Director: Sanu John Varghese
Aarkkariyam is a mystery — you could even call it a murder mystery — but it's more about the mystery that people are. It's about the mystery that makes a woman fall for a man who's patently unsuitable for her, and the mystery that makes him good to some people and bad to others. It's about a mysterious god-fearing man who does bad things. It's also a mystery about a woman who grew up without a mother and yet puts her daughter in a hostel. Finally, it's about the mysteries that we call acts of god—the most mysterious of them all.
The film begins in Mumbai, in a posh flat occupied by Roy (Sharafudheen) and Sherley (Parvathy Thiruvothu). They're each other's second spouses. In the very first scene, we see that Roy is in trouble: he's blankly staring at his computer screen. He's got a consignment that's stuck in the dock, and he's tense because he has to pay a bribe to release it. It's late at night and he's amazed at how soundly his wife sleeps—because of her faith in god.
She inherits her faith from Chaachan (Biju Menon), her father, for whom everything is an act of god. Roy's trying to be that way. He says, "you shouldn't worry about things that are beyond your control," but that consignment is stuck and he needs to get it out. This, by itself, could have been the story: how a businessman is stuck with a really taxing problem and how that's affecting his family.
But another act of god strikes in the form of COVID. The couple finds that they have to take a long car journey from Mumbai to Kerala to be with Chaachan. This is when the film really takes off. Usually, films accelerate: they establish character, plot points, actions and events that drive the story forward. Here, the film decelerates and that's the best thing about it.
We feel that we are locked down with these characters. We feel that we are in a big Kerala-style house with big, lush gardens. We, too, feel the lack of events that Roy, Sherley, and Chaachan feel. Routine things happen everyday: they eat, do small talk, very simple things we experienced in the lockdown. We get to experience their experience of the same things.
Apart from the director, Aarkkariyam has two stupendous contributors: editor Mahesh Narayanan, who gives the film a deliberate pace and composer Sanjay Divecha, who mainly uses an acoustic guitar to define the background sound. The guitar is almost like a gentle folk instrument; it plays down a lot of what is happening, even though it may actually be very dramatic. The film's background score never explodes, even when its events seem explosive in our minds. The film feels utterly organic—"uncinematic." It's as if nothing is special enough to be overemphasized in a lockdown where anything can happen.
The screenplay does a lot of things exquisitely. I liked the fact that even though a lot of bad things happen in the film, there are really no bad people. And that's part of the film's mystery: people can be good to some and bad to others. It's hard to say who a person really is because there might be parts to them that will remain a mystery.
The characters are developed beautifully. I loved how Roy slowly changed into his father-in-law. When Sherley and Roy land at Chaachan's house after a long drive from Mumbai, Roy hugs him first. He also wants a group hug when Sherley hugs Chaachan. They're really close, but Roy and Chaachan are not similar people.
They do have something in common, though: both run businesses that are facing losses. The pandemic changed our perspective by turning the world upside down. Roy's perspective about certain things begins to change, too. He starts off as being rigid, but as the film flows, he begins to flow with the scheme of things. He begins to understand that not all events can be categorized as right and wrong. Sometimes, it's okay to just go with the flow.
In a way, Aarkkariyam is an existential film. It's also an experiential film as we experience the lockdown with the characters. Events are downplayed to such an extent that the big reveal — it's really big — is so casual that I practically laughed, even though it's nothing to laugh about.
You could even call it a religious film that shows how Roy — who's really the protagonist — is forced to accept certain things as "mysterious" or "acts of god." At first, his instinct was to recoil at the big reveal. But slowly, he learns to go with the flow. For some reason — maybe it's the point I'm in my life right now — I really connected with this.
The only thing I didn't quite connect with in Aarkkariyam is the film's last part where there is a bit too much plot to explain Sherley's character. In a film that's delicate and understated, it feels too concrete. The rest of Aarkkariyam flows like a gentle river; it's an understated gem.