Director: Sanu John Varughese
Writers: Sanu John Varughese, Rajesh Ravi, Arun Janardan
Edited by: Mahesh Narayan
Cinematography: G Sreenivas Reddy
Cast: Biju Menon, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Sharafudheen
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
Human beings are fundamentally unknowable. That is the thesis of Sanu John Varughese's terrific first film Aarkkariyam. The title means 'who knows'. By the end of the film, we know a lot, but that only hints at much more, which we will never find out. The characters in this film are ordinary people, caught up, like the rest of us, in the upheaval of COVID-19. But they are also deeply mysterious, hiding secrets that include murder.
Aarkkariyam begins in Mumbai. Shirley and Roy are packing up to go back to her home in Kerala. It's the early days of the pandemic. Roy's business is floundering – he has borrowed money but a key consignment is stuck at the docks. Meanwhile Shirley's young daughter Sophie is stuck at her convent school. Shirley and Roy manage to make it back to Kerala but they aren't able to drive to Sophie. The country goes into lockdown. It's a precarious time with people wearing masks in public and attempting some form of social distancing.
The first half hour or so is deliberately measured – the top-notch editing is by Mahesh Narayan, who worked similar magic in Nayattu. The script by Sanu, Rajesh Ravi and Arun Janardan, doles out details sparingly. Shirley's father Ittyavira is a cantankerous retired school teacher who tried his hand at pig farming but failed and now, like Roy, is in debt. For both Shirley and Roy, this is a second marriage. Shirley's mother died when she was only eight and her father single-handedly raised her. But wherever you think this narrative might go, it doesn't. And when the twist arrives, it's so unexpected that just like the character it's revealed to, you are also stunned into silence.
The beauty is that all of this plays out amidst the humdrum rhythms of daily life. There is no drama or high emotion. Sanu places his characters in the most routine situations: they are preparing food (both Roy and Ittyavira spend a lot of time in the kitchen) or watching television, brushing their teeth or simply singing a favourite song – Ittyavira is partial to 'Yeh raatein, yeh mausam' from the 1958 film Dilli ka Thug. Like in Joji, the other Malayalam film in which the pandemic is a palpable presence, here too most of the action takes place in a sprawling house with lush green surroundings and a pond. The burden of secrets makes the lockdown even more claustrophobic.
The other palpable presence is God. Ittyavira believes that whatever happens is divine will and that we can only understand the past once we arrive at the future. Roy thinks Shirley can sleep soundly because she has faith. Sophie lives with nuns while her parents figure out a way to get to her. But Sanu is too sophisticated a storyteller to tell us what to believe. He is more interested in the workings of minds and hearts. Which ultimately, of course, can't be known. Characters make unfathomable decisions. Like chameleons, they are also changeable – each person has his or her truth about someone else. The same person is described as a 'rowdy' and a saviour. But the script doesn't allow us to make simplistic judgments about them. People, Sanu seems to say, are as impenetrable as the sphinx.
Aarkkariyam rides on the shoulders of its three excellent actors – Biju Menon as Ittyavira, Parvathy Thiruvothu as Shirley and Sharafudheen as Roy. None of them have big, actorly moments here. They are simply being. But watch how they change imperceptibly through the course of the film. Especially Sharafudheen, who goes from an unassuming, nice guy to someone more burdened and complex.
Watch also how Sanu builds an atmosphere of dread so that ordinary spaces in the house become ominous. And how he uses Sanjay Divecha's background score, dominated by an acoustic guitar, to layer the story. Sanu is a celebrated cinematographer who has shot films such as Badhaai Ho, Lootcase and the blockbuster Jersey, featuring Nani. As a director his taste is more minimalist. He builds little moments that stay with you – I kept thinking about the blood on the kitchen floor and what it must have taken to clean it.
You can watch Aarkkariyam on Amazon Prime Video.