Aarkkariyam translates to 'Who knows?' And we can use this phrase in so many ways while talking about the film. Who knows how the human mind really works? Who knows why people do what they do? And who knows what genre this film really fits into?
The movie subverts the thriller genre ever so gently. When we go from thinking of it as a family drama to the twist before the intermission and then back to the relative calm of the central family's humdrum lockdown life, the effect feels similar to going from driving on a smooth road to the unpleasantness of not hitting the brakes fast enough on a speed bump and then going back to driving on the smooth road, but you're a little more on edge now.
Another aspect of the movie worth talking about is the treatment given to the character Augustine. We only hear of this man in the past tense, with different people recalling their experiences with him. There is a rather Rashomon-like treatment in how this is done, but again, more subtle. Both within his immediate family and his peers, some see him as a bad guy with no redeeming qualities while others remember him fondly as a generous man with excusable flaws.
Aarkkariyam also normalises second marriages in a way that is rare in our movies. In the first half of the movie, we are slowly made aware of the fact that Shirley and Roy were married to other people, and that Shirley's daughter is not Roy's offspring, but that stepfather and stepdaughter clearly get along well. The problems in the previous marriages are used either as context-setting or come up when directly relevant to the plot.
And of course, there are so many things that contribute to the very realistic appeal of the film. The casting is excellent, and so is Biju Menon's makeup. The film portrayed the daily struggles of the pandemic, from small things like having to wear masks before answering the doorbell to larger issues like retrieving relatives stuck in other states, away from home. Parvathy, as Shirley, wears clothes that look comfortable and are apt for the long days of staying at home that the lockdown made us endure.
But for me, a Malayali raised outside Kerala, the icing on the cake was the depiction of the Mumbai-bred Malayalis, Roy and his childhood friend, Vyshakh. For the most part, they speak to each other in a mix of Hindi and English. When they do lapse into Malayalam, it is understood as the filmmakers showing consideration for the fact that Aarkkariyam is, after all, a Malayalam film. Malayalam movies have often depicted us marunaadan Malayalis with complete ignorance. They either obliterate our outside-Kerala upbringing, making us speak too-perfect Malayalam (like Dileep's character in Calcutta News, who was supposedly raised in Kolkata but speaks Bangla with a heavy Malayalam accent) or portray us as awful caricatures, the kind that speak bad Malayalam and worse English (remember the 'Mirchi Girls' in Chinthamani Kolacase?). Aarkkariyam is the closest to a realistic depiction of our kind that I have come across.
It is a film of many strengths, so it is funny to me that this portrayal of the non-Keralite Malayali is what I will probably remember it by most. But then, isn't it often the little things that make a film stand out—that one meme-worthy line, that one GIF-able expression? If we go into why these things work the way they do, we may come up with many plausible explanations. But in the end, there is only one thing to really leave it at—aarkkariyam?