Director: Sidharth Bharathan
Cast: Kunchacko Boban, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Shine Tom Chacko, Gayathri Suresh, Rachana Narayanankutty, Manikandan Achari
The title, Varnayathil Ashanka (Confusion In The Description), couldn’t be more appropriate. Sidharth Bharathan’s new film could be described as a “heist movie” – a jewellery-store heist is, after all, the most conspicuous aspect of the movie, the thing you’d mention in the one-line plot description. But a viewer who walked in expecting the thrills of a heist movie – the plotting, the team-building, the painstaking preparations, the heart-stopping execution – would be confused. For the heist itself is conceived almost accidentally, and it plays out around the interval point: it begins a little before, it ends a little after. What, then, is the rest of the film about?
To get there, we need to begin with Pradheesh (Shine Tom Chacko). Listening to one of his schemes – labelling regular produce as “organic” and pocketing a profit – you’d be tempted to call him a criminal, but that’s too grand a word for him. He’s really just desperate. He isn’t particularly smart or hard-working or motivated, and the short-cut seems the easiest way to make money. But for what?
It took me a while to settle into the slow rhythms of this film, which is better written (Thrissur Gopalji) than directed. There’s a constant sense of interconnectedness. The relationships are revealed slowly.
That has to do with the calls he gets from Thanima (Gayathri Suresh), each call revealing a little more. At first, we just sense her distress. Then we realise it has to do with a gold necklace. He’s mortgaged it, and she’s terrified her father will find out. She’s smarter than him. She sends him Whatsapp pictures of the fan in her room she will be found hanging from if he doesn’t retrieve that necklace. Pradheesh sees those pictures and feels the noose tightening around him. Hence the decision to finger a wallet in a crowded bus.
And then we have Dayanandan (Suraj Venjaramoodu), another desperate man at the receiving end of a woman’s ire. He’s lost his job, and his wife, Keerthana (Rachana Narayanankutty), won’t let him be. She’s tired of being the sole breadwinner. She wants him to chip in too. Plus, there’s a loan hanging over their heads. And what about Shivan (Kunchacko Boban), a no-good drunk nicknamed “Tippler”? His claim to fame is a five-lakh-rupee robbery that went kaput because that very day, the Prime Minister unleashed demonetisation on the country. The government is to blame for Dayanandan’s troubles as well. He was a bar supplier, and his joblessness is the result of an official order that closed down bars.
A lot of the humour flows around liquor. The film ends with the announcement of an election, and an unexpected candidate. His party’s symbol? A glass. And earlier, a fight breaks out between Shivan and Gilbert (Manikandan Achari), whose bike Shivan stole. (Don’t ask how Gilbert came upon that bike. That’s an entirely different story, with a delightful payoff that makes at least one character believe in miracles.) A mutual friend, Wilson (Chemban Vinod Jose) tries to stop the men, and Pradheesh, who, isn’t far away, gets up to help Wilson. Only, while getting up, he knocks over a bottle of liquor, which spills its contents on the ground. For those seconds, the men stop fighting and stare with horror, resembling desert travellers who’ve just discovered a hole in their water canteen. Some things even money can’t buy.
It took me a while to settle into the slow rhythms of this film, which is better written (Thrissur Gopalji) than directed. There’s a constant sense of interconnectedness. Shivan is introduced in the scene where he steals Gilbert’s bike. Shivan’s brother, Parthan, is introduced in the scene where Pradheesh is caught for stealing. The relationships are revealed slowly. One might even say, realistically – without the spoon-feeding common in mainstream cinema, where we usually get the name of a character (or a hint about him or her), and cut to a scene featuring the character. For the longest time, all we know about Gilbert is that he’s mad that a lorry driver spat in his direction and ruined his shirt. That he’s Wilson’s friend we see much later.
Varnayathil Ashanka, then, is less about plot than about these characters, and events that are equally interconnected. It’s a far cry from Ocean’s Eleven. Even the word “heist” feels wrong. It belongs to cool professionals, not these shambling amateurs.
Only Dayanandan is introduced in isolation, because he’s a stranger to these other men – only gradually does his narrative entwine with that of Shivan and Wilson, Pradheesh and Gilbert. The actors are terrific. After his superbly muted performance in Take Off, Kunchacko Boban gives us a taste of brashness – Shivan is as flamboyant as the colourful shirts he prefers.
And Suraj Venjaramoodu, of late, can apparently do no wrong. He gives us a character who appears, at first, a loser, but is really quite cunning. He affects a bit of movement in his posture, even while standing still – he always seems to be on the verge of breaking into a dance. The scene where he stumbles across the heist is laugh-out-loud funny.
Varnayathil Ashanka, then, is less about plot than about these characters, and events that are equally interconnected. Shivan urges Pradheesh to kick a poster, which causes an inadvertent chain reaction. (The events in a “heist movie,” in contrast, would be more deliberate.) A flagpole is broken outside the office of a Communist party. A fight breaks out with a rival party. A party worker ends up killed. A hartal is declared. A jewellery-store advertisement is casually glimpsed on television. A plan is hatched to make use of the deserted streets. It’s a far cry from Ocean’s Eleven. Even the word “heist” feels wrong. It belongs to cool professionals, not these shambling amateurs.
And once the heist is (quickly) done with, we settle into what may be the film’s message: that we are all complicit in crimes. Because the jewellery-store owner doesn’t want to draw attention to undeclared gold, he doesn’t file a complaint. Because the cops were drinking on the job, they give the thieves much-needed time. Because political parties tend to get violent, we get hartals, without which our protagonists might never have ventured out to steal. This message is slyly delivered on a stage, and it’s the latest instance in Malayalam cinema of a scene you don’t see coming, and yet feels totally right. Even the film’s “looseness,” by the end, feels right, for this is really a shaggy-dog story. The pointlessness is the point.
Watch the trailer of Varnyathil Aashanka here: