Narcotics Is A Dirty Business: Revisiting Padmarajan’s Noirish Season, Thirty Years After Its Release

An eye for an eye, drug trade, Godfather oranges...the amoral Padmarajan universe where bad money fights blood money
Narcotics Is A Dirty Business: Revisiting Padmarajan’s Noirish Season, Thirty Years After Its Release

Jeevan (Mohanlal), in Padmarajan's grossly underrated 1989 thriller, is not the usual good guy. The film opens with a voiceover as he is being driven, handcuffed, into prison. He says he will miss the morning mist on the roads and the flickering street lights, both of which he will not be able to see for the next two years. He chuckles while acknowledging his sadness at the freedom being taken away, though he dismisses any point in remaining sad. As he enters the walls of the central jail, there's no pall of gloom covering the proceedings. Instead, Jeevan says it feels like returning to a familiar home which is reinforced when the warden asks him, almost pleasantly, if he has put on weight. Jeevan agrees and says it's because his meals are not home-cooked, as though he is replying to a person with genuine concern. "I will become thin now," he jokes, a comment on the state of prison food. There's a deep rooted cynicism in his voice and a hint that he has no home. He's the quintessential loner in a world that has lost moral certainty.

Like the dialogue in the recent Lucifer, Season too is a battle, but not between good and evil. It's between evil versus lesser evil and it's also a battle between two different kinds of amoral; bad money versus blood money. Which is the reality of the tourism business in Kovalam of the 80's. Amidst widespread unemployment, as the character played by Ashokan points out, his career choices are hopelessly simple; it's either drug trafficking or pimping, though he prefers the former to the latter. Even Jagathy's character, of a tourist guide/agent, gets introduced in the film as he tries to lure a white "customer" with the promise of "Kerala girls", aged between 12-13 and "sweet seventeen". There's no shock in the way this scene is presented. It's very matter of fact and the film doesn't judge him for doing this. Because, like the significance of the character played by Oduvil Unnikrishnan in it, it's a world where a devout Hindu Brahmin is caught for stealing…an idol of his favourite god.

Kovalam too is witnessing a darker turn. There's no more grass being sold anymore. It's moving up to more dangerous stuff. In the film's words, the new tourists now prefer "smack" and "white snuff" to ganja and even the sellers are looking to move up the drug ladder, as though it's a step up in their career. Jeevan, or Uncle as he is known in Kovalam, lives a life of lesser crimes. His business is dealing in foreign currency and foreign electronic goods. This was back in license raj when a VCR cost upwards of Rs.18,000, especially when the brand is National or Sony or Hitachi. He also runs a restaurant—J's Sea Resort. But he too is tempted when the big drug money comes in.

A sum of Rs.1,50,000 is required for Manianpilla Raju and Ashokan's characters to move up in life. One aims to buy a car and run it as a taxi and the other plans to marry off his two sisters with the money they stand to make in their deal with Fabian Remerez, a white man who offers to buy three kilos of brown sugar from them in return for Rs.5 lakh. But more than the instant profit Jeevan stands to make, he feels he will help two people overcome their crimes so they can move on and become legit. It also traces the dichotomy of two different types of women. Like Merlyn the bikini-sporting partner to Fabian Remerez, or more befittingly the film's femme fatale. And on the other end is the character played by Shari, Manianpilla Raju's girlfriend who promises domesticity and his character's rehabilitation.

Told in three different timelines, the film begins in May 1988 as Jeevan enters the prison for a second time; this time for assaulting a cop. His earlier stint, of seven years, was reduced to five because he was a "nalla kutti" in a case of triple homicide even though he was implicated on the basis of circumstantial evidence. Yet the majority of the story is set during the "season" of 1982, seven years after hippies (the film's words) started making their way into Kovalam. And this is why the film becomes so engaging, because we realise that it's a revenge story only much later. There's even a hint of friendship between the protagonist and his enemy, even though their past is already bloody. The double crossing Fabian Remerez kills two friends and becomes the cause for Merlyn's death, which is why Jeevan is implicated in the first place. And that's also why the phrase "eye for an eye" in this revenge drama takes further significance.

Planned months in advance, Jeevan's ploy to get even with Remerez is purposely scheduled for Gandhi Jayanthi and that's not just because its an ideal day to distract officials for a prison break…it's also poetic justice to kill the double crosser in a chaotic world that has already gone blind ON Gandhi's Birthday. Like Jeffrey Archer's Not A Penny Less Not A Penny More, even the amount of money in Jeevan's payback is fiercely precise.

Even oranges, perhaps a tribute to The Godfather makes its appearance in Season, further solidifying its noirish roots. Couple that with the cathedral bell like chimes used by its music director Illaiyaraaja, that's reminiscent of the theme from Mani Ratnam's Nayakan, and we're witness to one of Malayalam cinema's (even though one may even call it a Malayalam-English bi-lingual) purest film noirs. 30 years and on and one wonders why the film received such a tepid response during its original release. Why is Season not being celebrated as much as the other Mohanlal-Padmarajan classics? Why don't we see Mohanlal in such edgy films anymore? It truly was the golden 'season' of Malayalam cinema. Also, just how trippy is Illaiyaraaja's 'Poi Varu'?

Related Stories

No stories found.