Director: Jean Paul Lal
Cast: Prithviraj, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Mia George
You get a sense of the film you're going to watch when the opening 'special thanks', one of Malayalam cinema's most irritating habits, is dedicated to Leonardo DiCaprio, of all people. Lal Jr., who began his career with the LOL stoner comedy Honey Bee (followed by two middling films) seems to be a big fan of spoofs, and the premise of Driving Licence, which revolves around a Malayali superstar and the industry in general, gives him great fodder to work with.
So we get what he's trying when he names Major Ravi's character Samuel Jackson. In one of the scenes that introduces superstar Hareendran (Prithviraj at his best), we see him arguing with the producer for insisting he change a dialogue to include a plug for a fancy hospital. Hareendran's arch rival Bhadran (Suresh Krishna) is a hilarious mash-up of a lot of our stars, without the references getting too direct. The cameos too, such as Edavela Babu playing himself, fit cleverly into the film's self-deprecating brand of comedy, and there's novelty even in the way the 'film-within-a-film' portions have been written, especially in that scene where Bhadran's phone calls get recorded as he dubs for a film.
If you've seen the trailer, you probably already know what the film is about, but the logic behind a seemingly petty problem is so well explained that you quickly stop thinking of what they could have done to avoid this situation. Because what the film is really about is just a missing document. Hareendran needs his driving licence to get the required permission to shoot a film that's already gone beyond budget and schedule. Time is, of course, money and he's required to reapply for it at the local RTO before he has to leave on an important personal trip. Yet, the film's just as careful at giving us Kuruvilla's (Suraj Venjaramoodu) side of the story as well, because he's the motor vehicle inspector given the responsibility of getting Hareendran the licence at the earliest. But what really raises the stakes is that Kuruvilla is also Hareendran's number one fan.
The film is not about a government official using his power to get closer to his idol. We get a great scene early on when Hareendran visits the RTO to get his license, and the situation goes out of control, turning this insignificant event into a media frenzy. Hareendran's anger, followed by that of Kuruvilla's (who is accompanied by his son), is perfectly justified, making the film's central conflict more than just two egos going at it. And it's the mark of the film's good writing when it becomes really difficult to pick a side, because they're both equally right and equally wrong.
Even though the film deals with this extraordinary situation and almost-unreal characters, it never forgets to anchor them in the most basic, realistic emotions. Because, what the film eventually becomes is the story of two men afraid of failing in their duties. On the one side, we get Kuruvilla failing at being a hero to his son; on the other, we have Hareendran who admits he's failed to be a good husband, having chosen work over his wife for years together.
If anything, the media circus the film eventually turns into becomes a bit over-the-top, and even Kuruvilla's characterisation (is he an honest office or not?) gets a tad confusing. But these are easy to look past when the performances work so well. Even though the film was originally written for Mammootty, Prithviraj owns the role to the point where it becomes impossible to picture anyone else playing Hareendran, because it's not really an easy performance. He gets his share of silences, and you really buy his love for his wife in scenes where it's just the two of them. Suraj proves yet again that he's one of our best actors. If you were to divide screentime, you'd probably feel Hareendran got the lion's share, but it is proof of Suraj's ability that we never feel this. Seeing his performance in the climax, I realise Suraj has made me cry more times this year than my life has! But it's Miya George, invoking her inner Urvashi to deliver a real surprise, who proves that she can be great comic actor too.
On the whole, Driving Licence is that rare comedy that really trusts its writing to do the heavy lifting, instead of merely relying on its comedy scenes to keep us engaged. Driving Licence may not be as ambitious a film as SRK's Fan, but whatever it sets out to do, it achieves with ease.