Director: Amal Neerad
Cast: Mammootty, Soubin Shahir, Shine Tom Chacko, Nadiya, Srinda
Oftentimes, the title design of a film reveals as much about its plot as the title itself. On closer viewing, the title font of Amal Neerad's Bheeshma Parvam (The Book of Bheeshma) breaks up its title into two words, with Bheeshma placed above and around the smaller 'parvam'. A set of arrows pierce through 'Bheeshma' from below, consciously avoiding parvam. If you're one to obsesses over details, it's as though the word 'Bheeshma' is lying down, hoisted over a bed of arrows. The film too is quite the literal realisation of Bheeshma's story, embellished in Amal Neerad's gorgeous fashion magazine aesthetic. And after dozens of blockbusters covering all sides of Mahabharata's favourite tragic hero Karnan (including Mammootty's own Thalapathy), we now get Bheeshma's story.
But what writers Devadutt Shaji and Amal Neerad go on to do with the mythological character is lovingly immerse it into Mario Puzo's Godfather universe (Neerad thanks both Puzo and Veda Vyasa in the opening credits). The obvious allusions include the opening sequence with a helpless woman and her daughter-in-law approaching Mammootty's "Michael" (as in Corleone) for justice, right before an important family celebration. A dialogue during this opening scene makes this connection official when Michael is being referred to as the 'thala thottappan' (the Syrian Christian term for godfather). Vital confrontations too are staged as intercuts, switching between peace and war to underscore irony, like the classic film's ending. We also see traces of Sonny Corleone in the recklessly explosive Peter Anjootikaaran (Shine Tom Chacko), just like how Rajan (Sudev Nair) embodies the very spirit of Sollozzo, except that the dirty business he brings is in real estate and not narcotics.
Not so obviously, it's DOP Anend C Chandran's shadows that make this immersion complete. There's a consistent incompleteness in the way the film's many grey characters are lit, either from the top or the sides. It's as though we never get to clearly see their full faces because it's never easy to understand what they are thinking. The images appear burnt out in dark sepia tones and the contrast is high to further show the duality in each character. And when helped by the film's costume and production departments, the 80's period setting too is achieved comfortably with shots of Gold Spot bottles, Led Zep t-shirts, loafs of Modern Bread in packets of Varkey's supermarket and most nostalgically, an establishing shot of Ernakulam's own Ashoka Towers. Although indulgent at times, these inserts appear to come from a devotion to life in newly cosmopolitan Ernakulam, rather than to offer lazy nostalgia.
These external aspects contribute generously to make Bheeshma Parvam look like a stunner, but it's Bheeshma's myth that provides the film with soul. For this, it is important for the viewer to correlate Michael with Bheeshma because that's what the film's relying on. And because its interpretation of the source text is fairly straightforward (unlike the subversions in Mani Ratnam's Raavanan or Pa. Ranjith's Kaala) this game of "match the following" is what keeps the film interesting even when the events themselves aren't new or shocking.
The central conceit seems to be that of Michael, like Bheeshma, deciding to remain unmarried/celibate for the sake of his father, setting forth a succession crisis. In the film, when one wonders why the moral Michael remains detached, ignoring the crimes of his siblings and nephews, we realise that this is because Bheeshma too remained silent for all the misdeeds of the Kauravas. And when the film gradually builds-up to a war with forces of "religion, politics and family" attacking Michael, all at once, it's the literal interpretation of thousands of arrows being fired at him to culminate into a bed of arrows (a hospital bed here).
Other characters too demand a second reading from this mythological point of view. This is where Rajan (Sudev Nair) fits into the 'Arjuna' archetype, just like how Peter (Shine Tom Chacko) appears to be a combination of both Duryodhana and Shikhandi. This reading fits with most characters of the film with its generously laid out clues but in terms of its underlying theme of succession, it's the way cousin Ajaz (Soubin Shahir) gets Yudhishthira's fate and qualities that was most fascinating. The writing is clever here and it's easy to keep assuming other characters to take up the metaphorical throne, until we gather who among the characters are from the Pandavas and Kauravas.
But does Bheesma Parvam work outside of this game of matching its plot and characters to its mythological forefathers? Not always. For one, we've come to predict a certain manner in which Amal Neerad plans his scenes. So when Michael storms out of his house to bring back his shady brother-in-law, it reminded me of the way Sagar (Mohanlal) leaves for Goa to bring back Manoj K Jayan's character in Sagar Alias Jacky. Even the manner in which a certain sentimental song gets inserted, kind of ruined what was coming also because it reused the thought behind a song like "Oru Vakkum Mindathe" in Big B. And most obvious was the exact placement and the manner in which Rajan makes his stylish entry right before the interval. If that didn't bring back the goosebumps from watching Angoor Rawther (Jayasurya) the first time, then nothing can.
Even the fight scenes, although spectacular-looking (with one choreographed in high-speed using what's perhaps the Bolt Camera, which stays in focus through fast movement) goes on for a tad too long especially when the film's context hasn't been set.
None of this hampers the film to the point that it becomes unenjoyable. And by now, we've come to pre-empt a little hollowness in Amal Neerad's films that it has become easy to switch to admiring his frames and the tonnes of swag it's designed around. In our hurry to dismiss films easily, we often forget that style is just as valuable as substance.