Language: Malayalam

Director: Vishnu Narayan

Cast: Tovino Thomas, Sharanya R Nair, Tito Wilson, Chemban Vinod Jose, Shalu Rahim, Leona Lishoy, Jins Baskar

In case you were wondering about the title of Vishnu Narayan’s Maradona (written by Krishna Moorthy, and starring Tovino Thomas), the film has nothing to do with football, or the legendary footballer. The closest we get to the latter is a No. 10 jersey on a boy who adopts the player’s name as his nick. The protagonist’s nickname is a good-enough excuse for a film’s title (and he has it tattooed on the back of his broad neck), but it still doesn’t tell us what kind of movie this is. For that, we have to wait for the scene where a little girl, Dia, asks Maradona what his real name is, and he whispers it in her ear in the midst of a song sequence — the way the protagonist of In the Mood for Love whispered into a stone hollow in the ruins of Angkor Wat, or the way Bill Murray whispered to Scarlett Johansson at the end of Lost in Translation. Maradona is that kind of movie, where some secrets remain secrets.

For instance: Why is Maradona this way? What made him turn from that No. 10 jersey-wearing kid to this criminal-on-the-run we see in the present day? He silences a beagle by tying its snout shut with a long piece of string, and tosses it into a bathroom. He twists the arm of a little girl in Bharatanatyam attire, ignoring her whimpers of pain, demanding that she mimic the Nagavalli character from Manichitrathazhu. Even when Maradona falls for Asha, a nurse who works in the flat opposite his — Sharanya R Nair pulls off a “cute” role without overdoing the cuteness — he tries to peer down her T-shirt. Maradona leaves us in little doubt that Maradona is far from a “good” human being, and it doesn’t make him sympathetic by pointing to a past trauma that shaped his present. He just is.

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At times, we sense something of a moral core. When Maradona stumbles into a drug party where Aravind (Shalu Rahim) is having sex with a girl who’s zonked out of her mind, he tells Aravind that one should either pay for sex or woo women like a hero – but this is unacceptable! And peering down a T-shirt is? But when a guitar-strumming neighbour is beaten up by his girlfriend’s disapproving family, Maradona pauses. We hear him think: In a past life, he would have been one of the goons hired by the girl’s family to beat up this boy. But now that he has Asha, he’s finally seeing the other side. (Her name suggests the glimmer of hope in Maradona’s life.) The conceit of Maradona — that good people can change a bad man – isn’t new, exactly, but two things make the film fresh: Tovino’s exquisitely tuned performance (watch him seethe quietly, helplessly when someone dies), and the director’s conviction that any kind of transformation takes time, which means the film has to take its time too. (It’s quite a while before we are told why Maradona is on the run.) In these pauses, we literally see a half-animal transform into a half-decent human being.

At some point, Maradona moves in with Dia’s family — her mother is Nadiya (Leona Lishoy), her father is Sree (Jins Baskar), and this is the flat with the beagle. When the family leaves on a vacation, Maradona is stuck with the dog. After his initial reluctance, he begins to bond with the animal. As he puts it, he’s never gone so long without speaking to anyone. Maradona spends a great amount of time on this man and this dog, and the change in equation doesn’t come across as a convenient overnight occurrence. Maradona lulls us into this world, where green is prominent. The film opens amidst lush vegetation, and the outsides of these flats are painted in the same colour. When the camera pulls back from Maradona, he is but a speck in a sea of green. When a man’s very nature is being transformed, cooled down, what better colour to surround him with than that of Nature?

We don’t see much of this healing green in Maradona’s past, which revolves mainly around his best friend, Sudhi (a brilliant Tito Wilson). Just how much do these men love each other? Let’s just say Maradona is willing to shell out Rs. 6 lakh for a used car whose showroom price is Rs. 5.5 lakh — just because he’s seen Sudhi’s delight on seeing the car. As for Sudhi, the only phone number he has memorised is Maradona’s. One of the film’s most gut-wrenching passages occurs after the two end up separated, with Sudhi on the road and Maradona in his green apartment complex, and Martin (Chemban Vinod Jose) and his men on their tail. When Martin catches up with Sudhi, the air is thick with danger. Maradona, meanwhile, is idly flipping a coin, wondering if he really loves Asha. Along with his new surroundings, his old friend, too, lets us see just how different Maradona’s life has become.

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Maradona can be seen as a companion piece to Mayaanadhi. (The outline is similar: Tovino as a thug, on the run and finding love, with people giving chase.) It also reminded me of Trapped (a man locked in an apartment), Mathilukal (man and woman separated by a barrier), and Satya (innocent girl falls for a bad sort of guy). But the film is an original. At least, its voice is original, supported by a blazing score (Sushin Shyam) that overlaps with songs and ambient noise. Imagine seeing a man transforming with the promise of cigarettes, but only if he performs certain tasks. Perhaps what made Maradona this way was the lack of a disciplining parent figure in his life (or perhaps it was the constant presence of Sudhi) — though, like everything else, this is not spelled out. The scenes between Maradona and his neighbours are lovely little odes to human connection.

The few off notes come from the melodrama, especially a thunder-and-lightning scene that contrasts with an earlier moment where Maradona lays a trap for a bird. But I didn’t mind terribly, for it’s not inconsistent with the world of this film, which suggests that time changes everyone. Almost every character comes with a hinted-at before/after — the sister whose brother disowned her but has now sought her help; the henchman-husband who tells his wife he has given up this line of work (note the gentleness with which he cradles his daughter in his arms) but finds the bloodlust in him is as strong as ever; or the old man who lives alone, but happily so, because he has made his peace with his children being elsewhere. “We teach them to run after money,” he says. “Now how can I expect them to come here and look after me?” The ending is equally moving, set in a strange space between the past (which is hinted at by a song from Bobby) and the future (which suggests an unexpected friendship). Movies, traditionally, leave us with a sense of closure, but Maradona, clearly, is still a work in progress. Does he finally find himself? That’s a secret.

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