January 26, 2018
Pranav Mohanlal, Lena, Siddique, Anusree, Sharafudheen, Meghanathan, Jagapati Babu, Siju Wilson, Aditi Ravi, Tony Luke
Late one night on the darkened terrace of a Bengaluru nightclub, three men engage in fisticuffs as a hapless woman tries to stop them. One of them suffers a fatal fall off the roof. To save himself from the dead chap’s influential millionaire father’s wrath, another member of the trio blames the death on the third man there, aspiring musician Aditya Mohan a.k.a. Aadhi.
What follows is over two hours of one of the most exciting rollercoaster rides ever to emerge from Malayalam cinema, as Aadhi ducks the police, a ruthless rich man’s wide network and the machinations of the fellow trying to protect himself. Writer-director Jeethu Joseph, who gave us the brilliant thriller Drishyam in 2013 (remade in four Indian languages), offers ample reparation here for his surprisingly slapdash Oozham released in 2016. Aadhi is marked by some clever writing, slick execution, top-notch production values and chases that are so frickin’ awesome, they rival the Bourne films although Mollywood works on a fraction of the budget of an average Hollywood venture.
The film looks good from the word go, but it begins with two needless reminders that its leading man, Pranav Mohanlal playing Aadhi, is the son of megastar Mohanlal. Pranav has acted as a child but this is his debut as an adult. First, we have the credits running over Aadhi in a club singing the title track of the 1980 film with which Lalettan made his debut, Manjil Virinja Pookkal. A few minutes later, Mohanlal himself makes a brief appearance.
While the quality of the shooting of the club scene and the rendition of that still-goosebump-inducing number are top notch, the need for either passage – especially the star cameo – is questionable. Hey we get it: Pranav has a famous Daddy. But to unnecessarily stress and re-stress that point within the narrative is to unnecessarily remind us that doors open far more easily for the son of Mohanlal than they would for the child of an unknown person which, while being true of course, is a disservice to the young man who shows us through Aadhi’s 2 hours and 38 minutes that he has the chops to stand on his own feet now that his surname has given him a headstart over his contemporaries.
Aadhi’s early scenes establish the easy equation between the hero, his mother Rosy and father Mohan. Although the film is not positioned as a deeply intellectual affair, it is evident from then on that it does not intend to insult viewer intelligence either.
In the first conversation we witness between Aadhi and his mother, we learn that she is a Christian, the father a Hindu, and they eloped when Rosy was just 18. The inter-community marriage sans conversion (Rosy does not change her faith, as is usually expected of women in such situations) and the informal parent-child relationship suggest a liberal family. Yet, when Aadhi jokingly tells Rosy that he intends to bring home a Muslim bride to make a secular point, her face falls although she tries to camouflage her evident discomfort with the idea. That passing exchange is an unobtrusive reminder of how divided Kerala society truly is below the surface, even if it is better off than most of the rest of India in this matter.
Soon, the warmth of Aadhi’s home in Kerala is overtaken by the chill that follows that accidental death on a rooftop in Karnataka, and Aadhi’s musical prowess takes a backseat as life calls on him to make use of his training in the martial art form parkour. The effectiveness of this film comes from the impeccable balance it achieves between its breathtaking stunts and the emotional heft in the saga of a nice guy caught in a tragic situation not of his making, of supportive parents desperate to save him and strangers who step up to risk their all for him.
The basic nuts and bolts of the script may sound vaguely familiar, but the treatment is refreshing, the action unique in the Mollywood scenario and the film as a whole gloriously entertaining.
While the storyline tugs at the heartstrings, the chase sequences could put a heart patient at risk. Pranav and the artistes playing his enemies turn the film into an unrelenting adrenaline rush as they race through back alleys, sprint across rooftops, dangle from verandahs, vault over walls, leap through rather than around various other hurdles and display seemingly superhuman physical skills.
Yet, Aadhi is no superhero. His endearingly human qualities are a far cry from the irritating machoism of most male protagonists in Malayalam cinema these days. He is achingly youthful and scared, and neither the actor nor the director tries to mask the character’s vulnerabilities to appeal to testosterone-ridden sections of the audience. Aadhi weeps with fear and heartbreak, he pukes with fatigue and tension, and even while he seeks to keep his family and friends out of harm’s way, he does not hesitate to call for help when it is evident that he cannot do without it.
Despite the genre and the fact that the film does not project itself as anything but a mission to get audience pulses racing, it still continues to display its political consciousness in this and other ways. I love the fact that there are Malayalam subtitles embedded in the print for Kannada dialogues, a sign that the maker respects the possibility that his core audience may very possibly not know any language other than Malayalam (too many Mollywood films unfairly assume that their primary viewers understand multiple languages).
The only truly troubling moments in Aadhi come when more than one character blames the woman on the roof for Aadhi’s problems since the men were fighting over her. The second person to accuse her softens the blow by saying she was “knowingly or unknowingly” responsible, but that is not enough in a world that routinely holds women accountable for the consequences of men’s deeds. The fleeting allusion to caste resentments within business families could perhaps have been less fleeting, but that is a minor grouse.
The centerpiece of the proceedings in this film is Pranav’s parkour training. Far from playing spoilsport by demystifying the stunts while showing us the harnesses, green screens and other aids that make such incredible feats possible, the outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage accompanying the end credits provide evidence of Pranav’s – and his co-stars’ – litheness and craft, which is what makes everything so convincing. (It was nice too to catch a glimpse of a female trainer in those shots. I wonder why Joseph did not include a woman among the supporting action artistes on screen.)
Parkour is not Pranav’s only strength. He is sweet-looking and a natural before the camera. Although it is not possible to tell whether he would be able to carry off a film outside the action genre, here he is a perfect fit.
Aadhi is clearly the film’s central character, but make no mistake about this: this is an ensemble film where Joseph’s writing, bolstered by a gifted cast, makes each small role memorable. Jagapati Babu could have gone over the top as the wealthy industrialist who pursues Aadhi with murderous intent after the loss of a son, but he keeps himself in check. The ever-dependable Lena and Siddique bring warmth to their turn as Aadhi’s anxious parents. Lena in particular is so trim and attractive that you know if she were a man (well, frankly, even if she were a tubby man) she would have been routinely getting lead roles rather than being a constant presence as a character artiste in Malayalam cinema.
My favourite people in this film are the poor siblings who go out of their way to help Aadhi when he is in distress. Jaya and Sharath are believable reminders that basic human decency does exist, a point brought out so well sans melodrama by actors Anusree and Sharafudheen. The friendship that blossoms between these three in the middle of a traumatic situation is heartwarming to say the least.
Aadhi is neither a whodunnit nor a howdunnit but a how-he-escaped-from-being-accused-of-it. Considering that almost all the cards are laid out on the table within the first half hour, it is commendable that Jeethu Joseph keeps the suspense going till the end and that he does not resort to any irritating contrivances.
The smashing action choreography – backed by excellent sound design and background music – holds Aadhi all the way up to its nail-biting climactic battle. I found myself letting out involuntary whoops of delight every time Pranav Mohanlal/Aditya Mohan zipped across the screen or smoothly leapt over an obstacle and keeping my fingers crossed for him in a way an audience member only will while watching an artiste who is so lost in his performance that you lose yourself in him. What a fun showcase this is for such a likeable newcomer.
Rating (out of five stars): ***1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review was also published on Firstpost:
Poster courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/AadhiMovieMalayalam/