Director: Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval
Cast: Nivin Pauly, Grace Antony, Vinay Forrt, Vincy Aloshious
The opening credits of Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham appears on a proscenium curtain to recreate the mood before the start of a play. It’s a curious place to set the ball rolling for a chamber comedy that places an unhappy marriage at its centre. After two years of marriage, Haripriya (Grace Antony in another great performance) finds herself utterly disappointed with husband Pavithran (Nivin Pauly in perfect ease with sync sound). Their marriage is also emblematic of another strained relationship: that of acting in movies versus acting in soaps.
Of the two, Haripriya is easily the more accomplished actor headlining more than 1000 episodes of television mega serial. Her ringtone is the credits song from her serial and she often gets requests from fans for an autograph or a selfie. Her husband Pavithran, though, has no respect for her artistry. He’s a junior actor playing fungible roles in small movies but he behaves with an air of intellectual superiority because what he does is considered ‘purer’. An out-of-work actor he may be, but that doesn’t stop him showing off acting textbooks by Stella Adler and running an acting university to reiterate his credentials as a real actor.
But when their conflict is placed within the three walls of a crumbling hotel building with an ensemble cast, the scope widens to include elements of the stage too. With stage acting considered even purer than acting for cinema, the film sets us up for a delicious three-way between three versions of the same artform, each with its own quirks and pretensions.
In terms of plot, the film’s plastered together by a tiny event; that of Haripriya’s missing earrings. For her, the earrings are invaluable because it is Pavithran’s first real gift for her, given at a time when she believes their marriage is over. As for Pavithran, it’s important that the earrings are found at once because his intentions aren’t as pure as gold. Like in any mystery, it’s the whereabouts of this McGuffin that holds it all together, apart from the quirkiness of its setting.
But the director manages to add hilarious amounts of details through his quirky approach to production design. On the surface, we get direct references to The Shining (another film about marital discord?) and the films of Wes Anderson. And on the side, the art department inserts their own recurring gags which work even when the film begins to wobble. Take for instance the choice of film posters adorning the walls telling their own little stories. In one scene, we see a half naked man adjusting his bath towel beside the poster of a 1981 film titled Agni Saram, which translates roughly to the arrows of fire. The poster right behind the reception of this noisy hotel reads Angadi (market), another one says Avesham (excitement) and the one in the lead couple’s honeymoon suite says Poyi Mughangal (false faces). And when we enter the room of an obviously seedy couple, the poster there is Prem Nazir’s Brahmachari.
Besides a few visual elements like these, almost every joke that lands are based on dialogue and the way they are delivered. With its set of absurd characters, the jokes simply write themselves when they lead to their own debates. So when a caterer argues with a novelist about the latter’s poetic liberties it gradually evolves into the art versus the artist debate. This extends to other debates as well when a psychologist is thrown in with his own theories on family life.
Which means that even long stretches of dullness is salvaged by a clever dialogue or with the insert of a new character. Of these mini debates, some appear forced with a few feeling like they were inserted like an afterthought. But when these jokes are repeated (like the one with the novelist’s prose about mayflowers) for the second or the third time, we get the feeling that they’re trying to push too hard for too little. And that’s around when the film begins to feel a tad tiring.
Given that all of this is being held together by a thin plot line, it feels like the film forgets about the one aspect (the missing earrings) moving things forward by focusing too much on elaborate comedic setups. In terms of dialogue, the film is dense covering several loaded topics in little time. But when you finish watching the film having taken in little, Kanakam Kaamini Kalaham ends simply as a series of solid performances trying to cover up a lack of soul. Because the film itself revolves around a pair of fake earrings covered by a small bit of real gold, it almost feels ironic.