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Shame, Mr. Mammootty!
A film like this from a veteran of Malayalam cinema is a shock and a shame. Thilakan once said of Mammootty that he is a "made" actor - and seeing this movie reminded me how astute his insight is. The movie is a blatant ego-massage - not unlike the dozens of films Mammootty and Mohanlal (and Suresh Gopi and Jayaram, in their own lesser ways) have done in the recent past. These films glorify savagery, a barbaric code of honour, violence, misogyny, and self-righteousness of the most hideous sort.
Mammootty plays the role of a feudal overlord with his own 'praja' - ironically enough, mostly ex-villains of 80s and 90s Malayalam cinema now turned lackeys of this great hero-superman - and as is usual in these loud, unbearably shrill movies, he hees and haws and hams until you can't stand his histrionics. His character plays every conceivable role Mammootty himself plays in real life - hero, lawyer, leader, vigilante, every self-proclaimed title rolled up into one. Except maybe romancing a girl old enough to be his daughter, which he does in the film with, I am happy to say, minimal commitment. My personal shock was at seeing Sreenivasan - that wonderful benediction to Malayalam cinema - play an illogical, utterly vacuous role, with neither significance nor meaning. What kind of movie-making is this? Mammootty - are you accountable to your audiences at all? Are you the same man that makes "meaningful cinema"? The film is so insidiously subversive of every virtue civil society stands by - and the joke is that the land that Mammootty's character rules over is supposed to stand for a utopia whose example Kerala (and eventually India if only the rest of the sleeping states woke up) would do well to follow.
I am so shocked I decided to write a review! Thilakan, Nedumudi Venu, Siddiq and Seema are all wasted in this horrific film. Mammootty stands at the head of this shocker - a film written obviously to placate his admirers, and a film that begets and feeds the flames of his celebrity. What a wonderful actor he can be - if only he acted roles other than his self-image!
Avoid the film - at all costs. And pray, give Malayalam cinema another chance!
Naalu Pennungal (2007)
Adoor's latest film is a visual treat. The movie is comprised of four vignettes: of women in different social roles - the prostitute, the virgin, the housewife, and the spinster. A fragmented narrative that allows Adoor a kind of liberating space in terms of story-telling. The movie has no linear plot, and staves off closure in different ways, giving the director freedom to explore women's differing positions under different times and in different social strata in Kerala society.
For students of Adoor, there is much to discuss - the use of food, representations of men, male desire, female sexuality, conceptions of women's honour and virtue, the use of elements and so on. For Adoor fans, this and the last film, Shadow Kill, will come as special delights for the sheer brilliance in visuals. For far too long, Adoor's powerful movies have also been bleak and unremitting as spectacle. 'Four Women' in particular, capitalizes on the best of sound and cameras, on cutting-edge technology in digital movie-making, and presents a face of Kerala that is truly breathtaking. The last vignette, in particular, has haunting images and sounds of the Kerala backwaters where nostalgia mingles with tradition and feminism in a heady brew of celluloid brilliance.
Adoor's women present typical versions of patriarchal domination as well as feminist rebellion, and therein the four vignettes miss out on an opportunity to make any radical statement. Perhaps, Adoor could have looked at women as women - excessive of their social roles, but then that would have gone against the premises of the film as it stands, which want to show women IN their social roles. In any case, I have no complaints, and have utterly enjoyed the master whose craft, method, and implements make cinema art!
Ami, Yasin Ar Amar Madhubala (2007)
A ragbag of ideas poorly executed
I saw 'The Voyeurs' at the Toronto Film Festival, along with Adoor's masterly and stunning 'Four Women' and Rituparno's well-crafted though much lesser (than Adoor) 'The Last Lear'. And oh dear - what is one to say to Buddhadeb da's new enterprise but 'alas!' To wit, the movie is a brilliant idea: we are all voyeurs, says the Director, from the ordinary computer-savvy individual to the media-driven State whose institutional apparatuses of 'watching' entrap us all. The movie's ambitious sweep wants to connect billboards, tabloidism, systems of surveillance - from the rich Marwari who wants to catch his cheating wife to the movie's protagonists who wish to watch the object of their affections surreptitiously, using a spy-cam, to the Big Bad State which keeps us all in surveillance in our terrorism-ridden times, with cameras at railway stations and hospitals and whatnot. So while you can run, you can't hide - as these 'images' - naked or otherwise - jump out of their billboards or TV's or computers or where ever else they might be, and join you in your pesky business of living. Brilliant idea! And the job of a film-maker is to make these connections, and that is where the movie totally loses its cache. The acting is under-par, the pacing difficult, and generally, the film gains nothing from its visual dimension (unlike the visual delight that 'Four Women' is). The movie attempts too much and delivers too little: the lead actors are unimpressive, the surreal elements appear contrived and strained, and the film tries too hard to be a film-festival-film. Not a single frame is memorable, not one bit of dialogue comes away with you, and there is no character with whom you can empathize. This is sad, given how immensely talented Dasgupta is, but the movie is a ragbag of ideas poorly executed, and from Buddhadeb da, this is a terrible let-down.
What do we believe in?
Jayaraaj is a canny director - he ropes in for an unusual subject some of Malayalam cinema's most popular stars and manages to extract from them performances of their life. There is no point giving away the story - which is the movie's great strength: a rarity in a country whose cinema is often more than willing to go with cliché and formula.
Geetha turns in an impeccable cameo as she always does. The big clash between faith in god and faith in man, theism and atheism, ritual and belief of one kind versus another is embodied in the tussle between Suresh Gopi's character and that of his father played by the always-solid (Professor) Narendran, a revered priest in the film. Set in a changing India, the film captures a young Marxist in Kerala in confrontation with an older way of life that he (rather easily) brands as superstition and oppression. As audience, we must navigate constantly - Gopi speaks on behalf of an aggressive idealism that seeks to break down Kerala's (India's?) age-old servility to a feudal/hierarchical and deeply oppressive agrarian order. Narendran stands for an increasingly moribund way of life, all the more sentimentalized because his character stands unflinching, with a quiet dignity, in the face of a galloping new mindset that recasts all belief as superstition and empty ritual.
In between these two seemingly indomitable men is the character of Bhanu Namboodiri (played challengingly by Jayaram), a priest novitiate under father Narendran. In Bhanu's torn love for brother Gopi and fidelity to his own belief, like father Narendran, in a higher order of things, the audience finds a rough moving parallel.
The music is by far the best thing in the film - 'Seetha Kalyana' rendered by Chitra and later by the inimitable Yesudas with a kind of haunting power carries the entire film.
The movie has its problems - some simplifications, a less than consistent cinematography, some nostalgia even - but over-all, Jayaraaj presents a moving look at a fundamental question of human existence: what do we believe in?
An adaptation that stands on its own
"Kaliyattam" is an interesting film -- it declares its lineage at the very beginning, and the comparison with Shakespeare's "Othello" sets the tone of the film. And yet from the first shot, it is the brilliant reimagining that strikes you. Because the defining feature of the film is NOT its plot--but the characters and the overall mood.
Suresh Gopi plays Perumalayan (the chief of the tribe of Malayans) an overweight artiste (true enough to be real!) who is however regarded highly for his 'theyyam' skills, and famed for his expertise in 'kaliyattam', the ancestor of 'kathakali,' Kerala's premier dance-form. Gopi's character has none of the sexual appeal of Othello (the stuff of much racist stereotyping) and is instead a rather ugly-looking man, remarkable for his artistic virtuosity and little else. It is therefore almost incredible why Thamara (Desdemona, played with a quiet strength of conviction by the underrated Manju Warrier) should fall in love with him, defy her father, her community, and marry him for the sake of an illogical love. The movie's realism underscores this and a distraught Perumalayan's inner complexes stem as much from his wife's unparalleled beauty and high status (strange casting, because Warrier is no Helen of Troy, but shines forth as a rather homely though eloquent beauty) as from his own poor looks and lack of self-worth.
Iago is played by Lal and he plays the role with infectious energy--diabolical, dionysian, yet extremely credible. Lal is a waste in much else he has done in Malayalam cinema, but 'Kaliyattam' should make him proud.
The supporting roles are all played winningly-- watch out esp. for the late Prof Narendran, who plays Thamara's father with a subtle power.
The music (what Indian film is complete without its music!)-- in much of the film, it is subservient to mood and tone, and without detracting from the realism, underscores how 'oral' Indian cinematic traditions are, and how much they borrow from local folk theatre and dance.
The movie will delight adaptation-lovers, but it might be best to rate it on its own terms-- 'Othello' is a searching analysis of one of the most central concerns of Western literature: racism; 'Kaliyattam' is an homage less to Shakespeare than to Jayaraaj's own complex vision of art and the place of the artist in human life.