Language: Malayalam

Director: B Ajithkumar

Cast: Shane Nigam, Nimisha Sajayan, Manikandan Achari

Eeda (Here) is being sold as an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but the most defining scenes have little to do with star-crossed lovers. Take the stretch where Kannur boy Anand (Shane Nigam), who now works in an insurance firm in Mysore, witnesses a man being hacked to death. But after the attackers leave, he sees there’s some life left. We get the shot of an ambulance racing to the hospital. After all this, the man dies anyway, and we learn about this through someone else. Here’s another scene: Anand is at home with his roommate, who’s working on a laptop. The doorbell rings. The roommate has ordered in. Anand gets the bag with the food. The roommate gives him money, which Anand hands over to the delivery boy. The roommate asks Anand if he wants to eat. Anand says no. End of scene.

No one goes to a Romeo-Juliet movie to see what it’s about. It’s the how that makes or breaks each new stab at this old, old story

A different kind of filmmaker might have relished the prospect of staging a prolonged death scene. A man dies. Anand is distraught that he couldn’t help. The people around begin to wail. Imagine the opportunities to manipulate the audience! This other filmmaker might have also axed the food-delivery scene. Why waste precious screen time on a stretch that does not advance the story in any significant way? But these scenes define the film’s style, which is what every new adaptation of this archetypal love story needs. No one goes to a Romeo-Juliet movie to see what it’s about. It’s the how that makes or breaks each new stab at this old, old story.

Shakespeare infused into this romance verbal drama that has survived to this day. Sanjay Leela Bhansali saw the story through his signature lens — baroque words became baroque images. Franco Zeffirelli’s film version was scented with the freshness of youth — he cast teenagers who were roughly the age of Romeo and Juliet in the original play. And Baz Luhrmann threw Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes into a den of kitschy MTV-music-video excess. Perhaps the only style that this story has not been subjected to is… a lack of style. Eeda is written, edited and directed by B Ajithkumar, who edited Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s latter-day films and new-age classics like Annayum Rasoolum and Kammatipaadam. He brings to his first film some of that sensibility. He takes the world’s most passionate love story and strips away all the passion. His Verona is filled with vérité.

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His Verona is actually politically volatile Kannur, and the Montagues and Capulets are now warring parties. Anand belongs to the house of KJP, where Gita classes and holy men and Bharat Mata pictures are a fixture. There’s a photo of Modi on the wall, and Anand’s Aadhar Card becomes something of a supporting character. This surge of saffron is countered by the red flags of KPM, where the icon on the wall is Lenin. This is where Aishwarya (Nimisha Sajayan) is from, though she’s thoroughly disgusted by the internecine rivalry. Someone from KPM is killed. The KPM workers go on a rampage. They kill someone from the KJP. The KJP workers, now, go on a rampage, and kill someone from the KPM. Wash. Rinse in blood. Repeat.

The depiction of politics or political opponents isn’t new, but Eeda delves into a certain kind of political psyche in a way we rarely get to see. It shows people (like the character played by Manikandan Achari, who’s heartbreakingly good) who were raised by the party after they lost everything. Their gratitude and willingness to do anything makes you wonder if they were merely pigs being fattened for the eventual slaughter. Every man’s masculinity (except Anand’s, of course) is tied to his allegiance to the party. When Anand proposes peace, he’s asked, “You are a man, and this is how you speak?” The prevailing motto is that it’s better to die with “honour” (i.e. die in the process of killing someone from the opposite party) than die like a dog (i.e. do nothing, and await a natural death). In the midst of all this hopelessness, I liked the touch of the lottery-ticket seller who’s an amputee. He’s mired in this despair, but he’s selling dreams.

This is certainly the first Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen where the drama involving the people around the lovers is more pronounced. Anand and Aishwarya are the least demonstrative pair you’re likely to encounter. Forget love-making, there’s hardly any outward sign of affection

Even personal lives are shaped by these parties. Had a hartal not been declared, owing to the killing of a party worker, Aishwarya (who studies in Mysore, and has taken a train to Kannur) would have found another way to get home from the railway station — she might just have looked past Anand, who happened to be there, on his bike. Now, she has to depend on him to give her a ride — and their journey is grimly prophetic, filled with obstacles. They’re chased by irate party workers. They face an uphill climb. The bike runs out of fuel. And in the midst of all this, we get a quiet moment of grace and beauty. Aishwarya takes out her camera and captures her surroundings. In the final frame, Anand appears — as though stepping into her inner world. They don’t know it yet, but a connection has been forged, far from the surrounding hatred and ugliness.

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The surprise — rather, the style — of Eeda is that this is the closest we get to a “romantic moment.” The balcony scene is reshaped into something so drastically different in mood, I almost laughed in disbelief. Ajithkumar stages one of the couple’s most private moments — the first time she says she loves him — in full view of the public, by the side of a busy road. (As Anand says much later, “Where do we go? They are everywhere.”)

Shane Nigam’s serious scenes aren’t as convincing, though, because he’s asked to keep hitting the same notes. But Nimisha Sajayan is brilliant throughout

This is certainly the first Romeo and Juliet I’ve seen where the drama involving the people around the lovers is more pronounced. Anand and Aishwarya are the least demonstrative pair you’re likely to encounter. Forget love-making, there’s hardly any outward sign of affection. When they meet at a temple after a long separation, they talk calmly, as though solving a crossword together. Or consider the part where Anand and Aishwarya find themselves alone, in his house. “You really love me?” she asks, in a low-key manner that suggests she could just as easily be asking him if he can lend her his phone charger. By way of response, he draws her close and kisses her — not on the cheek or lips, but on the forehead. We are left with the feeling that this love isn’t hormonal so much as the search for a kind of home, a place where they can be themselves, at peace.

As a result, Shane Nigam and Nimisha Sajayan give two of the most unshowy performances ever seen in a love story. We sense what he feels for her in the short scene where she calls and asks if he’ll join her (and a friend) for a movie. His blind panic — ohmygodshecalled! — is the closest we get to what’s in his heart. Shane Nigam’s serious scenes aren’t as convincing, though, because he’s asked to keep hitting the same notes. But Nimisha Sajayan is brilliant throughout. Both actors are filmed in close-ups quite a bit, and her passive face conceals a mind that’s constantly calculating (the deal she makes near the end is a surprise). I must confess that my idea of a doomed romance is more Mayaanadhi than Eeda, but to take a story everyone knows and give it edgy new dimensions is harder than imagining Aishwarya and Anand walking happily into the sunset.

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