Director: Mathukutty Xavier
Writers: Mathukutty Xavier, Noble Babu Thomas, Alfred Kurian Joseph, Ritesh Shah
Cast: Janhvi Kapoor, Manoj Pahwa, Sunny Kaushal, Anurag Arora, Sanjay Suri
Mathukutty Xavier’s Mili, the Hindi remake of his Malayalam hit Helen (2019), is reimagined in Dehradun. The premise is innovative. The night shift at a fast-food joint turns into a nightmare for a part-time employee, Mili, who gets trapped in its cold storage. With the restaurant closed till the next morning, the 24-year-old nursing graduate is in danger of freezing to death. Her struggle to stay alive is interspersed with the frantic search led by her single father and boyfriend.
As a survival thriller alone, Mili is high-pitched and mostly effective. The sound design is terrific, simulating an endless cycle of danger and dread. The dull roar of the freezer is almost imperceptible until the narrative cuts to the outside. Minutes later, this freezer feels soothing in comparison to the quiet chaos of the search. The visual transitions are smart and well-timed. A table fan in a police station looks more ominous than the shot of the giant freezer blades that precedes it; the former conveys a broken system, while the latter can, at worst, be a broken machine. The tight close-ups of the girl’s withering face are excessive, but the rhythm of the editing creates a sharp psychological pull, where the world as she knows it is reduced to the sum of her movements. In contrast, those looking for her are reduced to the tally of their thoughts.
Some of the film’s cheesy metaphors make sense, albeit in a heat-of-the-moment manner. Mili is in a ‘cold’ war with her father and boyfriend when she gets trapped. Of all the things he could have done for a living, her father sells insurance. Mili’s proximity towards a rat echoes her father’s changing attitude towards her boyfriend – a lower-caste, irresponsible but eventually misunderstood creature – on the outside. Mili’s paranoia about her father’s smoking habit finds heartbreaking circularity in the fact that every breath of hers is now visible. Mili’s situation also doubles up as a dramatic forecast of her future – she is planning to migrate to the notoriously cold Canada, alone, without her father. A shot of her in the foetal position hints at the infantilisation of her quest in the days leading up to this. It helps that Janhvi Kapoor’s fourth author-backed role of a short career is perhaps her most impressive so far. As was the case with Gunjan Saxena: The Kargil Girl (2020), Kapoor’s disarming ambition to be a better actor mirrors Mili’s desire to respect her own privilege – and sheltered childhood – without being defined by it. In her hands, Mili becomes someone who is learning to speak English not to break free or transcend her setting; it is to nourish her roots further by acquiring newer languages of loving and caring. Her independence is almost incidental; she doesn’t want to escape her cocoon so much as expand it.
Not everything works, though. Xavier milks the genre for all its worth. The girl’s physical journey, for instance, borders on torture porn. A dislocated ankle, a torn elbow and frostbitten cheeks make her portions a harrowing watch. It feels a tad exploitative, not too different from assault sequences that derive meaning from the suffering of the female body. The film-making dials up the Nineties’ villainy of the bad cop character (Anurag Arora); his staging is too obvious. And while the good cop is a winning idea on paper, Sanjay Suri plays him with the quasi-comical stuffiness of a drill sergeant. The writing replaces the religious context of Helen, but fails to mine the caste consciousness of Uttarakhand. Some of the suspense devices, too, are designed purely to toy with the viewers. Like A.R. Rahman’s overarching background score. Like the flowery flashbacks. Like cell phones running out of battery at inopportune moments; or the one character who’s figured out Mili’s location having an accident. Or most of all, like the star cameo that instantly pulls us out of the (true) story. A lot of it is sensory button-pushing, aimed at ratcheting up the pressure by hook or crook – but at what cost?
The essence of Mili, however, has little to do with its status as a survival thriller. At its core, the film is a slow-burning sociocultural drama. Mili – meaning “found” in Hindi, but also “virtuous” in Hebrew – is a girl defined by her virtues. She pursues nursing abroad to pay off the debts of her middle-class father (a moving Manoj Pahwa). She urges him to be more health-conscious. She wants her boyfriend, Sameer (Sunny Kaushal), to stop slacking and get a job so that she can proudly introduce him to her father. She is the only one who notices – and acknowledges – the mall security guard every morning. She even stops to pray at a temple after her shift every night. But the lurking wolves – a chauvinistic policeman and manager, a creepy auto driver – test Mili’s naivete, forcing her to resemble a new-age Red Riding Hood in her restaurant uniform. By the time she’s trapped behind a metal door in sub-zero temperatures with chunks of meat for company, the life-or-death crisis pales in comparison to the crisis of morality on the outside. You want her to be rescued because she’s human, but you also want her to be enclosed in this ‘safe’ space a little longer because she’s a woman.
The murky relationship between morality and gender shapes the central conflict of the story. The reason most movies with stranded protagonists don’t zoom out from their survival dynamic is because the world seldom realizes – or has the time to realize – their absence. If it’s a man, as it so often is, at best he’s had an accident and at worst he’s dead. But when a young woman goes missing in a country like India, her character is the first thing that’s brought into focus. When Mili doesn’t return home, on one hand it’s her chaste nature – that unerring routine, her inability to deviate from schedule – that compels her father to start searching in an hour. He insists that, no matter how upset she is, she would never “do such a thing” – a phrase that implies either self-harm or toxic influence. On the other hand, he attacks her boyfriend, convinced that he has something to do with her disappearance. For a while, he is no different from the cop who crudely raises questions about her ‘affair', the manager who taunts her or the self-righteous neighbour who fears for her mental balance.
I’m on the fence about sticking Mili in a freezer to cure the gaze of the men who surround her. An idealistic way to approach this is to ask: Why punish a woman to reform the patriarchy she resists? Mili’s brutal battle becomes a character certificate to her father, who mistook her courage to live as a sign of moral rebellion. At some level, the prospect of his daughter being stuck in an elevator or cold store is considerably less troubling than other scenarios. In terms of the film’s simplistic reading of tradition versus youth, it’s a bit like watching Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge’s Chaudhary Baldev Singh joining forces with the rakish Raj to look for Simran (who’s probably trapped on a train in a deserted rail yard). Sameer even rocks a similar monologue about how Mili would never betray her sanskari upbringing.
But the pragmatic way to approach this is to admit: It is invariably the woman who sacrifices herself to unite her loved ones. Our emotional investment depends on whether we expect a film to reflect a reality or revise a truth. The difference is that Mili reclaims the agency – and moral identity – of tragedy. Acting on her own terms would have involved the choice to get provoked by the people that weaken her. But by being a survival thriller about a girl who is accidentally trapped due to the careless actions of men, the film proves the world wrong about her. And by fetishizing her battle – against all odds, luck, chance, fate – Mili frees its protagonist from the chilling box she’s confined to. After all, it’s not Mili and Helen who need to be found; it’s the perpetual search for their virtue that needs to be lost.