Director: Mahesh Narayanan
Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Roshan Mathew, Darshana Rajendran
It’s inevitable that c u soon takes you back to Aneesh Chaganty‘s Searching, for the films share a USP. Both are a “missing-persons investigation that unfolds entirely on computer screens,” as the Variety reviewer said. But there’s a second — larger — link. Variety also said: “Cutting to the emotional core of what social media says about us, [Searching is] a time capsule of our relationship to (and reliance upon) modern technology…” c u soon drags this subtext to the now, and adds another layer. It’s a time capsule of our relationships in the COVID-19 era. From the global sprawl of Take Off, Mahesh Narayanan shrinks his vision to a series of screens that span the globe, enabling worldwide access from the confines of homes. We get phone screens, computer screens, VLC media player screens, CCTV screens, Google Maps screens that transport you virtually to destinations across countries and continents… c u soon seems to be asking: Do you really need to step out anymore, even to watch this movie?
The film opens with Jimmy (Roshan Mathew). Correction: The film opens with Jimmy’s phone, as he swipes through pictures of women on a dating app. He’s matched with Anu (Darshana Rajendran). He is in Abu Dhabi. She is in Dubai. It doesn’t matter. While on their phones (and confined by the bigger screen of the tablet or television or whatever), they look like they are in the same physical space. Their interactions look like the conventional shots and reaction shots you’d get when you shoot two people chatting over a drink: hence the credit of “virtual cinematography” in addition to good, old-fashioned “cinematography”. (The former is by the director, who’s also the writer and editor; the latter is by Sabin Uralikandy.)
Have you wondered what you’d look like if you placed your phone on a low-level tabletop and its camera gazed at you? Wonder no more. The sound you hear is that of a thousand pre-digital age cinematographers screaming. Such a shot, those days, would be considered “grammatically wrong”? Who would focus a camera on the scruffy underside of a man’s chin? But this is our casual, anything-goes world now, where cameras on phones and cameras in the cinema blend and bleed into one another. You can do anything, everything. You want “conventional” depth of field? Here’s Kevin’s (Fahadh Faasil) room, with him in the foreground and a lamp light illuminating an ironing board in the distant background. You want a “conventional” close-up? Here’s Jimmy peering at his phone, the mole on his nose magnified to the extent that it merits a supporting-character credit.
Jimmy and Anu begin to chat, and c u soon settles into a pleasant — if unremarkable — zone. I wish Gopi Sundar hadn’t drowned this stretch in strings, but perhaps the fear was that the Jimmy-Anu interactions would otherwise be too un-cinematic, too… lifelike? Still, I preferred it when Anu whips out her guitar and launches into Thumbi vaa. There’s cinematic music, but without the sense of cinematic artifice. The video-chatting goes well enough for Jimmy to fall for Anu and propose marriage. Wait, what!!! Way too soon, I thought. After finishing the film, after knowing the reveals, I thought back to this moment and wondered what Anu might have really felt. But then, ellipses are an unavoidable part of c u soon‘s conceit and its construction. As an audience, we aren’t given everything. We are just given the bits that unfold on screens. When this happens in a “regular” film, we’d say we see only what a character sees, that we are restricted to his or her point of view. Similarly, here, we are restricted to the screens’ point of view.
This creates an unusual kind of dissonance. I understood these ellipses at a logical level. And yet, at an emotional level, I would have liked to know certain things that happened, well, off-screen. How did this character get a phone and wi-fi, given the circumstances? Why does that character put up with an abusive man who seems to use her for sex, and has no qualms flaring up at her in front of colleagues and calling her a “bitch”? The pre-digital era moviegoer in me craved these insights, wanted more conventional “character development”. The present-day me simply shrugged and said: We are what we see reflected on our screens and nothing else.
It’s not hard to guess that things between Jimmy and Anu aren’t going to go smoothly forever, and when she goes missing is when the film really gets going. The last half-hour is a cracker. It’s beautifully edited and directed — the control is breathtaking, given that the excitement is manufactured simply out of Kevin trying to get at the bottom of a mystery by staring at his computer screen. (Of course, his mind is at work, but we cannot see thinking. We only see… a man staring at his computer screen.) There’s no artificially amped-up pacing, no rapid-cutting between shots and reaction shots. And still, we sense Kevin softening as a character, his earlier anger and impatience mellowing as he becomes increasingly affected by the things he’s finding out through his computer.
Is this our reaction to Fahadh Faasil’s intentionally unemotional (i.e. normal) “performance”? I’m not sure. I think it’s more a result of our projection onto whatever’s happening as he stares at his screen. Whatever it is, it works. The performances of Roshan and Darshana are easier to read, because their characters are more “humanly” emotional. The real genius in the writing is about Anu. Till the end, I was kept guessing whether I was watching a film about a victim or a femme fatale. In other words, how much can we really know about a person today, when they’re mostly a bunch of pixels on a screen?