How do you describe a 'mass' movie? Let me present this scene from Kalki, directed by Praveen Prabharam. The hero (Tovino Thomas, known only as K, like the protagonist of Kafka's The Castle) is an SI, and he strides into the police station he's going to be taking charge of. Tamil cinema fans, of course, will argue that no more information is needed. The trajectory of this story will be laid out with the certainty of a mathematical equation. The hero + khaki uniform = 'Mass' movie. But allow me to continue. As K looks around the station, the camera becomes his eye—we don't see him, yet. The eye lands on a local goon, who has a cigarette in his mouth. He wants a light. He gets one. The next shot, we see him hurtling out of the premises, his body aflame. As the smoke behind him clears, K comes out. So do his Aviator sunglasses. So does the punch line: "I am not here to heal anyone's wounds. I am here to finish off those who inflict those wounds." Had the movie been any more 'mass', you'd find it kneeling in church on Sundays.
The final proof is the film's title, referring to the tenth avatar of Vishnu. You may remember a film named after the fourth avatar: Narasimham. On a macho scale of 0 to 10, these movies stand at 368. A one-versus-many action stretch—between K and Ummer (Harish Uthaman)—is shot from so many angles and edited with such lightning cuts that K seems to be everywhere at once, like the titular god. (You don't get the feeling you usually get, of hulky extras standing patiently in line, waiting for the earlier guy to fall before they get to charge at the hero.) When the goons are put out of commission and we get to the one-on-one between Ummer and K, the decibel levels tell us how uneven a match it is. Ummer keeps grunting like Nadal. K is like Federer. He serves his punches silently. Later, when K is knifed repeatedly during an assassination attempt, you expect him to end up looking like a sliced melon. He ends up looking like…Tovino Thomas.
And yet, there are signs that Kalki wants to be more grown up than a 'mass' movie—that it wants to be a masala drama. What's the difference, you ask? The same difference between Marvel and DC. The masala drama is less cartoony, the good-versus-evil beats are heavier, and even Superman has his Kryptonite. The villain, Amarnath (Shivajith Padmanabhan), is more demonic than your usual movie politician, who is merely corrupt. Amarnath has driven away the residents of an entire neighbourhood, which now resembles a ghost town. I liked the production design of Amarnath's lair. He trades in illegal arms, and the place looks like an open-air playschool—except that, instead of building blocks and paint sets, you have guns. Unlike the typical 'mass' movie, the triumphalism is toned down. In the cat-and-mouse games between K and Amarnath, many lives are lost. On both sides. Even more limbs are lost. Amarnath extracts a leg from a member of K's team. K extracts both legs from someone in Amarnath's side. Blood flows like water, and when someone is killed in a river, the waters turn into blood.
I am all for grisly one-upmanship, but Kalki is defeated by the censors, who cause every brutal killing to be pixelated. When the film's do-gooder ends up dead (no spoiler here; the do-gooders in these films always end up dead), it takes a while before you realise that the butchered body K stumbles on in a forest clearing is his. The whole visual is so dotted with pixels that you think K has stumbled on someone watching porn. But the bigger damage is by the flaccid script itself, which never rises above the generic. The opening set-up is an embarrassingly elaboration-heavy, but where you really need more words (like in the flashback that fleshes out K's childhood), the writing goes coy. Tovino Thomas doesn't get a romantic interest (Samyuktha Menon plays someone on Amarnath's side), but then, his real love seems to be the approximately four thousand cigarettes he consumes through the course of the movie. Incessant smoking as a symbol of macho coolth—that's just another way of saying formula.
Girish AD's Thanneer Mathan Dinangal is formula, too. Take the title, which translates to "watermelon days". The affixing of the name of a place (okay, in this case, the name of a fruit) to a sense of time has quickly become a signature of Malayalam cinema. We've spent days in Bangalore, tossed around nights in Kumbalangi, leafed through diaries in Angamaly… and now, we sink our teeth into the pulpy "little moments" that remind us of our own school days, like the time we learnt about animal cells in Biology class. This has become its own little genre. But when done well, the sense of the generic is replaced by the tang of the specific. I laughed when Jaison's (Mathew Thomas) classmates ask for a "cutter", and he replies, snootily, that it's really called a "sharp-ner"! I laughed harder at the results of a surprise test. So many films give us games of cricket, but the stretch, here, isn't just about the "who will win?" tension but also about character: who these boys are.
Like June, Thanneer Mathan Dinangal is not a Great Movie™. I wrote, then, that June is "no Ee.Ma.Yau. It's no Sudani from Nigeria. But the 'not-bad to good' levels of Malayalam cinema are on par with 'great' from our other mainstream film industries. And that's because, apart from the central narrative, there's so much to enjoy in the sidelines that it's easy to forget the bigger picture and just enjoy the small moments. I watched June with a big grin plastered on my face. It's only after I exited the theatre and started thinking about the film that the problems began to show up." And what are these problems, here? The fact that the "little moments" don't add up to something… momentous. The fact that these vignettes make us ask, "So it's fun and sweet and nice and all, but… what else?"
The what else in Thanneer Mathan Dinangal is a new teacher named Ravi Padmanabhan, and played by Vineeth Sreenivasan. He gooses the stuffy school with his unconventional teaching methods and livewire energy. He recites poetry. He solves a Rubik's Cube eyes closed. He makes Ashwathy Teacher's heartstrings sound like the mandolin in DDLJ. (That's literally the music we hear.) The kids love him. They look at him like the kids in Dead Poets Society looked at Robin Williams. He makes a Zen story about a snail sound like the chorus in a Backstreet Boys hit. The only student not 'N Sync with this interloper is Jaison. He thinks something is off. Is Jaison imagining things? Or is he the only one who sees Ravi Padmanabhan for who the man really is?
But the conflict is vague. The director can't decide whether to treat this character's doings casually, like everything else in the movie, or to make it the narrative's confrontational crux. And for someone who occupies so much screen time, Ravi Sir's "wackiness" grows old very quickly. He keeps picking on Jaison, who does nothing but look pained, and after the third such instance of one-sided ragging, it begins to feel like someone forgot to draw in Jerry in a Tom and Jerry cartoon. (Vineeth Srinivasan, with his smug cat-got-the-cream grin, seems to be giving cinema's first performance that channels Tom.) A lot of the jokes are written for the moment, like the one where a pushy mother insists that her son opt for Science. He eventually transfers to Humanities without her knowledge, but there's no payoff. There's no payoff, either, for the bit of drama that kicks the film off on a suspenseful high. We slip into a flashback and when we return to this bit of drama, much later, it's hardly the narrative-altering event it suggested it was.
Why, then, does this "formula" outing play better than Kalki? Maybe it's because of the girl who speaks in monosyllables, much to Jaison's frustration and our amusement. We feel better when we laugh. (We just feel "Oh no, not again" when we see yet another actor in a cop costume.) There's also the relatability factor. Even those of us who've not been singled out for torment by a teacher know what it's like to, say, experience a crush. And when that moment is amplified by a love song as quirky and heart-swelling as 'Ee Jathika Thottam' (the music is by Justin Varghese), you see why we need the movies. Most of us lead lives according to a formula. But with sweet-faced actors and sweeter music, if only for a few minutes, the formula feels fresh again.