Analysing a film like Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (Like An Afternoon Dream) is akin to putting together pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle. The process of writing about the film becomes an opportunity to discover its intricate design. It's been over a few weeks since filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellissery's latest offering premiered on Netflix, and the internet has been flooded with several theories and breakdowns. The movie's premise is deceptively simple, following a Malayali theatre group returning to Kerala by bus after their religious visit to Velankani. Things take a turn for the trance-like when James (Mammootty) stops the bus and visits a village in Tamil Nadu. He walks around the streets with assurance and purpose, entering an unsuspecting family’s home, assuming the personality of Sundaram, a native milk man who had gone missing a couple of years earlier. We soon witness an agnostic James, who detests the excess sugar in his coffee, transforming into a deeply religious, Tamil-speaking, "son of the soil” with a sweet tooth.
It is a testament to the power of Mammooty's performance that despite the transformation occurring in a highly nuanced, subtle fashion, the characters of James and Sundaram appear distinct. The interpretations behind the peculiar events of the story range from James having a dissociative personality disorder to being possessed by the spirit of Sundaram. Some have even argued that the events are nothing more than a dream in James's head as he naps on the bus. Each explanation stands justified depending on one's reading of the events. These interpretations are not just indicative of Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam's complexity but are also revealing of how personal the film is to people. Lijo Jose has crafted a film that evokes the feeling of having just experienced a powerful dream and at the same time, an allegory for all of cinema itself.
Just like how James unquestioningly adopts the identity of Sundaram, we also lose our perception of time, space, and logic in our dreams. The experience feels uncannily real and affects us, even if it does not make sense in retrospect. Even though dreams bear little to no consequence in the daily cycle of life, while we are in them, the stakes are higher than ever. Similarly, the events occurring to James/Sundaram are not bound by reality, yet they are moving in their impact. Just like how we cannot pinpoint when our dreams actually begin, we can never truly decipher the moment James turns into Sundaram. The logic of cinema plays out like the logic of dreams. Just like dreams, movies affect us on a subconscious level. There is not a defined sense of logic in cinema. Filmmakers consciously manipulate spatial geographies, the rules of physics, and narrative structures as cinematic techniques to enhance this viewing experience. Even though we are aware of the illusion, the best films impact us in ways reality can't.
Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam features several Tamil film songs and film scenes that play in the background, acting as a metaphor for the predicament of James/Sundaram and both of their families. In a certain sense, the Lijo Jose directorial is a reflection of the dreams we have while we are asleep and an ode to cinema: the medium where people convert their most vivid fantasies and imagination into reality.
All these abstractions wouldn’t work if the film didn’t have an overarching philosophy and emotional heft. Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam has both in equal measure. The philosophy comes in the form of a bite-sized verse from the Thirukkural .“To sleep is to die, and to wake up from sleep is birth,” utters a hotel receptionist to James, foreboding the events about to follow. The Kural is not just used as an allegory, but also defines the cyclical nature of death and rebirth that plays heavily into the film. As we witness Mammootty walking in the village, it almost seems as if James is reborn as Sundaram. The spiritual rebirth to Sundaram brings with it the death of James. All the things that were central to James’s identity and dear to him: the love for his family, his religious beliefs, connection, and affinity for the life and culture of Kerala are altogether dissipated.
“I belong to this village. This soil belongs to my father and grandfather. I will be buried here,” proclaims a helpless Sundaram in Tamil after the Malayali theatre troupe tries to drag him away from the village to the bus. The film seems to posit that the distinctions and divisions humanity has created for itself are rendered ineffective in the inevitable cycle of death and rebirth. An agnostic can turn religious, a true-blue Malayali can become a true-blue Tamilian upon rebirth. All these distinctions are beautifully depicted in the diametrically opposite personalities of James and Sundaram. The dual identities cause wrenching pain in strikingly different ways to both wives in the film. Sally, James’s wife, is struck with the terrifying experience of witnessing her husband turn into a complete stranger before her eyes. While Poongulazhi, Sundaram’s wife, has to deal with the ire of her daughter and brother-in-law for harboring James into her home, believing him to be a manifestation of Sundaram.
It almost seems as if a grand cosmic design ordains James to turn into Sundaram. “God has sent him to your home. Let him sleep tonight”, says the head priest, believing the development to be divine intervention. Yet almost all the characters in the village doubt the intentions and actions of James/ Sundaram, convinced that he is a fraudster. It is said that seeing is believing. Ironically it's only his blind mother who accepts him wholeheartedly. Just like we never question the logic of our dreams while we are in them, Sundaram’s mother never for once questions that the man resting on her lap could be anyone apart from Sundaram. The film harbors such moments of serendipity throughout its narrative, and yet it is very intentional in its form.
The surreal feel of the story is compensated by a very hardline, realistic approach in the technique and treatment. Lijo resists the urge to make anything feel theatrical or cinematic and in the process, breaks entirely new ground with regards to the technical aspect. There could be several moments in the film where background score could have been added to make the scene more dramatic. Yet, we are only treated to old Tamil film songs, scenes, and ambient sounds. These conscious choices function to elevate the film into a meta sensory experience. The film is all the more superior for it. Theni Eshwar’s cinematography captures everything in a series of exquisitely composed static shots. This lends a lifelike quality to the proceedings, as it feels like we are watching a performance on a stage. Instead of becoming a character, the camera takes an observer's point of view, which records the humour and tragedy of the human condition. The framing is such that Sundaram is viewed through the confines of objects, making him appear like a victim bound by his fate.
As much as the technical achievements and novel story impressed upon the first watch, the film belongs to Mammootty. The actor commands the viewer's attention without ever hogging the limelight. The actor gets several moments to shine, like re-enacting a famous scene from the Sivaji Ganesan legal drama Gauravam, and looking absolutely perplexed when a barber hands him a mirror, and he, for the first time discovers James in the reflection. The tightrope walk that the actor has pulled off deserves maximum praise. The body language, dialect, and behavior are different in both the characters, yet they seem cut out from the same cloth. The magic of Mammootty’s performance lies in its subtlety.
Arguably, the best bit of Mammootty's performance happens during the film's climax when James regains his original identity after an afternoon nap. In the scene, the actor wakes up like he is being jolted out of a dream. The metamorphosis is never explicitly stated, yet it is conveyed to a chilling effect by the actor, with his burdened, defiant eyes. You get the sense that even though all is well, the events have changed him for the rest of his life. Just like James, who is transformed by the dreamlike events of the film, great cinema like Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam alter our existing notions of life, even if it is just for a few days after watching the movie.