Few unabashedly sentimental films have moved me as much as this one. Perhaps it's the intrinsically "human" appeal of a story about a regular guy who's simply out for a corner of the world he can call his own -- except that he keeps running into the brute fact of a world that is, at best, indifferent, and at worst, actively malevolent. Or perhaps it's the incredibly empathetic performance by Mohanlal, who flits between masala hero and vulnerable soul with an ease that must be the envy of both his "artsy" as well as his "mainstream" colleagues. It might even be its socio-political salience, as the middle-class family (of modest, albeit grasping, means), pro-worker, pro-thuggery labor unions, and license raj bureaucrats all come in for their fair share of flak. Not to mention its uncompromising ending, grim but not bleak, and holding out the promise of a better tomorrow. Whatever it is, Sathyan Anthikkad's tale of a Gulf-returned laborer whose attempts to start a small business with his hard-earned savings are stymied by the rot around him unfolds like a fable, and like the best of them retains a thoroughly "local" feel while presenting an appeal that transcends notions of the (merely) regional. In this it is aided by the film's modesty: its plea for an environment more conducive to private enterprise is certainly passionate (and loud), but Varavelppu is no polemic. It certainly preserves a taste for grand gestures, but Anthikkad displays an ascetic side by refusing to succumb to the temptation of rewarding these gestures with anything like success. The greatest success, the film suggests, is that Muralidharan (Mohanlal) leaves yet again for the Gulf unbroken, though saddened.
No discussion of Varavelppu would be complete without mention of its cast. Mohanlal's seamless greatness has already been noted above; it also goes without saying: I have not seen too many Mohanlal films, but I have never seen this man give anything like a rough performance, however challenging or trivial the role. For a man of his talents, Varavelppu is hardly the most challenging fare, but Mohanlal's seeming indifference to the nature of the role given him appears -- at least to this viewer -- almost radical. In this film he is well-served by the cast around him: in particular, Revathi impresses in an utterly stereotyped role, as do the actors who play Muralidharan's ungrateful brothers and their respective wives, ingratiating when they think the returnee will give them even more money than he has been sending home for the preceding seven years, and coolly distant when they realize this cash cow has been squeezed dry. Last, but not least, Srinivasan (another actor who increasingly impresses me the more I see of him) is pitch perfect (and funny) as the quintessential license raj bureaucrat who knows the relevant regulation like the back of his hand, but refuses to know anything besides.