‘Helen’ Shows How Even A Pure ‘Genre Film’ Can Be Elevated Through Superb Writing

Anna Ben and Lal are wonderful. But when the writing gives you so much to chew on, the performances become so much better. Spoilers ahead...
‘Helen’ Shows How Even A Pure ‘Genre Film’ Can Be Elevated Through Superb Writing

I have stopped watching trailers as far as humanly possible, and all I knew about Mathukutty Xavier's Helen — through word of mouth — was that it was a survival drama. So watching the movie, I was unaware about what exactly Helen's predicament would be (though a scene in the first half gave me a hint) — but catching the trailer afterwards was even more interesting. I thought, like most trailers, it would give away that plot point — but this is a very cleverly cut trailer. All we see of Helen's predicament is that she is… in a predicament. Maybe a psycho has her locked up. Or maybe she's trapped somewhere. In other words, this is one of the rare trailers I wouldn't have minded watching before the film. It's just one of the many impressive things about Helen.

I have been talking to some editors about trailers, and when asked why they reveal so much, they simply shrug and say that's how the audience wants it. The logic, apparently, is that today's viewers don't want to be "surprised" during a movie. They need to be "prepared". If they think this is one type of movie and, fifteen minutes in, if they discover this is another type of movie, then they switch off. Instead of recalibrating their minds to this other type of movie, they feel the filmmaker has made a mistake by not making the movie they walked in to see. As someone who welcomes surprises in movies, I find this sad, but since so many editors think this way, I suppose there must be some "commercial" logic in this.

But in other ways, this trailer does exactly what the usual trailers do. It "prepares" the viewer perfectly. Its "first half" sets up the characters, and its "second half" sets up the survival-drama aspect. That's how it is in the film, too. In the first half, we meet Helen (Anna Ben). She is a twentysomething nurse who lives with her father (Lal). Through little, everyday details, we get a feel of this relationship. We know Helen disapproves of her father's smoking. We know he is a staunch Christian. The former detail finds an echo during the survival-drama portions. The latter detail comes full circle when we meet Helen's boyfriend, Azhar (Noble Babu Thomas, in a lovely performance that manages to find shades within the standard "nice guy" archetype).

But what makes the movie is the screenplay. I am tired of repeating this, but just how astounding is the writing in Malayalam cinema! Helen is a pure genre picture. We don't really need the scene where Helen is late and her father gets impatient and honks his scooter, so he can drop her to her workplace in a fast-food joint in a mall. But later, when Helen goes missing, this impatience makes us feel the father's plight more acutely (even if subconsciously). He is not a man who likes to wait. He needs to find Helen now.

Let's look at another aspect of the father's character. He finds out about Azhar in the worst possible way. You think this staunch Christian is going to explode, but he "freezes" out Helen, giving her the "cold shoulder", if you will — he gives her the classic silent treatment. So, later, when Helen goes missing, it's not just the father's panic that comes into play but also his guilt. Did I say the writing (Alfred Kurian Joseph, Noble Babu Thomas, Mathukutty Xavier) was amazing? I'm saying it again. Lal is superb. But then, he is already a good actor, and when the writing gives you so much to chew on, the performance becomes even better.

Anna Ben is superb, too. She does some excellent physical acting — you almost feel what she is going through in the second half, and this "feeling" is also conveyed to us through cinematographer Anend C Chandran's vivid colour schemes, which alternate the warm visuals of the outside world with the chilling horror of Helen's plight. But again, see how the writing enhances the performance. At the end, after Helen is rescued (but you knew that, right?), the doctor comments that she is a very strong girl. Even as a standalone statement, this much is enough information for the audience. This girl has survived her predicament. We don't really need more evidence of the strength the doctor is talking about.

But look at the writing in the scene where Helen's father finds out about Azhar in the worst possible way. We see, through Anna Ben's performance, a girl who realises that the shit has hit the fan, and there will be consequences she's going to have to deal with. She doesn't burst into hysterics. She doesn't burst into tears and wail, "I'm sorry, papa, I won't do this again." She simply lowers her eyes. There's shame, yes. But there's also that… strength. We see that Helen is mentally tough (which will help her later, during the predicament). And what about the way she is finally found, with the help of a security guard? Again, it's the writing, which makes us see that this is not a deus ex machina, something random dropped into the proceedings to solve a problem. It goes back to the early scene where Helen sees the woman collecting garbage outside her home and comments on her new earrings. It becomes a part of Helen's very nature.

I could go on about the writing. It makes us smile wryly about Helen wanting to emigrate to Canada, which her father warns is an extra-cold place. (He suffered in the Gulf, an extra-hot place that darkened his skin.) It introduces Azhar in a completely unexpected manner, making us see that he is the kind of guy who will seek her out even when (or maybe especially when) she won't return his calls. (Look how beautifully this character detail about Azhar pays off later.) And it's not always about payoffs, either. Watch Helen's ultra-broad smile when a Caucasian tourist compliments her English. She has been educated in a Malayalam-medium school. She is still learning English. This compliment is almost a validation that she can indeed make it in — "survive" in — Canada. 

The only false notes in the writing come in the form of the cop played by Aju Varghese. Yes, his insensitive actions contribute to the tension, but at the cost of the film's dignity. The character belongs in a cheap melodrama. Otherwise, even the "heroic" cameo by Vineeth Sreenivasan is so nicely done. You know it's pulling you out of the film. You know it's an "audience-pleasing" bit that would have probably worked better with a more anonymous actor. But it's still fun. And maybe Helen's attempts to escape her prison could have used a little more ingenuity? (There's no "wow" factor.) I felt that way during the movie, but thinking back, the utterly "normal" ways in which she tackles her predicament are exactly right. Again, this is not about her escape. As the writing tells us, it is about her nature

Look at how a rat that destroys some food stock in Helen's workplace is worked into the rest of the screenplay. Look at the weight of silence that we feel when Helen's father stops talking to her. Look at how the father begins to accept Azhar. (What further proof does he need that this boy does indeed care about Helen?) Look at how this father doesn't even think Helen could have eloped until he goes to Azhar's house and finds him missing, too. (It says a lot about this father-daughter relationship.) But most of all, look at Helen's manager, who keeps screaming at his employees. Like Helen, we think he is a pain in the wrong place, until we get to the scene where we hear him talk about his frustrations at home. In an instant, this monster is humanised (and, amazingly, this development comes about with a dash of humour rather than sentimentality). You see why he is that way at work — because he needs to vent somewhere. Do we need this small character arc? No. But it makes the universe of the film a more humane place. This is the most generous kind of writing. In the broadest sense, it gives us exactly what we want: a survival drama. But dig deeper, and you see how much we get that we didn't even know we wanted.

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