November 17, 2017
Jayasurya, Vijayaraghavan, Dharmajan Bolgatty, Sreejith Ravi, Aju Varghese, Sunil Sukhada, Nyla Usha, Vishnu Govindan, Guinness Pakru
If this film had been made in any language other than Malayalam, chances are it would have been mired in controversy, political and religious hotheads would have asked for it to be banned or chopped, and it might even have been denied a release. Punyalan Private Limited has faced no such protests, as it comes to theatres just weeks after the Tamil industry and public slammed the Tamil Nadu BJP for demanding cuts in the Vijay-starrer Mersal because, among other things, it derided the implementation of the Central Government’s current pet project, the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
The party’s silence over Punyalan Private Limited, although it references multiple contentious issues including demonetisation, should serve as a moment of pride for the people of Kerala in particular and south India at large. It suggests that Malayalis and the denizens of the entire region have built a no-nonsense reputation for themselves as a result of which a nationally powerful political organisation that has just burnt its fingers in Tamil Nadu would rather avoid being made to look foolish once again, as is most likely to happen if it messes with the cine artists of India’s most literate state.
This is not to say that Punyalan Private Limited (PPL) is a great film – far from it. Writer-director Ranjith Sankar’s sequel to 2013’s Punyalan Agarbathis has a weak screenplay that superficially skims over multiple social and political concerns. The protagonist’s actions are unconvincing and the events that turn him into an overnight media sensation feel contrived. Redemption comes in the form of its funny bone and its leading man Jayasurya who has such a likeable screen presence and such incredible comedic abilities, that sometimes all he needs to do is look at the camera to trigger off a laughing fit in a viewer.
If you weigh PPL’s pluses and minuses then, it is an average film. When even the average fare produced by your relatively small industry (Mollywood) has the guts to take on a system while one of India’s largest film industries (Bollywood) has for decades bowed and scraped before the high and mighty, you truly have reason to be proud.
Sadly, valour alone doth not good cinema make.
PPL brings back to the big screen the hero of Punyalan Agarbathis, a young Thrissur-based entrepreneur called Joy Thakkolkkaran played by Jayasurya. When we meet Joy this time, he is recovering from a failed business. He then comes up with the idea of producing mineral water derived from elephant urine and to be sold in tetrapacks. This, for various reasons, causes him to clash with the bureaucracy, politicians and even the judiciary.
(Spoiler ahead) Through a series of events, Joy ends up spending a day with the Kerala chief minister (Vijayaraghavan). This is not quite what the hero was offered in the Tamil film Mudhalvan and its Hindi remake Nayak: they got to play CM for a day. Here, Joy gets a chance to shadow and observe the man. The neta’s goal in providing such an opportunity to this troublemaker is to convince him of the travails of wearing the crown. (Spoiler alert ends)
How this comes about is of little consequence in a screenplay that is short on detailing. We are expected to buy into the hero’s every move and the consequences of those moves. There is not enough substance in the arguments he throws at the chief minister, but the public applauds him and Shankar seems to expect us to follow suit.
PPL skates along on thin ice and on the strength of Jayasurya’s comic timing. The star is further bolstered by his chemistry with the gifted actors who play his supportive friends and work associates – Dharmajan Bolgatty who is an absolute hoot here, Sreejith Ravi, Aju Varghese and Guinness Pakru. The result is that the film is peppered with laugh-out-loud moments.
While PPL’s sense of humour is laudable, what is not are the racist jokes about Bengalis. Before you say, “how else do you portray racist characters?” the answer is that the objection here is not to the portrayal of a racist reality but to the normalisation of that reality by a film in which no countering voice is offered.
(Possible spoilers ahead)
Since the saffron brigade usually claims victimhood, know this: the film’s anger is not confined to the central government’s policies and no party is mentioned by name. That PPL is taking on the political class at large is evident from the fact that Joy crosses swords with the two major parties in the state, and obviously, since this is Kerala, neither of them is BJP. Disdain is specifically directed at the state’s politicians. When a local man is taken hostage in another country, a Kerala neta is shown not wanting to help free the fellow, because if he succeeds then the credit would automatically go to the Union Minister for External Affairs who, we are pointedly told, is a woman. Hmm, now who might that be?
Further, while being dismissive of religious people who claim hurt sentiments at the drop of a hat in our country, the example used is of a couple of Christian conservatives who object to the use of the word “punyalan” (saint) in the name of a branded commercial product here, since that is a title used for canonised saints of the Catholic Church. Earlier this year, an RSS-affiliated TV channel had decried the dominance of Christian imagery in the highly acclaimed Angamaly Diaries. There has been no outcry on the church that is the centrepiece of PPL’s visuals, either because majoritarians see no reason to criticise a film that criticises a minority community’s nutcases or – and this second possible explanation should again make Kerala proud – because the social media knocked sense into them while lampooning them for that last review and reminded them that such visuals are most natural in a state with such a large Christian population especially in a film in which the protagonist belongs to that faith.
(Spoiler alert ends)
PPL is an equal opportunity offender, aiming its wrath across ideological divides, across communities and institutions, at demonetisation, the compulsory playing of the national anthem in movie halls, politics over women’s safety, poor roads, financial corruption and more. It is also often funny as hell. Now if only Ranjith Sankar had invested his courage, his liberalism and sense of humour in a script with some depth...
Rating (out of five stars): **
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Punyalan_Private_Limited