Director: Arun Bose
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Ahaana Krishnakumar, Srikant Murali, Nithin George, Vinitha Koshy
Arun Bose’s Luca is a carefully (some might say “artily”) designed film, and we see this care, this art, right from the opening, which is a jumble of images. A woman rises after sleep. A man roams the streets on his bike, in the rain. A sculptor works in his studio. Slowly, these fragments begin to cohere, and we meet two couples: one in the present, where it’s always raining, and one in the past, drenched in sunlight. The former, first. They are Akbar (Nithin George) and Fathima (Vinitha Koshy), and they are on the verge of a divorce. Akbar, a cop, is haunted by memories of Janet, and theirs is the first love song we see. Malayalam cinema keeps finding ways to break the mould. Elsewhere, the big star would be the one with this song, with its refrain: Tu chura gayi dil ki dhadkan. If we are to take this literally, Janet has stolen Akbar’s heartbeats, and there are none left for Fathima. Akbar, therefore, wants to set her free.
Now, to the second couple, from the past. Here, too, we get hints of memories — but unlike in Akbar’s case, they remain frozen, in the form of paintings and photographs. That actually becomes a line: “Photographs are framed memories.” The line comes from Luca (Tovino Thomas), the sculptor and artist we got a glimpse of earlier. In this timeline, the woman is Niharika (Ahaana Krishnakumar), a Chemistry student with a history of sexual abuse. Luca has his own tragedies from childhood, and they have left him with a condition called necrophobia, a fear of death and dying. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Luca and Niharika meet cute at an art exhibition. He overhears her mocking an artwork. He gives her a piece of his mind. Later, she really sees the artwork for what it is. They get together. He wants to sketch her. She poses. He draws her with tears running down her cheeks. It’s almost like he senses something, for in a little while, she will have tears running down her cheeks.
Both couples — past and present — are linked by the sense of claustrophobia. It’s just them. They seem to have very few people around. When Luca organises a birthday party for a friend, it’s news that he has friends. (I wish we’d gotten to know these other people.) But there are contrasts between the two couples, too. Fathima and Akbar hardly talk. The voice we hear in these segments is actually Niharika’s. We hear her when Akbar reads her diary. Luca and Niharika, on the other hand, have charming and fun conversations. (Tovino and Ahaana are charming and fun, as well.)
But with this setup, I wish Luca had gone after more. I wish it had found a way to link the two couples — other than just the diary, which comes in when Akbar begins investigating a murder. I wanted to see how Akbar’s attitudes towards love change after reading about Luca and Niharika. As it stands now, Akbar’s past and Fathima could have been axed from the film and nothing much would have changed. I wished the red herrings about builders and a suspicious-looking relative had been better written. I wished a crucial detail about Luca’s health had not been divulged so early (because it makes us anticipate the climax). I wish the investigation had consisted of more than just a lot of diary-reading. It’s dull. It makes a long film, filled with slow-motion shots, feel longer and slower.
But it’s all still smoothly done. I enjoyed the bits about the cat, the way Luca reads books, and even the small connections. Niharika tells Luca, “Not everyone is an open book like you.” In Akbar’s timeline, her life is the open book — rather, an open diary. The film is a little too meticulously put together, with two colour palettes (browns and yellows; shades of blue). When we see these blues not just in Luca’s studio but also on the walls of a hospital and on a truck, colour stops being a suggestion and becomes an affectation. (The classy cinematography is by Nimish Ravi.) But even if Luca never becomes the Great Love Story the makers were trying for, it’s an easy watch. The sensuality of the imagery has an almost tactile quality. Mere technique cannot make a movie, but it can make us believe that a movie like Luca is better than it really is.