There's a mother who wants her son to marry this girl. For reasons that aren't explained in black-and-white, the wedding needs to be called off. The mother invites the girl for a chat, to break the news. She sighs that she thought her son would be like her, but it appears he's more like his father. Another film might consider it important to fill in these blanks. Who's the father? Which quality of his has the son imbibed? Is it just the fact that the son has disappeared from the scene, leaving his mother to do the dirty work, or is there more? But in the world of Varane Avashyamund, psychology — baggage — isn't as important as the present, the here and now. In terms of content, this is a dramatic moment, a thunderstorm that should, by rights, rage for days. But the way the scene plays out is like a light drizzle — it's inconvenient, sure, but you know the sun will be out soon.
Anoop Sathyan has made a delectably light movie from the heaviest ingredients. You have a soldier, Major Unnikrishnan (Suresh Gopi), suffering from some sort of PTSD. You have a single mother, Neena (Shobana), and her romance-averse daughter, Nikki (Kalyani Priyadarshan). You have siblings — Bibeesh (Dulquer Salmaan) and Karthik (Sarvajith Santosh Sivan) — who come with a truly ghastly history, and even the maternal presence in their home (KPAC Lalitha) comes with a story that makes you see there's something behind her cheerful smiles. When you hear Neena narrate the events that led up to her marriage, or see Bibeesh and his girlfriend heading towards happily-never-after, you'd be forgiven for expecting the heaviest-duty melodrama.
Why, then, do we watch most of Varane Avashyamund with such a fond, indulgent smile? One reason is surely the spectacular cast, many of whom have been cast for the movie memories they bring with them. (If I, a Tamilian, smiled at so many associations, I can only imagine the seismic blasts of nostalgia triggered in Malayali moviegoers.) I dare you to watch Suresh Gopi's big speech — in front of a big audience (he's afraid of crowds) — with a dry eye. But it's more than just about a man conquering his fear. It's how he reaches into his past to inspire youngsters who are about to set off on a long and arduous journey. It's about how that long and arduous journey becomes not just about going from Point A to Point B, but also about returning, periodically, to Point A: the starting point. Home.
It's hardest to play heavy scenes in a light manner, and these actors do it marvellously. Their characters could have each filled out a movie of their own. But Anoop Sathyan chooses to discard microscopic detail in favour of broad arcs and happy-making vignettes. A potential argument between Neena and Nikki is averted when the KPAC Lalitha character shouts at Nikki to stop sulking. The scene includes a rooster named KFC. But it's not "cute". It's just… nice. And when you dig a little you see that the writing isn't as light as the film appears. If people comment (understandably) on how Neena looks, an early scene has a man telling Nikki she's looking good. Her instant reply: "I know."
In a flash, we get a sense of the genetic lottery that binds mother and daughter. And in another flash, we also get a sense of the cracks in their relationship. Nikki comes home to find Neena dancing as though no one's watching, and her reaction suggests this is not what she expected "a mother" to do. And the way Neena stops and quickly composes herself tells us she did not want Nikki to see her this way. One small moment, and a whole history is presented to us. The film doesn't have to fill in the blanks. We do it ourselves. No one can be crueller with parents than children who've been deprived of a normal family life. But again, the lightness of touch keeps the material buoyant. Even before we see Nikki on a date, we hear Neena telling a neighbour she may be on one. The revelation comes with a conspiratorial smile. No one can be kinder with a child than a mother who's had her fair share of relationships.
The big star, Dulquer Salmaan, gets fourth billing — and you see why. This isn't about him. He's just one of the many people in that apartment complex, one of the many people whose good looks mask a lot of pain. (Urvashi has a small role, too.) The film looks as good as its actors. Mukesh Muraleedharan's cinematography paints bright, vivid frames. Only Major Unnikrishnan's home is glum-looking, to match his inner glumness — but even here, we are never allowed to feel glum. Look out for the beautiful bit of writing that has a traditional brass lamp travel from place to place until it ends up as the punchline for an ass joke in the Major's home.
Varane Avashyamund is hardly perfect. A sentimental song is terribly out of place amidst all this airiness. There are some pacing issues. The drama-lover in me wished at least some of the subplots had been angstier. And the community of apartment residents is a la-la-land that should come with mermaids and unicorns. People get along regardless of caste and class and language and invisible "only vegetarian tenants allowed" signs. During a downpour, a spurned man hands his umbrella to the mother of the very woman who spurned him. There's even a bonding scene with a random Swiggy delivery guy. But at this point in our lives, given what we are experiencing now, I welcomed this utopia with open hands. Social distancing be damned, I wanted to give the movie a huge hug.