Cast: Prithviraj Sukumaran, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Mamta Mohandas, Sri Divya
Director: Dijo Jose Antony
Call it an overtly meta reading of what's essentially a simple scene, but there's something about the timing of Jana Gana Mana's release that made this stretch feel a lot more significant. With Sathyan Anthikad's Makal set to release a day later, we get a scene where Jana Gana Mana's director Dijo Jose Antony appears as a college professor. It is set in Maharajas College and the lecture is on Indian Polity with a full strength of students in attendance. But his speech does not compliment the "good students" for attending his class. Instead, his big mass dialogue here forces them to get up from their benches and go out in protest against the murder of a professor in another state. He calls it the "practicals" of the subject he's teaching, but it feels like an event in itself with a filmmaker teaching his audience to be more political. When seen just a day before the release of an Anthikad film, it's a sign of how most makers today have rejected the apolitical stands of films like Sandesham and Priyadarshan's Cheppu to embrace full student participation. Given how the film comes back later to underscore this very point only adds to the film's cleverly deceptive writing.
Deceptive is the word one needs to keep coming back to because Jana Gana Mana plays this game even before the movie begins. The anti-smoking disclaimer, read out by Suraj Venjaramoodu, too is in sync with this vision. Like two sides to a coin, the film first gets you to buy into yet another argument on the benefits of encounter killing. A case is created and clues are carefully placed right through the first half to get us to align with one side of a debate, only for the carpet to be pulled from right under our feet. Like members of a jury, we're asked to take stands but the stand we end up taking only reveals our own biases. So when we're first shown a set of criminals getting captured from what looks like a colony, the deceptive writing gets us to point the finger right back at ourselves for assuming they've surely done the crime.
Such themes are explored right through the second half with several notions getting dismantled to reveal a lot about ourselves. Surprisingly, the film is fully able to hold its cards close to its chest because of its casting. What actors like Suraj and Prithviraj (the duo repeat their excellent equation from Driving License) have managed to do is keep their screen image wide enough to be able to accommodate any shade, which only makes the film even more engaging. All of these factors contribute a lot to what's also a film that uses several real-life events to make its political points.
It's also the engaging writing, which transforms into a courtroom drama, that separates Jana Mana Gana from a film like Varthamanam. Apart from basic similarities like its college setting and students' politics, the latter felt very verbose in its attempts to counter fascism using incidents from real life. Jana Gana Mana runs the risk of becoming talkative too, but the courtroom setting gives it the context it needs to allow for this. It is also much smarter in the way it incorporates events from life. We feel this in the eery way a series of events unfurl, leading to the murder of the aforementioned teacher. It takes points from the murder of the veterinary doctor in Hyderabad to give us a context and that chilling feeling we remember from the way the accused were encountered.
The manner in which the life of a PhD student is introduced too reminds us of many faces (including Rohit Vemula's), but this is done seamlessly without any injustice to the characters in the film. These scenes present us with interesting insights into how an argument steeped in real events can help you make the larger political points without comprising on the engagement. It's like a well-written editorial in The Hindu being brought to life for a Tik-Tok audience.
In fact, the only portion that didn't do justice to the film's tight screenplay is the way it ends with a teaser of the second part. This stretched out portion is both difficult to follow with odd editing choices to reveal too much of a film that's not as interesting as the first part we've just finished watching. In what appears to only be a template revenge story, one wishes that Jana Gana Mana had just ended with a tease of a sequel. Yet as a lone standing film, Jana Gana Mana is a thoroughly engaging call to action against fascism told in the most entertaining manner.