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An ode to Kerala and her people Through 10 filmmakers,10 journeys, one cinema. KERALA CAFE the quintessential railway cafeteria in every town and city. Over cups of coffee and timetables travelers cross paths, exchange glances, share stories and much more. From here, emerge stories full of humour, surprise, sensitivity, wonder, curiosity and revelations. Tales that illuminate the different faces of Kerala. Written by
Three days after watching Kerala Cafe, I am still reeling under the impact of Anwar Rasheed's "Bridge". Very little to say about it - this is cinema at its finest - technical choices perfectly complimenting the emotional story of the characters. A simple tale told with great power. Haven't seen a film like this in years.
If the other films in the series even touched the calibre of "Bridge", it would have been even more delicious - but that is probably too much to ask for in the state that Malayalam cinema is in today.
There are pluses and minuses. But the overall impact of Kerala Cafe is quite unforgettable. The film is presented in an interesting format - at least for Malayalam film-viewers. 10 short films - about 10 minutes each. If you don't like one, you quickly move on to the next. One could walk out picking the best and worst after these 2 hours - more preferable than feeling entirely upset after a full 2 and a half hours.
As would happen in such a viewing, it is the impact of the last few films that stays with you. The film that comes immediately after "Bridge", Revathy's "Makal"(Daughter) is set amongst Nagercoil's Tamil migrants. It is made with conviction, the cinematography and sound design delicately treading the characters' emotional journeys. Ultimately though, the screenplay is simplistic and predictable. I am glad this milieu was included in this series, though - an anthology about Kerala wouldn't be complete without a reference to Nagercoil or Palakkad. Right after that, the last film in the series, Laljose's "Puramkazhchyakal" (Passing Views) hits upon an ordinary situation that any commuter in Kerala would relate to. What had been significant about the 80s' middle-stream Malayalam film were the truthful characterizations. Writing real characters, steering clear of stereotypes, Laljose's film sets itself up as a wistful comedy of sorts, and ends up as a touching insight into a seemingly ordinary situation. The film is not without its flaws – the point of view shifts from Sreenivasan's character to Mamooty's irate co-passenger quite suddenly. Sreenivasan's flashback scenes are unnecessary and the film leaves you a little unsatisfied.
For many of us, some of these films might be predictable. But the short film format can be rather forgiving. As soon as you begin to notice a flaw, the film is already over.
Anjali Menon's "Happy Journey" takes place in a similar situation - this time, a bus journey to Kozhikode brings a creepy gentleman in his 50s (Jagathy) and a young woman (Nithya Menon) together. The film, which relies almost entirely on a smart, intriguing screenplay to deliver, does end up making you smile. Nithya Menon stands up quite impressively to Jagathy's mature performance. Of late, he has been tested and he has been delivering superbly (Passenger, Pazhassi Raja). One only wishes he'd be cast in off-cliché roles more often. Anjali Menon's direction is taut even if the screenplay falters - expect to see some very good work from this young director.
Early in the first half, a surprise - my other personal favourite -Shaji Kailas' "Lalitham Hiranmayam" (broadly, The Story of Two Women). Although helped by a first-class performance from Jyothirmayee, I was quite shocked by this particular director's restraint and his attempt to make an almost entirely visual film. Trust me, I had no idea that this film was made by Shaji Kailas – the director of films like "Commissioner", "Mafia", "Thalasthanam" (Capital City) and "FIR". Although the premise is hackneyed, the shot-taking, sound design and overall style is compelling. Among the films in the first half, this one remained with me the most. Both "Bridge" and "Lalitham Hiranmayam" are aiming for craft. Malayalam films, including most of the good films from the eighties (barring Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shaji N Karun,et al) looked to a theatrical style - these films seem to be opening out to a more audio-visual language.
Amongst the others, 3 films of note were B.Unnikrishnan's "Aviramam" (Endless), with a fine performance by Shweta Menon, Shankar Ramakrishnan's "Island Express" and Shyamaprasad's quirky "Off-Season". While "Aviramam" succeeds in a pulling-at-the-heart-strings approach, with its very real characters and subject, "Off-season" has an offbeat, albeit derivative treatment. For me, the story itself fell short, but still a worthy fit in this package. Shankar Ramakrishnan's "Island Express" begins with Prithviraj's voice-over. But Prithvi fans like Him and His Voice, so there. The film revisits a real-life train tragedy, an ensemble cast across different spaces and locations come together to the site of the accident. Some very cool shot-taking, decent performances and an elephant thrown into the mix, keep you going. I definitely expect this director to come up with some more entertainingly-told tales - we need more like you.
The most lacklustre of the Kerala Cafe films, "Nostalgia" is the first in this series - it has the smell of present-day Malayalam cinema – loads of dialog and over-the-top story-telling - the less said about them, the better. Uday Ananthan's "Mrityunjayam" (Victory Over Death) was even more mediocre - half-baked, a tad shallow and ending up looking amateurish. To be truthful, both these films were actually what I expected to see when I walked in.
To have ended up with a film like 'Bridge' is a real pleasure. And yes, the director, Anwar Rasheed has been around for a while. His earlier work does not reflect the sensitivity and sublime vision with which this film has been made. Clearly, we must forgive him. This is a true cinematic achievement.
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