Director: Althaf Salim
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Ahaana Krishna, Aishwarya Lekshmi, Shanthi Krishna, Siju Wilson, Lal, KL Anthony
Consider the eighty-year-old patriarch (KL Anthony) of the Chacko clan in Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela (An Interval In The Land of Crabs). His memory is shot. (He wants to invite Rose for a party, and she’s been dead twenty years.) He needs constant supervision, which is done in turns by the family and, later, by a male nurse named Yesudasan (Sharafudheen). One day, during prayer, he attempts to light a candle in front of a statuette of Jesus in his room. His hand wobbles, unable to land on the wick. Yesudasan rushes in. The setting appears one of great poignancy, but Yesudasan says: “At this rate, you’ll set fire to not just the candle but Jesus, His beard and the lamb by His side.” Instead of a solo violin, we get a whoopee cushion.
Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela gives us scene after brilliantly written scene. Even the minor characters -- like Sarah’s boyfriend who faces Kurien with amusing amounts of confidence, or even the recurring packets of junk food -- are marvellous. We laugh with them, tear up with them -- not because they face an extraordinary situation but because they go through it so ordinarily.
That’s the film in a nutshell, and director Althaf Salim’s achievement is in not crossing the boundaries of good taste. He takes a scary disease, the fount of a thousand on-screen tragedies, and makes a film that’s -- there’s no other word for it -- wholesome. We do get scenes in hospitals and scenes featuring the dismaying after-effects of treatment, but the defining mood is that of the stretch where a doctor (Saiju Kurup) is asked to please leave the office -- his own office -- so the family gathered there can sort things out. The tone isn’t haha (though there are many laugh-out-loud moments). It’s played in a minor key. A video recording of you during the movie will show you smiling a lot.
I haven’t seen a film in a while that gave us such a strong sense of family. It’s not just the connections between the people on screen -- we feel related to them. The characters are vivid, the performances wonderfully warm. The cowardly father (Lal) who speaks in outrageously funny metaphors. The mother (Shanthi Krishna, a beacon of poise, calm and collected even when her world turns upside down) who wants to go home in the middle of a movie. The brother-in-law (Siju Wilson) whose stinginess is made fun of, but never cruelly. The best friend (Krishna Shankar), who seems as married to his supermarket as to his sharp-tongued wife. And, course, the children: Mary (Srinda Arhaan), Sarah (Ahaana Krishna) and the London-returned Kurien (Nivin Pauly).
Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela gives us scene after brilliantly written scene. The stretch where an uncharacteristic burst of self-pity is countered with a reminder that others have their own problems. The scene where the doctor becomes part of a Chacko-family celebration -- we don’t even get a line from him, just a passing shot that reminds us of how strangers, especially those we meet during a crisis, can become family. The scene with a car that won’t start, a superb bit of misdirection when it’s repeated later. The awww moment involving an unexpected ring on a finger. The boating scene, where the family wonders if it will be bailed out of these deep waters. The strain of sculpting each scene differently does show sometimes -- not all the punches land -- but I am not going to hold ambition against a filmmaker who gets so much so right.
And what about the star? Nivin Pauly (who seems to have an amazing nose for scripts) does get a heroine (Aishwarya Lekshmi) in a track that could have been better, and he does get a fourth-wall-breaking moment where he references his biggest hit, Premam. But like Fahadh Faasil in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, he puts himself in service of the story. This definition of star power we find only in the young stars of Malayalam cinema. It’s not about hogging every scene. It’s about using your clout to get a certain kind of movie made.
Watch the teaser of Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela here: