Language: Malayalam

Cast: Shane Nigam, Ann Sheetal, Shine Tom Chacko

Director: Anuraj Manohar

Ishq begins serenely, with romance in the air between Sachi (Shane Nigam) and Vasudha (Ann Sheetal), young lovers having a late night conversation, making grand plans for the next day, her birthday. The film directed, by debutant Anuraj Manohar and written by Ratheesh Ravi, picks up momentum when their long day stretches to night and their brief moment of intimacy inside the car soars into events beyond their wildest dreams.   

Sachi is your average young lover in his 20s, eager and anxious to explore his romance with the college-going Vasudha. While Vasudha is as naïve, going into fits of giggles when he puts the phone on speaker mode, allowing her to listen to his mother pulling his leg. The writing is organic during these portions. At a restaurant, when a guy stares at her, Sachi walks up to him and warns him. But very nicely. Equally nicely, he winks at his friend to trash the guy who touched his sister. This niceness in Sachi’s personality is also convincingly woven into the narrative.

Vasudha is your cutesy starry-eyed girlfriend, who constantly talks about marriage to her boyfriend. That this romance is a secret adventure for her is evident, probably the bravest thing she has done in her life.

Though the dynamics between them are even, Sachi comes with all the trappings of an average Malayali male. There is possessiveness, fear, ego and that old amorous love for a girl’s chastity. When they get accosted by a stranger (Shine Tom Chacko), who forcefully sits next to her in the car, Sachi’s first reaction is to make sure that he doesn’t touch her. So even in the middle of a potentially dangerous situation, there is a sense of amusement when he wields one hand between them like a wall and one hand on the steering wheel.

Malayalam cinema has mildly touched upon moral policing in various capacities. It was there in Varathan fleetingly. But in Ishq, they doggedly bring it to the operation table, with the intention of surgically removing it. Though it isn’t entirely workable.

Having said that the moral policing portions are organically written, brilliantly balancing the fear, suspense, sympathy and disgust such a situation evokes. There is a wicked sense of anticipation in the narrative that isn’t the least predictable. The stranger striking a perverted conversation about details of their intimacy with Sachi, rightly captures the tone of moral policing.

Speaking of the film’s track after the interval might be giving away too many spoilers. True, it’s not an unfamiliar narrative that follows, and one can question the dodgy sense of morality, but ironically there is a sense of vindication (with nicely done humour) in it as well. What really worked is how Sachi stealthily balances the essence of his character with the passion of a young man who has to prove a point to himself and to his girlfriend.  There is vengeance, anger, shame and fear and rightfully so and it’s terrifically staged there. The actors effectively play it out culminating in a just finish. But what probably should have been avoided was that celebratory BGM—because this is not essentially that old good versus evil story, it’s about the hunter becoming the hunted, it’s about payback with the same nasty coin. There are other dicey questions to answer as well but that would give too much away.

The film eventually belongs to Shine Tom Chacko, playing Alvin, the creep with perfection. He brings it all in his body language, the eerie grin, the mock anger, the vulgar curiosity, the arrogance, and helplessness when he finds himself being caught on the wrong foot. There is a scene where he bites into the banana eaten by her, savouring it in ecstasy and it’s downright creepy. Shane Nigam is particularly good during the last bits, though the BGM didn’t help him at all. Newcomer Ann Sheetal is okayish in a role that doesn’t have much scope to perform while Leona Lishoy as Shine’s wife is superb.

It would be sacrilegious to talk about the ending, but one is in two minds regarding how it was played out.  On the surface, it seems so on point, politically correct, double ticking all the boxes. But it also seems a tad forced. And that somehow takes the edge off the climax.

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