Saturday, March 12, 2016

A Note on BANGALORE DAYS (Malayalam; 2014)

Everything about the way Bangalore Days begins, it turns out, is a bit misleading: the opening frames introduce us to the narrator, a dorky, newly-minted software engineer called Krishnan P. P. (Nivin Pauly) with dreams of the big city, and then to his cousin Divya (Nazriya Nazim), who puts her dreams of a MBA on hold after meeting the man her parents have set her up with, the aloof America-returned executive Das (Fahadh Faasil); and finally to a third cousin, the free-spirited biker Arjun (Dulquer Salman).  The cloying "nativist" sentiments of those opening scenes, or what felt like par-for-the-course sexism, weren't promising, and it seemed the most one could expect was a breezy film, insubstantial coming-of-age fluff of the sort Bollywood has made us gag on for some years now, rendered bearable by the likable Dulquer Salman.  By the time she was done, though, writer and director Anjali Menon had made me swallow every single one of those presumptions, with this measured, charming, emotionally resonant film, one that is quite a bit cleverer than the plot -- the love stories of these characters, present and (in one case) past -- would have one believe.

The film's length is crucial to its impact: certainly most Hindi films these days barely clock in at a couple of hours, and on this sort of terrain that isn't (at least not in the absence of very good writing) enough time to develop characters, for the viewer to invest in them.  Bangalore Days is a few minutes shy of three hours, and that old-fashioned length is put to good use: Menon is able to accord each of the four major characters a lot of time, patiently developing their arcs, tying up loose ends, and in almost all cases upsetting the expectations of the cynical viewer.  (In the process, Menon also does justice to the strong album, even if Gopi Sunder's music sounds like it would be most at home in a Tamil film.)  By film's end, we see the same characters, but refracted differently from the outset. Krishnan's fixation on all things traditionally Kerala ultimately seems nostalgic rather than blinkered, especially given all that has happened, not least the abandonment of that tradition by the one Krishna had assumed would be most invested in it.  Here, as elsewhere, Menon is more thoughtful than her genre typically allows, sensitive to the reality that the son's beloved tradition of home and hearth might be the mother's drudgery of endless toil and limited vistas.  For her part, Divya shows herself to be made of sterner stuff than her early amenability suggests, in a turn that includes a (very gentle) rebuke of Malayalee bourgeois ideals of domesticity.  The biggest change is in how we view Das: the film's early cues -- about his authoritarianism, his domination of his young wife, even his fondness for dogs -- acquire a completely different valence as we learn more about him, and he ultimately emerges as the film's most interesting character, strikingly rendered by Fahadh Faasil (the son, incidentally, of prominent Malayalam film director Fazil) in a fine, restrained performance.  None of these arcs, ironically, redounds to the credit of either Arjun or Dulquer, both of whom leave the film as charming as they entered it, but no more layered.  That isn't a crime, especially if one is as likable as Dulquer is (although I certainly found myself missing the father's rough edges, that trace of nastiness that always spiced up a Mammootty performance), but it does mean that the standout performances in this ensemble cast belong to Faasil and then to Nivin Pauly.

Living in India over the last five years I'd heard a number of jokes about the special place Bangalore holds in the hearts of Keralites, but I was nevertheless un-prepared for the scope of this film's claim to that effect: Bangalore Days never tires of reminding us that Bangalore is no mere city or land of economic opportunity for Keralites, but a state of mind, a horizon, the place where one can be fully oneself.  I cannot pretend to know enough about the culture to evaluate this claim, but I was moved by the earnestness with which it was made: whether or not it bears the same name, we should all have such a place.

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