Director: Sidhartha Siva
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Aishwarya Rajesh, Aparna Gopinath
The nutshell version of Sidhartha Siva’s Sakhavu (Comrade) brings to mind Oru Mexican Aparatha, released barely a month ago. Both films are about Communism – more specifically, the before/after arc of a happy-go-lucky youth. And both films feature their leading man (Tovino Thomas there; Nivin Pauly here) in a double role.
But this is a more sober affair, with less flash – and its earnestness is at once naive and touching. There’s something to be said about a director’s conviction that viewers will fork out multiplex rates for tickets and popcorn to watch a film about the poor and the downtrodden.
Sakhavu – beautifully shot in warm hues, by George C Williams – begins with Krishnakumar (Nivin Pauly) storming out of his house because he found a strand of hair in his food. The spoilt-child behaviour only increases. He’s the Joint Secretary of the SFK, and he dreams of a district-level post – but he seeks shortcuts. Even what people call him is a shortcut: Kichu.
What better way to show this newbie-communist the error of his ways – and what old-school Communism is really about – than to pack him off to the local hospital, to donate (red) blood! For there, in the ICU, lies Comrade Krishnan (Pauly again), whose inspiring story is revealed through a series of flashbacks.
Does Kichu listen to Krishnan’s story and change? Let’s just say that Kichu’s phone battery is dead at the beginning. By the end, it’s fully charged. This is possibly what they term the call of Communism.
In a different time, Krishnan (no shortened names for him) was appointed by the Kottayam District Committee to “strengthen the colour red” among tea-plantation workers, and the film’s first half spends an inordinate amount of time on his efforts. This long stretch is both a plus and a minus.
Plus, because it tells us where so many “socially conscious” Tamil films go wrong and come off like sermons instead of movies. By spending all this time with Krishnan, we are immersed in his life, in his ideals – and he earns the right to make these speeches about unions and how EMS Namboodiripad came into power and how workers are entitled to bonus and gratuity. It’s not just someone appearing before us and wagging a well-meaning finger. A persona is developed and these “lectures” become organic offshoots of this persona.
The minus is that none of this is new. The engagement with Communism isn’t as generic as it was in Oru Mexican Aparatha, but even these specifics are scenes we have seen before: the protests, the attempts to talk to callous higher-ups, the police lathi charge (though the scene is marvellously staged, with the protesters pressing themselves against the cops, leaving the latter no space to move).
But things begin to come together in the second half, where the political fuses with the personal. In other words, an abstract ideology is given a concrete human dimension with individuals we care about (as opposed to nameless, faceless masses). The girl we’ve just seen before (and recognise as Aishwarya Rajesh; she’s, as always, a pleasant presence) as one among many is singled out, and she gets a name: Janaki. Her acceptance of Krishnan as a leader (and as a husband, to the backing of Prashant Pillai’s beautiful raga-meets-reggae ballad, Madhumatiye) leads to the film’s most touching moments. Her eyes brim over, but the tears don’t spill. There’s no crying in Communism.
It’s never easy living with very principled people (it’s far easier to follow them) – but Sakhavu isn’t interested in presenting Krishnan as a textured, three-dimensional individual. The closest he comes to being flaws-and-all human is when he makes a promise of marriage and later admits he wasn’t serious about it. Otherwise, he’s a saint.
But this aspect doesn’t bog the film down because it treats Krishnan less as a character than an archetype – a masala-movie hero, to be precise. This leads to some embarrassing stretches: the too-easy transformation of a couple of “villains” in the first half, the melodrama around a kidney and a girl with Down’s Syndrome, the what-were-they-thinking? fight sequence near the end. But the whistle-worthy moments really work.
Like this one, where an upper-caste landowner asks Krishnan his name, and upon hearing the mononym, slyly asks if there’s no “tail,” like ‘Nair’ or ‘Namboodiri’. Krishnan replies that his caste and faith aren’t behind his name but right up in front: he is Sakhavu Krishnan.
Or this one, where a school teacher complains about the political inclinations of Krishnan’s young daughter (played as a grown-up by Aparna Gopinath). His retort: “Isn’t it politics when you go over children’s assignments written in blue and black ink and make corrections with a red pen?”
Nivin Pauly plays Kichu as the standard, twinkle-in-the-eye “Nivin Pauly character,” and he makes Krishnan a graver presence. (He looks heavier too.) Save for the final stretches where the character ages (and we see the effort), it’s a fine performance that affects us as much due to the actor as the part, which transcends its simplistic conception and speaks to our times.
In the equally idealistic (and naive) The American President, the White House speechwriter screams, “People want [genuine] leadership, Mr. President... They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” A film like this, at least through its duration, assures habituated sand-drinkers that selfless leaders aren’t a mirage.
Watch the trailer here: