By Baradwaj Rangan Language: Malayalam
Director: Jeethu Joseph
Cast: Pranav Mohanlal, Siddique, Lena, Anusree, Sharafudheen, Meghanathan, Jagapati Babu, Siju Wilson, Aditi Ravi, Tony Luke
Before we get to the narrative of Aadhi, let's dig into the meta-narrative. Aadhi (Pranav Mohanlal) dreams of becoming a music director, and in an early scene, his friends advise him to try the Telugu or Tamil film industries, because there just aren't enough opportunities in Malayalam cinema. His father, Mohan Varma (Siddique, in a performance as robust as his physique), worries that he won't be able to help him, because he wields no influence in this field. It takes some cheek to introduce a newcomer this way, for who can forget that these scenes are built around the son of one of Malayalam cinema's most legendary stars? "It's not enough if you have talent," Aadhi sulks. "You need luck." I laughed. Pulling off this line with a straight face (and with that surname) may be the surest indication that Pranav has inherited at least some of his father's acting genes.
This isn't about nepotism. If the boy is talented and if he comes with an inbuilt curiosity factor that pulls audiences in, then why complain? But it's hard not to wince when this is rubbed in your face. (This is Pranav's first film, and we already have a "Global Pranav Mohanlal Fans and Welfare Association" being thanked during the opening credits.) Pranav's introduction scene has him strumming a guitar (very convincingly; in another song, he seems to know how to use the pedal for distortion effects) and singing Mizhiyoram, from his father's launch vehicle, Manjil Virinja Pookkal. Even if you didn't know the song, the words "manjil virinja pookkal" feature constantly in the lyrics, nudging you in the ribs. Soon, Mohanlal himself makes a guest appearance. And let's not forget that the writer-director is Jeethu Joseph, who gave Pranav's father one of his biggest blockbusters, Drishyam. Let's see another newcomer, one with no connections, have this kind of a red carpet laid out for him, and then we'll talk.
But on to the film. Jeethu Joseph likes his taglines. In Drishyam, it was "Visuals Can Be Deceiving." In Aadhi, we are warned: "Some Lies Can Be Deadly." It makes no sense, for the story isn't built around untruths – unless you count Jayakrishnan's (Siju Wilson) framing of Aadhi for a killing. But here's what's interesting. The father-son connection isn't just there in the cast. It runs through the film. Reflecting on his plight, Mohan Varma utters words that could have been spoken by the father in Drishyam as well: "No father in the world should be in such a situation." And how does Aadhi end up in a soup? Because of Narayana Reddy (Jagapati Babu), the father of the victim (who, incidentally, goes by the name of… Arjun Reddy!). "I want him to feel the same agony my son felt," he snarls. And we slip into Hitchcock's patented template of an innocent man on the run.
Here's another father-son link. Why does Sharath (Sharafudheen, imbuing a small part with charm and humour) offer Aadhi shelter, when he could use the five-lakh bounty Narayana Reddy offers? Because the latter was responsible for the death of his father. He's the reason Sharath's family is in such dire straits today. You'll have to forgive the musical pun. Given that the film does so little with the elaborate I-want-to-be-a-musician setup, I thought at least I'd keep alluding to it. It might have made more sense, really, to have Aadhi dream of becoming a Parkour trainer, for those are the skills he uses the most. These action stretches are fantastically choreographed, and Pranav pulls them off with amazing litheness, proving that there's at least one area where he's definitely better than his father.
How's he as an actor, though? Not bad, I have to admit. He needs to learn how to use his body while not leaping about in stunt sequences – what to do with his hands while standing, and so on – but he's convincing enough. It helps that he sounds like his father, with that soft voice and its singsong cadences. It also helps that he's part of an ensemble, filled with memorable characters. Jeethu Joseph is a far better writer than director. His staging leaves a lot to be desired, but he really knows how to write people you come to care about. Like Mani Annan (Meghanathan), a widower who likes Sharath's sister, Jaya (Anusree). Or Aadhi's mother, Rosy (Lena), who massages her son's feet while watching television serials, but grumbles when her husband demands the same attention.
Jeethu Joseph writes humour well. It's broad, but effective – especially in the case of the sharp-tongued Jaya. She's not ungenerous, and she does warm up towards Aadhi, who calls her chechi and tends to her ailing mother. (When this family is endangered by Aadhi's pursuers, you really fear for them.) But she cannot hide her irritation at the plight Aadhi has put them in, when there's already so much that life has thrown at her. Anusree makes us see a woman who wants to help, but wishes she didn't have to – and her barbed one-liners are hilarious. But Jeethu Joseph fails to make Anjana (Aditi Ravi), who's far more important in the scheme of things, interesting. She's not a person – just an amateurish plot device. She's hilarious, too, but in unintended ways.
The sluggish post-interval section could have used the sustained tension that kept us in knots in Drishyam, but for the most part, Aadhi is the breathless action thriller we don't usually get from Malayalam cinema. It's overlong and filled with familiar Hollywood tropes, but also fun. The only serious reservation I had was towards the high-tech end, which turns into a mini Mission: Impossible instalment. The tonal shift is jarring. This far, Aadhi has been a young man in over his head, and now, he turns into a superhero. But on one level, it's understandable. Had Aadhi been played by a no-name newcomer, a low-key finishing stretch might have worked. But here, it's less about satisfying picky critics than the Global Pranav Mohanlal Fans and Welfare Association.