Director: Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval
Cast: Suraj Venjaramoodu, Soubin Shahir
During a long powercut or when the Wi-Fi is down, there’s a certain amount of fun to be had comparing Malayalam’s sci-fi outing Android Kunjappan with similar films such as Shankar’s Enthiran and 2.0. Call it economics or ambition, but in Shankar’s universe, the arrival of robots and the aftereffects give us the impression that we’re at the centre of the universe with its ripples having the power to redraw the world map. Everything, right from the conflicts to the destruction and the end result, has an outward, external manifestation.
But in Android Kunjappan, like the performances of its leads, everything is internal. Malayalam’s first film to predominantly feature a robot isn’t even set in a city. It happens in a tiny village near Payyanur where everybody knows your name. In fact, the story it wants to narrate is so removed from the sci-fi you’d see in the summer blockbuster that you’d probably get away with calling this an offbeat indie.
Therein lies the real beauty of this film. As the film zooms in to give you a closer look of this place and its people, we get characters such as the sly newspaper boy whose ‘likes’ Facebook pages such as ‘Communist’ and ‘Ayyappa Devotee Sangam’. We also get the helpful relative who points to a picture of Bruce Lee and calls him Mafia Sasi. And, when two elderly neighbours make a hilariously formal visit to meet the new robot, one of them asks its owner why he hasn’t given it any clothes to wear. We see the temple, the muddy streets, the temple pond, an old house and a lot of greenery. It’s as though cinematographer Sanu Varghese took special care to stay as far away as possible from the colour blue. So, when the Android arrives in this village with its bright blue eyes and big blue screen for a heart, the contrast makes the robot feel as alien to us as it does to the others in the village; It’s like ET has landed.
The effect works even better when we see the robot in the context of its owner Bhaskaran’s old, rundown house. The place has no room for a TV, mixie, grinder or even a gas stove. Bhaskaran (Suraj Venjaramoodu) doesn’t eat a thing prepared outside his own kitchen, and he’s so irritatingly old school in his thoughts and actions that you really feel for his son Chuppan (Soubin Shahir). It is hinted that Chuppan is an excellent electronics engineer but his father insists on him finding a job nearby, lest he leave him behind during his old age. But, when Chuppan gets an opportunity to work at a Japanese Robotics company in Russia, it’s finally time to snip off the umbilical cord.
At first, the worried son appoints a series of home nurses to take care of Bhaskaran. “What is their caste?” becomes a recurring question each time a nurse is employed. Watching soap operas loudly (on their phone) or the slightest change in flavour in what they cook is enough to fire them. Tired and hopeless, Chuppan brings home his company’s robot as the last draw, before he decides to quit his job and come back for good.
As the robot enters Bhaskaran’s home and its surroundings, we see an outsider’s perspective of the flaws, hypocrisies and emotions that make us human. Like that hilarious scene where Bhaskaran takes the robot along with him to the temple. Only Hindus are allowed inside insist the authorities, but when the robot starts quoting the Gita and reveals a picture of Rama on the screen on its chest, we see how poignant this film can be. Of all the things the robot tries to understand about the human condition, the one feeling or word it struggles with is ‘nanam’ or shame. There are multiple scenes where the robot stops short of asking Bhaskaran what it means when he uses the term. Why should one worry about ‘nanam’ when one has to reveal love for another, the robot asks Bhaskaran. The robot also gives Bhaskaran some solid advice on love, which, in turn, reflects the role reversal we witness in this unique father-son relationship. An extension of this is what we see when the robot opens Bhaskaran’s world view to teach him new things. He forgets his inherent casteism, but he learns to smile more and be less closed off to the world.
Yet, one wishes the director had written a few more scenes to establish a change in this relationship’s dynamics. We see how Bhaskaran is completely against having this stranger enter his home. There’s a substantial amount of friction and even mistrust, like how any old person would react to something new, but the film uses a montage to fast forward to the point where Bhaskaran develops an affection for it. We see the initial hesitation and the final bonding, but we hardly get the complex in-between that would have made this film more rewarding.
You feel something’s missing even in the portions set in Russia. For a moment, you feel there’s going to be a parallel drawn between the loneliness Bhaskaran feels at home and what Chuppan feels in a foreign land. But Chuppan is quickly part of a very awkward romance when he meets Hitomi, a half-Japanese half-Malayali colleague, who thinks “we Malayalis are the funniest”. The fight between Chuppan and his boss is badly staged, and these scenes alienate us.
Given that the film opens with a Stephen Hawking quote about how artificial intelligence may develop enough to destroy the human race one day, the film’s climax feels like it has the opposite to say. Even though the film is about how modern life demands that children slowly move away from their parents and the effect this has on the latter, Android Kunjappan isn’t blind to the worries and the stress the children feel in doing this, a nuance Ittymaani: Made In China badly lacked.
Held together by Suraj Venjaramoodu’s breathtaking performance and a robot we really grow to love, Android Kunjappan becomes so much more than just an odd-couple comedy about a man and a robot. It’s unlike any other father-son(s) movie you will ever see.