Director: Tom Emmatty
Cast: Neeraj Madhav, Tovino Thomas, Roopesh Peethambaran
The setting of Tom Emmatty’s Malayalam drama Oru Mexican Aparatha (A Mexican Enormity) suggests a searing, ripped-from-the-headlines political narrative. The story unspools in Kochi’s Maharaja College, and the strife between the two student factions is given real-life urgency by the names of these factions: SFY and KSQ, which stand in for SFI [Students’ Federation of India, the student wing of Communist Party of India (Marxist)] and KSU (Kerala Students Union).
The preponderance of red in the film’s posters is a giveaway for which side Emmatty is on. Oru Mexican Aparatha is an unabashed love letter to Communism. A Lal Salaam-spouting political leader invokes Pinarayi, the village where the Kerala unit of the Communist movement was born in 1939 (thank you, Wiki), and a striking image from the film’s opening stretch has a martyr’s blood spatter across the image of Che Guevara. Ah, Che! Had he realised what he’d come to mean to the movie and the T-shirt industry, I’m betting he’d have turned capitalist.
And yet, Oru Mexican Aparatha doesn’t really say anything new about politics. It’s content to traffic in generalities, abstractions. “We are not changing our ideologies,” says Subhash (Neeraj Madhav), who has been drafted by that Lal Salaam-spouting political leader to strengthen SFY’s presence in the college (it’s currently ruled by the oppressive KSQ) – but what ideologies, exactly, is he talking about? We get the scene where Subhash enlists his friends – among them, Paul (Tovino Thomas) – in making LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION posters. We get the voiceover about Bhagat Singh, who may not have affiliated himself with Communism, but was very much a student who wanted to change the world. As the voiceover reminds us, he may have held a gun in one hand, but his other hand held a book. But this is all generic stuff. You don’t need to go to the theatre for this. You just need to go to a library.
The only time the film gets close to some kind of specific commentary is when it acknowledges that even something as idealised and romanticised as Communism has to get its hands dirty to remain relevant in the political game. The Mahabharata becomes a mirror. SFY and KSQ are compared to Pandavas and Kauravas – and some of us may remember that even Yudhishtra had to resort to a “lie” in order to win.
Do not watch Oru Mexican Aparatha if you’re looking for an incisive political drama. Watch it as I did, as a stylish retelling of a tale as old as time. The good guys win over the bad guys; dharma is upheld
These echoes resound far more strongly in Oru Mexican Aparatha. It’s no great shakes as a “political” film, but it functions pretty well as myth. After a while, I found myself looking at it as a reincarnation drama. One, it charts the “rebirth” of SFY in the college. And two, the casting of Tovino Thomas in a second role – as Kochaniyan, a charismatic SFY leader from the 1970s – makes it easy to imagine that Paul is Kochaniyan reborn, the way characters often are in our masala movies when there is unfinished business from the past. SFY died with Kochaniyan. Paul will raise the red flag again.
The film, thus, is also some kind of Chosen One narrative. Paul, at first, is a quiet chap with a fondness for floral-print shirts. It’s a sartorial metaphor. He says his favourite colour is violet. We know, of course, that the shirt – and his favourite colour – will turn a monochromatic red. But that will have to wait a while. Paul, now, is only interested in Anu (Gayathri Suresh). It’s impossible, these days, to watch college-set romances without recalling Premam and its casual-yet-pointed look at the lives of twentysomethings. A college function. A classroom with a professor who demands the IUPAC name of laughing gas. A rival in Roopesh (Roopesh Peethambaran), the despotic KSQ leader who treats Paul and his friends like pesky mosquitoes. He keeps slapping them.
The actors are pleasing enough – and the writing flavourful and funny enough (except in a shockingly tasteless gag about dark-skinned women) – to make us forget that this territory has been trodden many times before. But as the romance fades and the film veers towards politics, Paul’s easygoing passivity becomes a problem. Subhash is much more vital, vocal, much more interesting – and Neeraj Madhav steals every scene he’s in. Tovino Thomas smoulders beautifully, but whatever he’s feeling remains locked up inside him. We see Subhash and we get him. We get that he stands for something. We get that he wants to be the change. We see Paul and we get... a very good-looking man.
It helps that the film is breathtakingly shot by Prakash Velayudhan. The final action sequence is spliced together like a music video, all slow-motion and split-second freeze frames and GQ photo-shoot lighting. The violence is horrifying, but the aesthetics is overwhelming.
Paul reminded me of the character played by Karthi in the Tamil film Madras. Whatever he does seems a reaction to things that happen around him (the death of a friend, for instance), but politics is also about the things that happen inside you. We see Paul’s external transformation – violet to red; passive to aggressive – but we don’t see the Motorcycle Diaries-like evolution of Che. Put differently, we see the seeds sprout but we don’t see them sown. Other reminders of Madras are a terrific pre-interval chase and a locked-up room (named Mexico!) with the horror-movie overtones of the wall from that film.
But again, do not watch Oru Mexican Aparatha if you’re looking for an incisive political drama. It helps that the film is breathtakingly shot by Prakash Velayudhan. The final action sequence is spliced together like a music video, all slow-motion and split-second freeze frames and GQ photo-shoot lighting. The violence is horrifying, but the aesthetics is overwhelming. It’s serious porn for style junkies. Who needs ideology when you have imagery?
Watch the trailer here: