Writers: R. Jayakumar, Maju
Cast: Sunny Wayne, Ananya, Grace Antony
Streaming On: SonyLIV
Appan is built on a fascinating image of a family trying to go about their modest daily life as a steady stream of curses runs in the background, emitting from a room in the front of the house. Itty (Alencier), the patriarch, who spent all his life hunting, killing and sowing wild oats, is now paralysed and bedridden. Day and night, he shrieks like a mad horse at the people at whose mercy he survives, as though he is testing their moral courage. As though to see how much more harassment the long-suffering wife, Kuttiyamma (Pauly Valsan), and the god-fearing son, Njoonj (Sunny Wayne), will take before they cross their lines.
Directed by Maju, Appan might remind one of the films that occupied the Malayalam television realm in the mid-90s before the tacky soap operas usurped the space. The sturdy plot proceeds in a straightforward, linear fashion; the movie refuses to commit any formal experiments that fit the time. The biggest casualty of this old-fashioned approach is the ill-edited final sequence which, instead of delivering a blow to the viewers, pushes them away. The melodrama falls flat.
Maju's limitations as a filmmaker and his dire aversion to adventure turn out to be catastrophic. But, if one can overlook these fatal flaws, there is much to like about Appan. It is the latest film to be set in Central Kerala’s high-land rubber villages, which have served as the setting for many a brutal tragedy, from KG George’s iconic Irakal to Dileesh Pothan’s Joji (2020) and the recent Udal (2022). Several of these films make quiet references to the history of the High Range Colonization Scheme, the migration of people from the state’s mainland to the mountains of Idukki and Wayanad in the 1940s.
Itty, who belongs to a family of settlers, holds several acres of land which acts as his protective suit. Kuttiyamma tolerates him so that Njoonj gets the hereditary wealth and is freed from all the sufferings﹣ material and spiritual. The daughter (Grace Antony) puts up an act of love only for the promise of a share of the wealth. In a hilarious scene, possibly the film's best moment, the family and friends stand outside the patriarch's room after sending his lover inside. The camera steps back and forth, observing the characters waiting by the door in exasperation, despair or amusement, and ultimately exploding into mayhem.
The women, who have always lived under the supervision of men, express in an acerbic tone their hopelessness about a better future. The performances are powerful, namely of Valsan, a state-award-winning actress. Watch her narrate to her daughter-in-law (Ananya) a sweet dream from the previous night about witnessing her husband’s death. "What a lovely sight it was!" she says, her face shining in bliss, only to be crushed in the next moment by the brutal reality. Sufferings in the long term must turn a side of the brain stone-cold. The writers (R Jayakumar and Maju) rightly recognise the complex psyche of these characters who yell at each other, curse or feign emotions and hold hands in solidarity in the most unusual moments. They are not tied down in pity.
The church does not make an appearance barring in a brief scene of a priest’s house visit. Yet, religion and the figure of God are ubiquitous, in the form of Christmas lights or the little boy looking for his beloved dog. Itty’s firm confidence in his masculinity and material wealth is in tight contrast with Njoonj’s profound spirituality and his fear of sins and the thought of sinning. The son’s complex love for the father, who is the moral decay at the centre of his existence, gives the film its emotional weight. When the villagers, one after another, arrive with ideas and resolutions to kill Itty, Njoonj pleads and protests. He who grew up as an unfortunate child, shunned by society for the sins of his father, cannot afford to bear the weight of another sin. It is a poignant characterisation.
Sunny Wayne, also the film's co-producer, is a star who has never shown great promises as an actor. He is strictly effective as Njoonj whom he defines by a lousy haircut and permanent stress lines on the forehead. He expresses just the pain of being a beta male in a world run by the repulsive alpha. But he blurs the young man’s profound and perplexing love for the father. Alencier recognises the no-holds-barred nature of Itty, but the cosmetics in the actor's body language and voice are a little too apparent. He shuts the door to Itty's inner life and turns him into a mere callous, shrieking machine.
Mohanlal's Naatturajavu (2004) handled a similar theme, in a nonsensical fashion, about a man trying to pay back for his father's sins. Maju's film attempts to go deeper into the subject, yet never really touches its core. Appan’s mainstream-friendly finale points to nothing profound or thought-provoking, just plain vanilla wisdom that the savage will come to a savage end.