Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Maheshenthe Prathikaaram (Malayalam; 2016)

The charms of Maheshenthe Prathikaaram, Dileesh Pothan’s 2016 directorial debut, cannot be reduced to its plot, fresh though this is: the tale of everyman Mahesh Bhavana (Fahadh Faasil), worried about his father’s advancing age, passed over by the woman he has long loved in favor of a groom with better prospects, publicly humiliated in an un-related village brawl, and Mahesh’s vow to forego slippers until he has avenged his insult, never lost my interest as it wended its way through the contours of its lead protagonist’s life, and on to a resolution.  More importantly, the plot never becomes farcical, not even that last bit about Mahesh’s vow: in the context of the film, it seems quite organic, the self-inflicted wound of a modest man at the end of his tether.

Pothan intuitively grasps that for contemporary Malayalam cinema to thrive, it must be and mean something other than what Tamil cinema offers on a larger canvas, avoiding the trap of the “merely” local, an “authentic” counter to the national hegemony of Bollywood.  Tamil cinema is of course a lot more than that, but far too often over the last decade or so, even (especially?) in its best films, Tamil cinema has been content with the fact of representation – and while I (an outsider in some way to all non-Hindi Indian cinematic traditions) have reveled in it, especially where the representations are of people and milieus increasingly elided from Hindi popular cinema (and not only Hindi popular cinema), that says more about the sort of globalized, plastic sludge that is most of Bollywood, than it does about the path the so-called “new” Tamil cinema has been on.  

Conversely, the most populist cinematic forms (in Tamil, Telugu, and even in Hindi (for instance, in Salman Khan’s films over the last decade)) suffer from an inability to re-invigorate masala filmmaking idioms, positing a hyper-masculine “rootedness” (as another marker of cultural authenticity, even as the paradigm seems exhausted and stale (although Tamil cinema seems alone in its worthy attempts to problematize this sort of masala while re-affirming its central gestures, as shown by the likes of Vikram Vedha; tellingly, however, that runaway hit featured Madhavan and Vijay Sethupati, and it’s hard to imagine a Vijay or even, sadly, Surya, in anything like it).  Malayalam cinema is itself no stranger to crude masala cinema, as the heartbreaking choices of Mammooty and Mohanlal over the last couple of decades loudly remind us; but I suspect the alternative Hindi cinema has chosen – an urbane, Malayali version of the sort of middling film that does well in Hindi and is in self-conscious step with the mood of the urban bourgeoisie, the sort of film Dulquer Salman risks specializing in – does not offer a viable path either.  I enjoyed the likes of Bangalore Days, Ustad Hotel and Kammatipaadam quite a bit, but too many of these risk the permanent displacement of Malayalam cinema in favor of Hindi and Tamil cinema.

So what? Pothan is one of those Malayalam filmmakers who intuits that at its best, Malayalam popular cinema has been a vehicle for the universal in the local, and a particular sort of universal at that, firmly on the side of the humane, the gentle, even, it must be said, of the slow, and thus the very antithesis of Indian cinematic modernity (both in its rootless and its self-consciously “artsy” avatars).  Maheshenthe Prathikaaram is a worthy addition to this tradition, drawing viewers in with a painstakingly constructed sense of place and character.  Pothan announces his intentions early on when the film opens with an ode to Idukki (no breeze, we are told, is sweeter than the one that blows here, and the lush greenery of the backdrop makes that claim plausible), before the setting gives way to the village lanes, homes and shops where most of the film unfolds.  

That setting is memorable in no small measure due to the combined efforts of Pothan’s colleagues: Bijibal’s melodious songs are integral to the ambience of this film, his post-Rahman, post-Harris Jayaraj romantic numbers unobtrusive and sweet; Shyju Khalid’s camera-work is assured, and he deserves credit for not letting the film’s visuals lapse into the usual clichés surrounding God’s Own Country (witness the scene in the forest, late in Maheshenthe Prathikaaram, where Mahesh and his friend gaze up at a large cotton tree, the delicate white flowers floating down, furnishing them ideas for an urban photo-shoot a few minutes later).  Finally, the art direction and costume design, by, respectively, Ajayan Chalissery and Sameera Saneesh, bring the village to life: no two domestic interiors are alike (anyone who pays such close attention to metal gates and grates, and wire-backed chairs, is A-OK in my book), and the outdoor spaces are no less distinct: witness the stairs leading up from the bus-stop to the photography studios where Mahesh, Babychetta and Crispin while away their days, with green mountains serving as backdrop to the little establishments, pretty without the sin of postcard picturesque – that entire setting (and it plays a crucial role in Mahesh’s and Jimsy’s love story) stayed with me long after the film was over.

[Added 3/1/18:

Fahadh Faasil is excellent in the title role, and one really has to have seen him in other films (Bangalore Days, for instance) to appreciate how immersed he is playing the part of a small-town photographer specializing in weddings and passport shots.  In the finest traditions of Malayalam cinema, Faasil is understated and gentle, and (a rarity these days anywhere) isn’t afraid to shed tears onscreen (he weeps with great, heaving sobs when his girlfriend leaves him, and the effect is neither embarrassed nor showy, but simply moving).]

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, and so seamless that it is hard to single anyone out: Mahesh’s neighbor Babychetta (Alencier Ley Lopez); earnest new kid on the block (and unwitting source of much of the plot’s trouble) Crispin (Soubin Shahir); Mahesh’s nemesis Jimson (Sujith Sankar); or his first girlfriend Soumya (Anusree); are simply four of many memorable characters, testimony to Pothan’s light touch and willingness to let his characters breathe. 
Hard, but not impossible: Anthony Kochi deserves especial attention for his turn as Mahesh’s mostly silent father, Vincent.  Kochi brings memorable gravitas to his role, a task rendered easier by his arresting looks and screen presence: Kochi outdoes everyone else in the film in this respect, and you miss him when he’s not on screen.  Mahesh’s second girl-friend Jimsy (Aparna Balamuri) doesn’t have the best-written part, but Balamuri rescues the character from mere cliché with her portrayal of a spunky girl who knows what she wants (her participation in a dancing flash mob, viewed from afar by the camera and gawkers at their balconies alike, is one of the film’s high points).  Finally, we have a delightful one scene-cameo featuring an absentee landlord-couple Sara (Unnimiya Prasad) and her husband Eldho (played by the director himself), to great comic effect: exasperated married couples have rarely been this much fun.

Maheshenthe Prathikaaram isn’t perfect: in particular, I was disappointed in the way writer Syam Pushkaran ended his story, doing some violence to the logic of Mahesh’s character and ethos.  That violence isn’t just metaphorical, and while the fight that serves as the film’s penultimate sequence is very well-choreographed (in equipoise between a naturalistic representation of a scrum, and the sort of stylization necessary to hold a viewer’s interest in two guys going at each other), the film, and Mahesh, shouldn’t have ended that way.  It’s a small, sour note for me, in a film remarkably free of rancor, despite the heartbreak, failure, and humiliation Mahesh suffers along the way: Maheshenthe Prathikaaram recovers that good cheer in its last scene, despite the fact that several characters are arrayed around a hospital bed, and the last shot is of Mahesh’s rueful smile.  That choice tells you all you need to know about the director: all might never be well, but there’s hope for Malayalam cinema, and for us, as long as there’s space in the culture for sensibility like the one showcased here by Dileesh Pothan.


A musing Muslim said...

OH MY GOD! Apologies for my millennium induced shrieking but I have recently been introduced to the world of Malayalam cinema and my mind. is. blown. Seriously, I can't even put the pieces back together. The acting, the cinematography, scripts are all so rooted and breathtakingly original.

I LOVED this film - how beautifully is encapsulates the fragility and loveliness of lives. His other work Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum deserves multiple accolades and so do films by Lijo Joe Pellisery.

I love that there is so much range though I know you think it might fall into the urban Hindi film way but Ustaad Hotel and Bangalore Days and even OK Kanmani I would say felt way more contemporary and real than any recent Hindi film. And they are there is an endearing sweetness within all the fluff. Heck _ am even engossed by the Mammoothy and Mohahlal ones.

Sorry for the ramblings, but so happy to see your review!

Qalandar said...

Glad to hear that -- reminds me of my own "discovery" of Tamil and Malayalam cinema back in 2002-2003, and the associated excitement and joy. I hope you are checking out the Mohanlal and Mammoothy films from the 1980s...they are easily available on DVD and the best ones are superb...