatha takes a sanitised view of the Communist party leadership in the state, it does well to remind viewers that even when we are faced with a dangerous enemy, most often the greater enemy lies within.
The college and the students at Maharaja’s feel authentic, a factor of good acting combined with true-to-life production design (note those dingy hostel rooms) and Emmatty’s laidback narrative style in the first half of the film. Tovino Thomas has an impactful screen presence. His build and talent make him an obvious candidate for stardom. That said, though he is impressive and natural as Paul, he is too self-conscious in his brief appearances as Kochaniyan.
Neeraj Madhav and Roopesh Peethambaran are excellent. The supporting cast is effective although they are constrained by the limited writing of their characters.
Therein lies the primary problem with Oru Mexican Aparatha. We are drawn into Paul, Subhash and Roopesh’s lives, passion and plans, but none of the other characters is as well-etched-out as the three leads. Therefore we never understand how all these games end up influencing their college mates. Who are those kids who passively watch the extreme violence unleashed in their presence? How do they pick one party over the other? What are their motivations? The writing makes no effort to breathe life into these satellite players in the story. The cursory treatment of the chameleonesque Ardra perfectly illustrates this point.
Oru Mexican Aparatha’s music is rousing, but used too much and too loud in the narrative. The college campus is credible, but cinematographer Prakash Velayudhan delivers too many cliched shots of groups of men turning corners and walking towards the camera in slow motion.
Oddly enough, despite its many follies, Oru Mexican Aparatha remains an immersive experience. Its take on campus politics is slightly simplistic. However, the director’s apparent commitment to his convictions combined with thematic relevance and the smooth transition from a languid first half to absorbing post-interval briskness makes this a watchable film.
Rating (out of five): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oru_Mexican_Aparatha