July 7, 2017
Prithviraj Sukumaran, Indrajith Sukumaran, Murali Gopy, Ananya, Nakshatra Indrajith, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Paris Laxmi, Padmapriya, Shine Tom Chacko, Rahul Madhav, Ranjeet, Mohanlal (as the voice of Time)
Malayalam and Hindi, with snatches of Sanskrit
In the dusty town of Ghagrawadi in Uttar Pradesh, several minority communities have co-existed for centuries with the north Indian Hindu majority. Among them is a small group of Malayalis, including the highly respected religious scholar and teacher, Pattabhi Ramagiri (Indrajith Sukumaran).
Trouble starts brewing in this peaceful habitation when land grabbers run amok at the behest of the politically well-connected, nationally renowned religious guru Bhagwan Mahashay (Murali Gopy). Take the monetary compensation offered to you or else… when faced with this threat and Ramakanth’s might, the townsfolk begin falling like ninepins. All except Ramagiri. He refuses to sell his property, is undeterred when he and his people are sneeringly addressed as “Malabaris”, and does not budge even when violence is rained on him.
Meanwhile, a mysterious, larger-than-life figure (Prithviraj Sukumaran) watches the proceedings from the rocky outskirts of the town.
In another department of his life, Ramagiri is plagued by nightmares set in an era long past.
(Aside: Fans should be forewarned that though Tiyaan comes from Mollywood, it is not in Malayalam alone. It is a Malayalam-Hindi film with some Sanskrit thrown in. Thankfully, the Hindi dialogues have all been subtitled in Malayalam.)
Director Jiyen Krishnakumar’s Tiyaan (The Above-Mentioned) combines mythology, mysticism and contemporary reality, to provide a running commentary on the insider-vs-outsider, Hindus-vs-minorities battles tearing into India’s national fabric these days. Murali Gopy’s screenplay does not mince words about the points he wishes to make. By cleverly pitting two Hindu religious men against each other, he also makes a powerful – even if debatable – statement on how it is not religion but the misuse of religion that causes social strife.
(Spoiler alert) Muslims leaving Ghagrawadi, an extremist Hindu leader’s cohorts gobbling a beef sandwich away from the public eye, gullible disciples mistaking sleight of hand for miracles – these potent images will resonate with anyone disturbed by the ongoing effort to polarise our society. (Spoiler alert ends)
Unfortunately, great issues are not what make great films, great stories do. And Tiyaan’s good intentions are clouded by the scale of its ambitions, its unwieldy storyline and its intermittently mixed messaging.
Many of DoP Satheesh Kurup’s shots of the UP landscape are spectacular, the production design and costumes are eyecatching, but the people in those pretty frames are barely relatable and the film lacks soul. The three male leads, in particular, feel like giant cut-outs to be viewed from a distance, not flesh-and-blood persons who become a part of our lives as we watch Tiyaan.
The film is big on symbolism – the casting of the Sukumaran brothers to play men of different religious backgrounds, for one, should not be lost on us. Yet the same maker seems not to have spotted the meaning conveyed by portraying a Brahmin man (note the combination: upper caste plus male) as the only one who has the courage to stand up to evil in all of Ghagrawadi. Two women do support him unflinchingly, but they are very clearly placed in the conventional women-behind-the-man slot.
Elsewhere, there is beauty in a Dalit child’s refusal to stone that Brahmin in one scene when exhorted to do so to avenge all historical persecution, but when that Dalit child is shown bowing – yes, physically bowing – before a character whose Brahminhood is stressed, re-stressed and further underlined throughout Tiyaan, you have to wonder: what on earth were Krishnakumar and Gopy thinking? Or were they not thinking at all?
(Spoiler alert ends)
This is where the film crosses the line from complexity to confusion.
The other glaring problem with Tiyaan is that it is too self-conscious. In terms of writing and presentation, it comes off as too aware that it is ‘addressing issues’ and too transparent in its desire to impress upon viewers that it is a big, grand project.
It is to Prithviraj and Indrajith Sukumaran’s credit that they seem convinced of their characters and pull off their roles without over-acting even when the film veers towards bombast. Ananya too leaves an impression with her natural performance despite the overall tone of Tiyaan.
At the end of the day, however much you may cheer a film’s political awareness and guts, it is impossible to be drawn into its world if it is written like a speech rather than a story. I rejoiced when a character in Tiyaan in a north Indian setting insists on addressing a crowd in Malayalam rather than Hindi, pointing out that he is doing so because this land belongs to all of us and not to any community in particular. I rejoiced because it is an undisguised snub directed at the present ruling dispensation’s subtle efforts to revive the old language debate. I would have truly rejoiced though, if that remark had come from a more engaging film.
For all its courage, Tiyaan left me largely unmoved and – at nearly 3 hours in length – sleepy.
Rating (out of five stars): **
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/tiyaanmovie/