Director: Senna Hegde
Cast: Anagha Narayanan, Ajisha Prabhakaran, Manoj KU, Unnimaya Nalappadam, Ranji Kankol
Based on the two films I've seen, the broad beats of Senna Hegde's cinema are quite… broad. The director's second film, Katheyondu Shuruvagide (in Kannada) was about a US-returned yuppie who opens a resort in the process of "finding himself". Senna's latest, Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, is in Malayalam, and the answer to "what is it about?" is exactly what the title says: an engagement taking place on Monday. The story revolves around a lower-middle-class father's attempts to make this happen (the girl is his second daughter Suja, played by Anagha Narayanan) before the groom-to-be flies off to rejoin work in Sharjah. There's nothing "new", here, exactly. But so what? you may ask. Aren't the story beats of most movies the same, and don't we care more about how these beats are narrated? Sure!
But this is a little different. Scratch the generic surface and you'll find that the protagonist in both films (the US-returned young man, the harried father) is not really The Protagonist™ the way we usually define the term: as someone whose journey will become the film's focus. In Senna's world, the protagonist is a clothesline, on which he (and co-writer Sreeraj Raveendran) can hang numerous other characters, numerous interlocking events. Sometimes, he even hangs a set of dinner plates. Early on, the father (Vijayan, played by Manoj KU) chides his wife Lalitha (Ajisha Prabhakaran, who's lovely) for wanting more dinnerware. But when guests start arriving midway through the movie, when we've practically forgotten this early exchange, we are reminded of it. And not through "I told you so!" dialogue between Vijayan and Lalitha, and not even through a glare she might have (justifiably) flashed at him. The reminder comes from the event itself, as the new arrivals wait for their turn to eat, because the existing plates are being used by others.
About Katheyondu Shuruvagide, I wrote: "Most of our mainstream cinema thrives on event. Senna, instead, builds a series of 'nothing' moments, where not much seems to be happening until you look back, a few scenes later, and see those moments were actually about something." That's the beautiful texture of Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, too. Bitter-gourd curry, a shaky dining table (which, at one point, becomes a symbol of Vijayan's despair), an old resentment involving Vijayan's older daughter Surabhi (Unnimaya Nalappadam), cups of black tea, the local loudspeaker that provides a constant soundtrack, the language issues with Bengali migrant workers, the murukku that a man relishes (it's from a local women's cooperative), a woman's right to visit Sabarimala (even if the woman herself thinks it may be a sin): everything becomes a part of this small world. The global is local and the local is global isn't just business-speak. It's screenplay-speak, too.
The most interesting scene is the one that opens the film and sets it up. We are at what looks like a bus stop, at night. We hear (but don't see) two men. They seem to be waiting for someone named Suni. That's how we come to know of characters, through offhand conversational bits. Even the apparently casual dialogue, in other words, is a clothesline, with hints about characters and events that will eventually get clipped on. This stretch also lays out the visual grammar. (The cinematographer is Sreeraj Raveendran, who does impressive double-duty). It's what we call a "master shot", taking in the entire scene at one go, without edits. But unlike in a typical master shot, the camera wobbles — not in the vertigo-inducing shaky-cam sense we know from the Bourne movies, but just gently enough to suggest a very mild earthquake. This technique is applied repeatedly, and I got the sense of the unsteadiness of this small world and tremors inside its characters.
The film is set in Kanhangad. My ear for Malayalam isn't fine-tuned enough to pick out region-specific nuances, but what matters is the nuance in this small sea of people who gather at Vijayan-Lalitha's small home. You anticipate a showdown between the man Surabhi is married to and the man who wanted to marry her — it's inevitable. This sort of thing is the mainstay of drama. What's unexpected is the loaded conversation between a group of women, centred on Surabhi's thinning hair. The looks exchanged are priceless: we catch on to the dynamics between these people in seconds, something that would have taken two pages of dialogue to convey. And when Ratheesh (the boyfriend, played by Arjun Ashokan) tells Suja that he is just pretending to be brave, I had a flashback to an earlier scene where Vijayan unleashes all his "bravery" on his wife but runs into the house like a mouse when the moneylender makes a visit. These small connections sit well, even if they flap away like loose threads.
I got a big laugh when Lalitha stood up to the moneylender, exhibiting more "bravery" than her husband — but with the film's explicitly "comic character" (Ranji Kankol), the laughs seem forced. The gentle situational humour elsewhere works far better. Then again, this is more "mainstream" in sensibility than the typical Malayalam movie of this kind, with a heavy nudge-nudge background score (Mujeeb Majeed) and even a song-and-dance. (You could say Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam exists in a zone between a broad Priyadarshan entertainer and the nuanced New Age Malayalam dramedy.) The only serious problem I had was with the ending. It's tonally perfect: a burst of comedy when things are getting super-serious, and a brilliant spin on the "teach the patriarchal man a lesson" scene, which is usually messagey and dramatic. But the new character introduced at this point is too obviously "comic". But by then, the warmth from this excellent cast, the warmth in the writing had won me over. The happily-ever-after feels genuinely earned.