Manjummel Boys to Aavesham: Chekhov’s Gun ft. 2024 Malayalam Cinema

A Russian playwright might’ve formulated this storytelling principle. But Malayalis have found the knack to move film audiences with this tool in 2024
Chekhov’s Gun In Malayalam Cinema
Chekhov’s Gun In Malayalam Cinema

If you see an elaborate mass moment involving a young Fahadh Faasil and a soda opener in the first act of a movie, chances are, you’re going to see it build into a luminous closure in the climax. And if a film casually serenades us with a nostalgic Ilaiyaraaja song from the 90s in its title credits, you best believe it’s going to make a comeback in the last act to move us to tears. This is the essence of Chekhov's Gun in the language of a 2024 Malayalam film.

“One must never place a rifle on the stage, if it isn’t going to go off.” This is how Russian playwright Anton Chekhov described Chekhov’s Gun, a storytelling principle that’s used quite liberally in cinema. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep, Anton added. Now this promise can be made with a passing indication of an element — the Rita Hayworth poster in American film The Shawshank Redemption (1994) provided a literal escape to Andy — or even a character in some cases — Shah Rukh Khan’s Amjad changes the trajectory of the film and Saket’s life with his reappearance in Tamil movie Hey Ram (2000). 

Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh Khan in Hey Ram
Kamal Haasan and Shah Rukh Khan in Hey Ram

And now, over a century later — Anton wrote about this principle to a fellow playwright in 1889 — this “gun” gets some of the most inventive and varied depictions through the biggest Malayalam films this year. Let’s find out how films ranging from Manjummel Boys to Aavesham, used this tool to deliver on these brilliant promises. 

Manjummel Boys, Tug of war and Kanmani Anbodu

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

If there were an award for the most number of Chekhov’s Gun used in a film, it would be for Chidambaram’s blockbuster Malayalam film this year (giving stiff competition to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out (2019), which had plenty of examples). But this isn’t to say the “gun” is used with frivolity. Every single element introduced to audiences in the first act attains a fitting fruition in the climax, which contributes to making Manjummel Boys what it is today. 

We hear Ilaiyaraaja’s ‘Kanmani Anbodu’, a melody championing the purity of love, before Manjummel Boys begins. It’s clear that Chidambaram didn’t want to introduce this element as an insignificant detail. We continue to hear riffs of it in the film, when the boys are en route to Guna caves, and immediately understand the reference, too, because the 90s song takes place in Guna caves, just like much of Manjummel Boys. But no one could’ve prepared us for how this particular “gun” goes off — it turns this song into an ode for friendship — in the climax.

Another example is the game of tug of war. We see these men — headed by Subhash (Sreenath Bhasi) — flung to failure in a friendly game of the sport early in the film. “First win the tug of war, and then we can think of Goa,” Kuttan (Soubin Shahir) tells the men, as they discuss their vacation plans. They might not have gone to Goa, but they sure did redeem themselves at tug of war, where Kuttan heroically pulls Subhash to safety in the climax. 

PS. The light that indicates Kuttan's presence in the cavern Subhash has fallen into, is another “gun” that is set off by an earlier conversation between Subhash and Prasad (Khalid Rahman). God is indeed the “light” that shines from above. 

Aattam, Perfume

Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

The first time we see Hari’s perfume in Aattam, it’s a harmless moment of camaraderie where Nandhan (Nandhan Unni) sprays it on all the men. This “gun” is quite insignificant at first glance. These men are on the way to a big party, and spray some perfume on themselves to feel good. But the next time the perfume is mentioned, we know something that Anjali, who suspects Hari (Kalabhavan Shajohn), doesn’t. 

Anjali (Zarin Shihab), the only woman in the drama troupe, is shattered when one of her castmates sexually assaults her. She doesn’t see the man, but she’s sure who he smells like. “The horrible smell of Hari’s perfume was all over the place,” she says. And just like that, the perfume adds another layer of complexity to the plot. Who did it?

Director Anand Ekarshi eventually makes us understand that the answer to that question is almost irrelevant. Every man in the room, consciously or unconsciously, contributes to making the troupe an unsafe, hostile space for Anjali. “For me, you and the other eleven are one and the same,” says Anjali in her play in the end, underscoring the sentiment that screams, “Yes, all men.”

Premalu, Pepper spray

Streaming on: Disney+ Hotstar

Premalu, true to form, has a sweet and funny take on the “gun.” Aadhi (Shyam Mohan) casually gives Reenu (Mamitha Baiju) a can of pepper spray in the first act. This moment, in our heads, is initially only associated with that hilarious omelette joke that their colleague cracks. But in the climax, this is the same spray that becomes a weapon of self-defence for Reenu, who is forced to defend herself and her love (Reenu definitely doesn’t kid around. Who knew?). The “gun” here is a hilarious spoonful of his own medicine for Aadhi.  

But let’s not forget the usage of another “gun” that’s locked and loaded full of love. In the end, Girsh AD reminds us of that innocuous little beer bottle, which made a tiny appearance in the beginning. It did fall on Sachin after all. 

Aavesham, Red wall and Soda opener

Streaming on: Theatres

We learn about the soda opener and red wall, as part of Ranga’s backstory. And this is where the application of the Chekhov’s Gun is quite clever. Because as menacing as these stories sound, we don’t know whether to fully give in to it. 

This is what we’re fed about Ranga’s past: he is a former juicer, whose life changed the moment he started using his opener on people rather than sodas. He has also killed many, notably a brother, who wronged him. The evidence of this? The blood-red on the walls of his house isn’t all just paint. The film almost deceives us, making us laughingly dismiss these tales of bravado. But when they do come back, we’re almost hitting ourselves, wondering how we didn’t see this coming.

The “guns” here prove Ranga’s strength — the fight in the end featuring a ravenous Ranga whip out his soda opener — and vulnerability — the red wall isn’t a symbol of his virility, but his fragility — in one shot, to not just the boys, but also us. The new, massy FaFa is here. 

Bramayugam, Ring and earring

Available in: SonyLIV

Rahul Sadasivan’s horror film is a house of mirrors and illusions, where every unnoticed detail in a shot tells us something about its dwellers. While it might not be very obvious, one of the first things Rahul shows us about Potti is his black ring. We see this recur, even as Potti eats, plays chess to win power or even chokes a man to put the fear of God in him. But we really see it only in the climax, when we realise it’s a ring Potti uses to control the Chaathan. 

Thevan’s earring is another witty application of the Chekhov’s Gun that’s used to show us that he’s not who we think he really is. The Chaathan mispositions the earring from his left ear to right, before possessing Thevan. 

Varshangalkku Shesham, ‘Nyabagam’

Available in: Theatres

Another promise and a “gun” that’s delivered in the form of a song is ‘Nyabagam’ from Varshangalkku Shesham. The first time we hear Nyabagam is when Murali (Pranav Mohanlal) hums the tune into his recorder on the stairs, seconds before Indra, a big-shot composer walks in to manipulate him. The tune goes on to become Indra’s claim to fame, eventually crumbling Murali’s career in cinema. But this is also the very tune that unites Murali and his best friend (Venu) in the second half. 

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