Kerala: May 4, Delhi: May 25, 2018
Suraj Venjaramoodu, Rima Kallingal, Sheethal Shyam, Nirmal Palazhi, Alencier Ley Lopez, Indrans, Nithin Raj, Nassar, Abhija Sivakala, Mammukoya
When a bus called Gandhi from Democracy Travels takes off on a Karnataka-Kerala highway, it seems inevitable that this will be an eventful ride. The passengers include a lustful male conductor out to maul a beautiful single woman on board, a transsexual who bonds with the latter, a horny man who is turned on at the sight of a couple making out, a solo female traveller separated by a few seats from an attentive and attractive young fellow, a sickly chap seated beside a considerate youth, a child sexual abuse survivor, an over-zealous Christian duo, a hypocritical Muslim guy who makes puritanical demands on his wife, a thin-skinned Hindu pilgrim and a foreigner curious about Hinduism. Gandhi is part of a fleet that includes vehicles named Godse, Jinnah, Marx and Ambedkar.
This is the sort of concept that could potentially translate into terribly pretentious or terribly clever satire. Debutant writer-director Jubith Namradath’s Aabhaasam is a mixed bag. The christening of the buses ends up sounding puerile in a film that whiles away too much time getting to where it wants to go, and packs in too much blatant messaging on the way there. Too many metaphors in Aabhaasam lack subtlety, too many characters rear their heads with promise but then fade away, and there are too many socio-political references that, though current and relevant, barely skim the surface of the issues in question. In its exploration of gender dynamics on the bus though, Namradath does indeed make a significant point.
Aabhaasam variously means immorality, indecency and vulgarity. The director says the title is also a crunching down of Aarsha Bharatha Samskaram, a glorious era in India’s (arguably mythical) past. The irony clearly did not go down well with the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which initially gave Aabhaasam an unfairly severe A (adults only) rating, which was changed to UA after a long-drawn-out battle. Namradath has told the news media that the Censors attributed the A to his film’s “anti-establishment” nature. I will leave it to lawyers to discuss the illegality of that criterion, and dwell instead on the over-sensitivity of the sarkar.
If “establishment” is to be read literally here as “India’s present government / ruling party”, then the examining committee was most probably irked by the (amusing) mention in the film of beef dishes being camouflaged on the menu of a Malayali restaurant in Karnataka. It is a measure of this government’s extreme insecurity that its flunkies in the CBFC have found this passing aside in Aabhaasam bothersome.
If “anti-establishment” is to be read as “anti-status quo”, well then, it is the job of creative persons to question prevailing power structures, and yes, Aabhaasam does that. It is not the CBFC’s job to object to this (or any) filmmaker’s decision to hammer patriarchy and sexual repression, take minor potshots at major religions and the government.
Aabhaasam’s earnestness in an intimidating political environment is no doubt impressive. Sadly, its good intentions take it only so far and not further.
The success of an ensemble enterprise depends on the writer developing multiple single-line descriptors into full-fledged characters, memorable whether they are big or small. The sexually unapologetic Seema from Angamaly Diaries, Kachra the Dalit spinner from Lagaan and Maman the vile gangster from Slumdog Millionaire are what iconic ensemble films are made of – etched forever in the public consciousness although they were just satellite presences in their respective films. Despite Aabhaasam’s ensemble cast of respected artistes, most of the characters are briefly engaging but not effectively expanded by the screenplay into individuals with a distinctive personality and profile that goes beyond the markers of the social group they are meant to represent.
The only fully-fleshed-out player in Aabhaasam, the person who makes the film worthwhile, is the creepy bus attendant played by Suraj Venjaramoodu. The story emerging from his actions, the equation that forms between the woman he targets (Rima Kallingal), her new found trans friend (Sheethal Shyam) and the stranger played by Abhija Sivakala, lead to well-thought-out consequences and a credible conclusion.
It helps that all four actors are remarkable. Kallingal and Shyam deserved better-scripted roles, but they do well with what they are served. Venjaramoodu, with the benefit of the film’s best-written part, makes a chameleon-like descent into sliminess that is particularly striking because his turn as a sweetly subdued husband to a fiery wife in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum last year is still so fresh in the mind. Sivakala is a powerhouse performer and makes a mark with just a few minutes of screen time.
Namradath’s potential is evident with the strand involving this quartet in Aabhaasam. Their impact is diluted inexcusably though by the many wanderings in the screenplay, including a self-indulgent, intellectually la-di-da sequence in the lap of nature featuring Kallingal and Shyam. As if infected by the mood, editor Shameer Muhammed, who is otherwise so wonderful, allows too many moments, shots and scenes to linger longer than they should until the film’s final, finally interesting half hour.
If great principles alone could make great art, every activist would be an artist. Jubith Namradath’s sincerity is evident in Aabhaasam but obviously more was needed. Where his film works is when it is not making over-smart, snappy statements, but telling a story instead. Honestly, that story should have been enough.
Rating (out of five stars): *3/4
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost:
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