Cast: Basil Joseph, Lal, Arjun Asokan, Ganapathi, Riya Saira
The opening stretch of Chidambaram's Jan.e.Man is exceptional for the way it gets you to laugh out loud, even at an extremely depressing situation. Joymon, (Basil Joseph in his best yet) a nurse stuck in a remote Canadian village, is a week away from turning 30 but finds himself feeling depressed with no one to celebrate it with. His village is buried under several feet of snow and Joymon's only company is his Alexa and a pair of steamy underwear he dries over a heater. In terms of a more human presence, he has one friend but he too is leaving town in a bid to escape this frozen 'hell'. Antithetical to the Malayali dream of life in the first world, Jan.E.Man begins with a reality check set in a picturesque village that a postcard would describe as heaven.
It's important for Jaan-E-Mann to have begun by making us feel his crushing isolation because it is eventually a film about human connections and two of life's biggest events—birth and death. Which is what happens when Joymon decides to travel back home to make sure he has people to celebrate the milestone with. He convinces old friend Faizal (Ganapathi, also co-writer) and acquaintance Sampath (Arjun Ashokan) to host the party and agrees to take care of the expenses. The venue is Sampath's terrace but what makes the film an original work is what happens in the house right opposite to theirs. So when his elderly neighbour kicks the bucket hours before Joymon's big party, we're primed for intense drama and even darker comedic set pieces.
It's a loaded premise so full of potential that the jokes write themselves. Joymon deserves a happy birthday and he's even travelled the world for this one night. But you also understand that what's happening next door is even more important. Chidambaram never takes it easy with the premise because his screenplay always surprises us by bringing back details he embedded early on or by taking turns we would never expect. Take for instance the subtlety with which the last half hour hits us (the reason behind a major issue in the past strikes us in the last scene). What could easily have felt like a sentimental turn feels like it fits because the screenplay has already planted important clues. The same goes with the way the characters get introduced. At first we know little about them and the dynamics they bring to this complicated equation. But after a few scenes and some precise dialogues, we get enough to add our own layers to them and the events that have transpired to make them these complex characters.
Like Joymon who we sympathise with in one scene, only for us to reconsider our judgment of him when he behaves like a stubborn child in need of (social media) validation. The same goes with the characters played by Lal and Balu Varghese. They get solid backstories and their own history with central characters but the film also gives them the room to take detours without ever changing our understanding of them. And this is the case with most characters. Just when we think the screenplay has forgotten them, they return with a scene that fits in cohesively while also breaking the tension. What this does is make sure the film never takes itself too seriously even when it deals with major dramatic events.
Which is why we're willing to overlook a glaring drop in energy before the major events take place. It's like the film is setting us up for genre shifts, but slowing things down before it does. The team manages to cushion this drop because Chidambaram is also an able craftsman. Little touches like how he uses white tube-lights in one house versus warmer bulbs in the other, oddly, help us maintain emotional continuity through opposite moods in the two houses. And with the way he uses longer single takes at the funeral, he manages to slow down time in contrast with the quicker cuts in scenes set in the happier house. And when all of this is aided by classic comedic tropes with one house being full of people from rural-most Kumuli at odds with the cityfolk of Kochi, we get a hilarious film and set of even better characters. When put crudely, Jan.E.Man is the film you would have got if Lijo Jose Pellissery had co-directed Ee Ma Yau with Rafi Mecartin. It's a weird mix you never thought you'd like until you tried it.