Cast: Harisree Ashokan, Sabitha Jayaraj, KPAC Lalitha
The amusingly named Japan (Harisree Ashokan) has a very matter-of-fact approach to death. In an early scene, he says he would like to be cremated even though he is a Christian. He wants his ashes scattered in the river that runs through his town. This matter-of-fact-ness isn't a philosophical position. If Japan is so casual about death, it's because he makes his living from the dead. He supplies cadavers to medical colleges, for students to study. Japan's matter-of-fact-ness has seeped through his family, too. His wife Kathrina (Sabitha Jayaraj) works at a medical college. She handles a skeleton like a child would play with a puppet. As for their children, they make jokes about whether this person will die or that one, so their father can get them new clothes or fast food from KFC.
At first, it appears odd that Jayaraj would pick such a black and morbid subject for the eighth entry in his Navarasa series, based on the rasa of "hasyam". (I watched the film, at the International Film Festival of Kerala.) I mean, where's the "hasyam" in a man hoping and praying that people will die, so he can somehow acquire the body and make some money! But this is a very funny film, and the "humour", if you will, rests on a couple of exquisitely existential questions. One, of course, is that life is absurd. We have to laugh if we want to get through it.
And two – and more importantly – can we be "useful" even after we die? If our bodies end up with our grieving families, it will be consumed by empty rituals. It will be consumed by fire. Or if buried, it will be consumed by insects and worms. But what if – after death – we can educate and create more doctors, who cannot study anatomy without bodies? (Given the number of medical schools in Kerala alone, there is a severe shortage of cadavers.) Take this scene: Japan and his accomplice decide to sell off a hit-and-run case they find on the side of a road. (They first check if he is alive, of course; they are not murderers!) Had they done the "right thing" and reported it to the police, the body would have ended up in a morgue. And if they had traced the man's family, the body would end up burnt or buried. Now, you tell me: what would you do!
Hasyam isn't suggesting Japan is "right"! It's just saying: Why not look at death this way! A body can end up helping not just medical students but also people like Japan, who might be able to afford a better house. What if our death allows someone else to live better! The writing is brilliant, not just because of the non-stop laughs but also because it's a masterclass on how much can be packed into a mere 75 minutes. The film is filled with small, lovely scenes like the one where Kathrina wears a new sari (you know where the money came from, right?), and Japan says she looks like a film star. Varun Krishna's minimal score at this point underlines the emotions just so.
We empathise completely with Japan and people like him in this "business" because they are all real and none of them is a sleazy person. This is just a way of earning a… living, if you will. It's a way of buying medicines for your ailing mother. It's a way of affording a bottle of rum for your father who loves a spoon or two during dinner. When Japan discovers a death hasn't occurred as expected (it's a laugh-out-loud moment), he still pays the contractors he'd asked to come. Just because his "living" has been compromised for the moment, he doesn't want to compromise their "living".
The film's tone is a marvel. The actors are a marvel, and (like life around us) the cast is filled with characters from all stages of life: from the very young to the very old. Jayaraj never attempts to make you cry – not even when a woman gazes at her husband's cadaver. (This is a superb "echo scene".) Another superb echo scene: early on, we see a train emerge towards the camera (Japan's house is by the tracks), and later, we see a train move in the reverse direction. What is existence, after all, but a journey between two stations! I don't like to spoil the last scenes, but I have to talk about the one in Hasyam. There's a tree. Its leaves are rustled by the breeze. There's green grass. There's a river. There's sunlight on all this water. It's Nature as a beautiful painting. It's also a reminder that this tree, this breeze, this grass, this water and light, they will keep going long after we do.