Director: Jithin Joe Francis
Cast: Kalamandalam Radhika, Baiju Bala, Sarath Chandran, Farhan P. Faisal
Marunnu is a Malayalam-language short film that attempts to challenge our perception of its theme for eight out of its ten thoughtfully composed minutes. For starters, it carefully infuses its narrative with the kind of visual cues that condition the viewer to locate an undertone of young, working-class existentialism. Marunnu translates to marijuana – “weed” for the more recreationally inclined – whose chemical structure doubles up as the title of the film. The male protagonist, a joyless coder (the vocation we most equate to urban lifelessness/isolation) named Nihal, works in an office full of human drones. On a phone call, we hear the voice of his boss, who dismisses requests of a raise by hinting at Nihal’s dire personal situation. “I understand it has been six months since your father’s death, but don’t lose the client again,” is his tactic.
Nihal, to be honest, looks subdued, tense and tired – the kind of gait that we usually associate with a ‘doper’. Soon, we see him interact with a shady-looking colleague. They discuss their new dealer, and it is decided that Nihal will pick up the “homemade, potent and organic product”. He looks like he needs it. His interaction with the dealer at a jogging park might appear routine, but Nihal’s nervous body language suggests two things: His colleague was the one who did the dealings, and Nihal is inexperienced and straight in matters of Indian street-smartness. He insists on the product being organic – the man is a little puzzled, but he is perhaps used to desperate clients. So far, it is entirely feasible that Nihal’s sad life might have turned him into a substance junkie.
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All these little moments are clues that writer-director Jithin Joe Francis injects his simple script with. The ‘twist’ in the end therefore is not for effect; the film was never what it appeared to be. In this context, Gopi Sunder’s background score – though a bit overwhelming and out there – serves as both introspective character portrait and unusual social drama. The piano-heavy theme is strangely two-fold: a clue as well as distraction, and it lends the short the kind of bittersweet pathos that compels us to derive closure out of misunderstanding the main character.
It’s not the first time a filmmaker has highlighted a social message by narrative sleight of hand, and it won’t be the last. But I find it fascinating that an entire generation of storytellers in the South are so much more innovative, and invested, about their critique of sociocultural shortcomings. For many, it is a trigger to experiment rather than a USP to exploit. Their awareness and concern manifest in the form of full-blown genres – horror for Karthik Subbaraj’s Mercury, satire for Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Ee.Ma.Yau, coming-of-age drama for George Kora’s short Last Day Of Summer, larger-than-life action spectacle for Pa Ranjith’s Kaala. That is, unlike in the Hindi-film setup, “social-message” alone isn’t a keyword – it is of no consequence here if not integrated into the art, and not just the commercials, of the medium.
For instance, Marunnu relies on our preconceived notions of a film’s craft to drive home its message in the end. The revelation isn’t subtle, but it’s the build-up that helps us partially overlook its PSA-style landing. A more appropriate way to phrase the spirit: It remains like weed – wild, creative and a little juvenile – in the eyes of its maker, rather than internalizing the corrective righteousness of medicinal marijuana.