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Jail Warder
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(as Karamana)
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Jailor
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Razzaq
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Judge
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(as Babu Nampoothiri)
B.K. Nair ...
Ammavan
Vembayam Thampi ...
Thorappan
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Police Constable
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Police Constable
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based on novel | See All (1) »

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18 May 1990 (India)  »

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A prison sojourn without drama
16 May 2003 | by (Bethesda MD) – See all my reviews

In 1942, Basheer, a noted writer in Kerala, South India, was imprisoned by the British Government for "treason", i.e. advocating the exit of the British. Sentenced to 2-1/2 years, he was released early by an amnesty. This movie depicts his months within the prison walls.

And how lacking in incident or interest those months were! Mostly he passes the time smoking, walking about the yard, growing roses, scribbling, and talking with the other prisoners. (The politicals wear white hats, the murderers red, and all others black.) Everyone has heard of him, and he is cheerful to everyone, occasionally offering spiritual advice (like admonishing a guard for stealing his petty property). He is given small presents by the guards and other prisoners--cigarettes, tea, dried fish, writing paper. He meets an old classmate, who was whipped and shackled for petty disobedience, but this is the worst brutality he encounters. His political conversations are equally shallow, consisting mostly of gossip about "Gandhiji", and singing anthems. It is never revealed what he is writing in prison, though his guards request autographed copies of it when it is published. (Other prison writings have included Marco Polo's Travels, Don Quixote, and Mein Kampf, but nothing of that caliber appears here.) When all political prisoners except Basheer are amnestied, he goes into a bit of a funk, but perks up by having bland conversations with an unseen female prisoner beyond the wall in the women's cells. Just before he can meet her by faking illness, he is suddenly released.

Now, drama is built on conflict; but all the conflict in this film is offstage. Basheer is played by Mammootty, an immensely popular Indian actor (almost 300 films!), who has the easy charm of George Clooney, as well as his physical presence. (The latter jars when he speaks of having frequently known hunger.) Other than his old schoolmate, no other character even has a backstory beyond the name of the crime they were sent in for. Perhaps the roses were symbolic, perhaps the wall that blocked his view of the women. But I found very little mental or emotional nourishment to feed on in this movie.


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