Kerala: June 21, 2019
Delhi: June 28, 2019
Tovino Thomas, Anu Sithara, Salim Kumar, Sreenivasan, Lal, Siddique, Nikki Hulowski, Vijayaraghavan, Mala Parvathy, Appani Sarath, Resul Pookutty, Zarina Wahab
Malayalam with some (subtitled) English
“It takes a village to raise a child,” goes the old saying. In Salim Ahamed’s And The Oskar Goes To we get to see how sometimes it takes a village to make one man’s dream come true. The National Award winning writer-director’s new film seems to roughly at least mirror his own journey as a young filmmaker whose debut venture, Adaminte Makan Abu, won the National Award for Best Feature and was India’s entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2011. In this fictional account, Tovino Thomas plays Issak Ebrahem who quits work as a TV writer and dives into the world of cinema, which is where he has always wanted to be.
With no connections in the industry, Issak struggles to scrape together every last paisa needed for his first production, putting all his savings on the line while also relying on loans, the kindness of relatives, friends and even strangers. Money is in short supply but many of the artists and technicians who come on board to work on his Minnaminungukalude Aakasham (Sky of the Fireflies) are drawn to his sincerity and driven by his quality script.
This part of And The Oskar Goes To strikes an emotional chord because of the detailing – and even occasional unexpected humour – in its bird’s eye take on a talented man’s back-breaking odyssey, which has the potential to crush the spirit of lesser mortals. The action in the first half moves along in such a credible fashion that it almost feels like a reality show about the making of Sky of the Fireflies. Besides, the cinematography by Madhu Ambat brings out the gorgeousness of Kerala’s mountainous countryside and one breathtaking night-time aerial shot of a bus moving up a winding forest road is tattooed into my memory forever.
The tribulations of film people have often been fodder for film scripts, and Issak’s story is without question worthy material. His conviction and monumental determination are palpable across the barrier of the screen. And Thomas is just stunning as the protagonist. There is no other word for it.
It would not be a spoiler to reveal that Sky of the Fireflies is a smashing success with critics and awards juries, and ends up being India’s entry for the Academy Awards that year. This is where And The Oskar Goes To loses its footing. The storyline gets scant, songs are needlessly bunged into the narrative, shots linger longer than required without saying anything, and the storytelling becomes exasperatingly literal. If the hero has a meeting with the real-life Resul Pookkutty, do you absolutely have to show him waiting for the meeting, then sweep your camera over to Pookkutty descending a long flight of stairs, cut to the acclaimed sound professional’s Oscar acceptance speech, and only then settle on their meeting? This happens often enough after Sky of the Fireflies is released for And The Oskar Goes To to feel stretched, making its barely 2 hours of running time feel like too much.
No doubt the humiliation Issak faces in Los Angeles reflects reality. Remember just last year, National Award winning director Rima Das let it be known that she did not have the funds to promote her Village Rockstars in LA when it was sent as India’s entry to the Oscars. Equally believable is the characterisation of Issak’s aggressive American PR agent Mariya (Nikki Hulowski) and the helpful NRI named Prince (Siddique). On a separate note, it is nice to see Malayalam subs embedded in the print for the abundance of English dialogues in the US segment. None of this is enough though because the tone of the film has changed by now and it has become another film altogether. From the intimate feel of the pre-interval portion and its believable intricacies, And The Oskar Goes To at this point has jumped to broad brushstrokes and wasted stretches.
This portion if compacted could perhaps have been a telling comment on the pain behind those PR-driven photographs in the glam business, the truths we hide away from our Facebook status updates and Instagram pictures, or how sometimes the end of one struggle in life just leads to the beginning of another. If these points get lost here, it is because this part of the film is just too elongated and too generic.
Thomas is surrounded by able supporting actors who fill out their respective roles well. It comes as a relief that Hulowski in particular turns out to be competent, a relief because many Indian film makers shooting on foreign shores tend to cut costs by hiring really terrible supporting actors abroad.
The writing of Chithra comes as a disappointment though, because at first she looks like someone who will be important in the film but soon fades into the background only to make occasional brief appearances. If nothing else, a fine actor like Anu Sithara deserves better than that.
What is most off-putting though is the treatment meted out by the screenplay to a character called Moidukka (Salim Kumar). His initial response to the discovery that his experiences inspired Sky of the Fireflies is portrayed as an opportunistic attempt to leech off Issak’s maiden success, when in fact the latter should have been shown up for what he was: a selfish, callous artist who did not think it fit to even inform an old man and his family about a script based on their life.
Issak’s very late attempt to spend time with Moidukka, his wife and children is incorporated into And The Oskar Goes To to make a larger philosophical point about the difference between art and real life, but his apologetic demeanour on learning their truth does not acknowledge the extent of his wrongdoing. That he cashed in on someone else’s misfortunes without even a by your leave is inconsistent with the decency and humanity that he is shown to have from the start. That he did not think it fit to persuade the actor Aravindan (Sreenivasan), who plays Moidukka in Sky of the Fireflies, to meet his real-life counterpart as preparation for the role, is inconsistent with the extreme commitment to his craft that he otherwise displays. This uneven treatment of the central character is the worst part of this film, and its problematic casualness towards Issak’s problematic casualness set me wondering whether it unwittingly betrays Salim Ahamed’s own worldview.
Through all this, Tovino Thomas stands sturdy as a rock. That diffidence and look of hunger on his face in one scene, the fatigue right from the beginning in contrast with his fresh, neatly turned out appearance in most of his films, the earnestness and humility that survive the national spotlight, those moments when he is teetering on the precipice of a breakdown are all heart-wrenching to behold.
The actor has been good to excellent in all his performances so far, but I confess that when I saw two films starring him in this week’s theatre schedules for the National Capital Region, I expected to feel somewhat fatigued by an overdose of him. However, his role and performance in And The Oskar Goes To is chalk to Luca’s cheese. As a viewer, I still wish he would rethink his signing spree and get us to miss him just a little bit, but as things stand, if there is an actor one must OD on I guess I would prefer him to most. Even the most pretentious parts of this film fail to overshadow his exquisite performance, and its tedious second half notwithstanding, And The Oskar Goes To is a tale of genuine anguish that deserved to be told. If only it had been told better...
Rating (out of five stars): **1/2
CBFC Rating (India):
This review has also been published on Firstpost: