I went into Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 expecting a playful family drama about a clever robot and his antics. But writer-director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval delivers a narrative that delves deeper. The film, about a father, son and a machine is a keenly observed portrait of the piercing loneliness of old age, the myriad ways in which even loving children neglect their parents, the struggle between generations, the struggle between asserting your individuality and stunting your desires for the larger good of your family and the longing, no matter how old we get, to find a sliver of happiness. Kunjappan, a machine designed to be a helper, reveals to his masters, their frailties and inconsistencies. He also teaches them how to be better human beings.
The beating heart of this film is Suraj Venjaramoodu as Bhaskaran Poduval, a cantankerous old man living in a small village in Kerala. The character reminded me of Bhaskor Banerjee from Piku. Like his Bengali counterpart, Bhaskaran is fussy, demanding and desperately clinging on to his only child – Chuppan played by Soubin Shahir. Bhaskaran insists that his son, an electronics engineer with solid career prospects, stay with him. Chuppan has already quit several jobs that required him to live elsewhere. He has also hired home nurses but none seem to last with the demanding Bhaskaran, who has even thrown a utensil at one. When an opportunity with a robotics company in Russia comes up, Chuppan decides to take it. Eventually, instead of a human, he installs a robot to look after his father.
The film opens with a tracking shot in which we see a coffee mug that carries a quote by astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, which says: ‘The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.’ The first scene shows a robot helper going rogue – Ratheesh wants us to be keenly aware of the perils of technology. But Kunjappan, like R2-D2 or C-3PO from the Star Wars movies, is an adorable android. He’s a machine with personality and wit. Which is why, despite his initial reluctance, Bhaskaran eventually forges an intimate bond with him. So much so, that in one scene, he tells a tearful Chuppan across the dining table that while he was gone, it was the robot who made him feel alive. He refers to it as his son and tells his real son, he cannot replace you but you cannot replace him.
The screenplay alternates these rich emotional beats with humour – the village women think that Kunjappan shouldn’t be walking around naked so he is made to wear a mundu. The robot also introduces Bhaskaran to social media and helps him to find his long-lost love on Facebook. There is such sweetness in their bond that you almost forget that Kunjappan is a machine. The robot has no feelings and yet it is he who helps Chuppan understand the nature of duty and love. Kunjappan, who comes without the baggage and beliefs of human beings, also helps Bhaskaran see beyond his own prejudices. His questions and comments highlight the hypocrisy of the humans around him. In one particularly resonant exchange, he tells Bhaskaran that in Japan if you love someone, you openly tell them. To which Bhaskaran replies, matter-of-factly, “Here you either rape her or pour petrol on her and set her on fire.”
I read that Suraj was 43 when he played this role of a man twice his age. He erases any glimmer of vitality or youthfulness in Bhaskaran. In fact, Suraj has played Bhaskaran with such skill that you can’t imagine that this man was ever young. The bent back, the way he places his hands, the anger at his own infirmity that boils over frequently – it’s all there. I don’t know how he has done this but even his eyes seem old and brimming with resentments. Soubin, in the less flashy part, provides solid support. That dining table scene is a mini-masterclass in acting.
Android Kunjappan was the first Malayalam film to feature a robot in a primary role. But Ratheesh doesn’t use him to give us a glimpse of a shiny future. Instead, he and DOP Sanu John Varughese explore the contrast between the high-tech machine with bright blue eyes and the rural surroundings. The lush Kerala greenery, the nosy, constantly gossiping neighbors and the sleepy rhythms of a village make the android seem even more startling. The visual of Bhaskaran walking hand-in-hand on the muddy streets with a machine is both intrinsically comical and endearing.
Ratheesh doesn’t find the same fluidity when the narrative moves abroad. Chuppan’s scenes with his boss and his romance with a half-Japanese, half-Malayalee girl named Hitomi, seem the most under-cooked parts of the film.
But there is so much to enjoy here that you won’t mind these occasional bumps. You can watch Android Kunjappan on Amazon Prime.