Great First Half, Silly Second Half: Kammara Sambhavam, Film Companion

Too many times we see films lose the plot after intermission—a concept as old as the movies that India, and a few other countries, have retained. Some call it The Curse of the Second Half. Some movies recover miraculously post-interval, like tail-enders winning a match after the team’s main batsmen have failed. In this series, we write about films that are half good, and half bad. Or the other way around. Thank god for the loo break though.

Plot: 

Fearing constant prohibition, a group of liquor barons at the helm of an insignificant political party, decide to produce a biopic (their production company: Movie Brewery) to ‘manufacture’ a leader with a rich political heritage. Looking through the pages of an unreliable novel written by a white man, they find a candidate. But it would take a lot of alcohol to sanitise the sins of the wicked Kammaran Nambiar (Dileep).

Why The First Half Works:

The first half of Kammara Sambhavam is a film in itself, the kind we may never see again. Yes it does employ a broader version of the Rashomon Effect and yes, it does use the interval break cleverly to give us two versions of the same story. But that’s not why it’s unique. It is that rare Malayalam film to use what is likely the opposite of the unreliable narrator trope. In fact, when Kammaran starts narrating what he calls the ‘truth’ or the ‘history’, he is, in a sense, a completely reliable narrator. The reason for this is just as novel. At 96, Kammaran hasn’t slept for days, languishing in misery caused by his own guilt. That’s when a prophetic wizard appears before Kammaran to say that peace will befall upon him only when he confesses the truth to a storyteller (a filmmaker named Pulikesi) born to a Tamil father and a Malayali mother. 

His motivations are clear and there’s no need for us to doubt his honesty any further. As though he’s on a truth serum, Kammaran’s ability to sleep again is linked directly to how honest he is going to be to his listener. As a result, what we see in the first half of Kammara Sambhavam is a deep dive into the mind of one of our most brutally amoral characters.

You obviously need a star to make a period film of this scale and budget. You also need an actor who can take you along as his character speaks and performs some of the most offensive things a protagonist has had to

Within the mainstream format, the story of a wretched villain seldom gets the importance or the screen-time like it does here. Getting a star and an able actor to play this character, then, becomes its own challenge. These are both factors a character like Kammaran Nambiar demands. You obviously need a star to make a period film of this scale and budget. You also need an actor who can take you along as his character speaks and performs some of the most offensive things a protagonist has had to. Because Kammaran is the confluence of all things evil. He’s as racist (he blames the size of the Japanese man eyes for them losing WWII), as he is casteist (he doesn’t want his sister to be seen with a man from a lower caste). He’s also a cheat who betrays not just people who are richer and more powerful. He cheats even the bonded slave labourers whose colony he conspires to burn. He’s a stalker too who makes it a point to peep into his lover Bhanumathi’s (Namitha Pramod) house each night as she gets ready to sleep. 

Another reason why it works so well is how Dileep’s performance compliments the writing. Like that scene where a hurt (a sickle has pierced his left leg) and heartbroken Kammaran throws out one stone after another from his bowl of gruel. Maintaining the same expression, you see the man’s mind working extra hard as he plots to remove one obstacle after another in his mission to get Bhanumathi. Tiny directorial touches adds layers too. In one scene, Kammaran starts swinging Kelu Nambiar’s (Murali Gopy) aattukattil when he starts lying to Kelu as a part of his masterplan. From the merciless tyrant, we get a visual cue to see how Kammaran’s tricks play a part in swaying Kelu’s mind. 

Great First Half, Silly Second Half: Kammara Sambhavam, Film Companion

 And how chilling is that blink-and-miss shot of Kammaran’s father’s rotten face floating on the Kabini? Kammara Sambhavam is also that rare film where the same actor playing two versions of the same character, gets two separate background themes. 

Great First Half, Silly Second Half: Kammara Sambhavam, Film Companion

Of the portions that don’t work here is a stretch where this flashback goes into another flashback where Othenan (Sidharth) recalls his experience of joining Subhash Chandra Bose’s INA to fight against the British. Unlike the portions until now, Othenan’s narration of these events are shown in a highly stylised manner, throwing up the question if Othenan himself is an unreliable narrator. Either ways, these bits (the production design here is amazing) are just pages off any other biopic of any other freedom fighter. Apart from this, we also get a forced dream duet early on to show us Kammaran’s feeling for Bhanuathi. These apart, what we see in the first half is a near perfect portrait of a deranged man.   

Why The Second Half Doesn’t Work: 

The novelty quickly starts wearing off in the film’s second half, which is essentially the same story playing out through an unreliable narrator (the filmmaker whose job it becomes to turn this villain into a hero). The repetition in these echo scenes or the whitewashed version of these incidents, is very much by design. But can the opposite of something, however compelling, become just as fun? The second half is also a totally different film. Unlike the reality (not really realism) of the first half, the film becomes intentionally cinematic. The background score becomes booming, we get one too many 360 degree tracking shots and several pompous dialogues from the hero (who is designed to look like Che Guevara). 

Great First Half, Silly Second Half: Kammara Sambhavam, Film Companion 

We get what the makers are trying to do but there’s only so much fun to be had when the film essentially degenerates into a spoof of a biopic from the rousing character study it was earlier. 

But the ideas are still hilarious. From a backstabbing psychopath, Kammaran is suddenly transformed into the man who saves the lives of both Gandhiji and Subash Chandra Bose. But by this point, one feels the film is spending too much time to get us to invest in the film-within-the-film we’re already convinced is a hoax. 

Another major factor that gets lost in translation is the film’s major role reversal. One feels the film needed the villain characters played by Sidharth and Swetha Menon in the second half to really click in an OTT sort of way for it to have been elevated into anything more than just a spoof. In other words, you need Sidharth’s character (Othenan) to be somewhat of a villain like the real Kammaran for the irony to be really put across. What didn’t help either is a line where Kammaran breaks the fourth wall to do some lip service for Dileep, the actor. 

Great First Half, Silly Second Half: Kammara Sambhavam, Film Companion

But when Kammara Sambhavam goes back to the original Kammaran to explain what he did to Othenan, one wishes the film had remained longer with that character. It’s like the film gives you two choices. One being a parody of all the biopics we’ve been seeing lately. And the other, the first half, being an unapologetic celebration of a devious villain (he ends up becoming the Chief Minister later). I’d prefer a fascinating villain over a boring hero any day. 

Subscribe now to our newsletter

SEND 'JOIN' TO +917021533993 TO CONNECT WITH US ON WHATSAPP
x