The Malayalam film Kaanekkaane is about fathers and daughters, the singular, piercing love that parents have for children, the terrible things that even ordinary people are capable of, the delicacy of relationships, the way in which secrets and guilt stain and sour life, the destructive nature of revenge and the importance of forgiveness, which is eventually the only path to healing. It's a lot to pack into one film. But director Manu Ashokan and writers Bobby and Sanjay weave the various narrative threads into a tight two hours. Kaanekkaane, which means As I Watch, is poignant but also sinister, tragic and suspenseful. It's a keenly observed portrait of the worst and best impulses of human beings.
Manu, Bobby and Sanjay earlier collaborated on the superb Uyare, which featured Parvathy Thiruvothu as Pallavi, the victim of an acid attack. The father-daughter relationship is the pillar of that film. One of Uyare's most striking moments is when Pallavi's bandages come off for the first time. The camera focuses on the father's face – we have to guess the extent of the damage from his expression. He looks stricken but he doesn't crumble. Through the film, he stands strong for his scarred daughter. Siddique, who plays the father, is terrific.
Paul Mathai in Kaanekkaane is cut from a similar cloth. The film begins with close-ups of blood. Within the first few minutes, we see Paul at a graveyard. This is followed by a visit to his son-in-law Allen's house where he meets his young grandson. But the interactions between the adults are oddly strained. Slowly we piece together why this is. Paul lost his daughter Sherin in a hit-and-run accident. He is still fighting in court, hoping to get justice but everyone else seems to have moved on. Allen has remarried. His second wife Sneha is pregnant. She looks after Kuttu, Allen's son with Sherin, with great care. But there is something off-kilter. Allen is fumbling at work and drinking too much. Sneha seems confused and lonely. A patina of gloom hangs over even her birthday celebrations.
Our uneasiness turns into full-blown horror as the story unfolds. The screenplay continuously moves from present to past and back again. The structure enables us to compare what these relationships were and what they've become. Editor Abhilash Balachandran and DOP Alby Antony make the back-and-forth jump seamless. The shifts aren't marked or commented upon. We guess when something is taking place by the emotion. At one point, we see Allen and Paul laughing together – we understand that this had to have happened before.
Manu and Bobby-Sanjay's masterstroke is that they keep doling out just enough information to keep our sympathies shifting. At first, we are staunchly on Paul's side but then as Allen's point-of-view comes to the forefront and Paul's actions become increasingly destructive, we start to waver. Sneha's father also gets a scene to shine. There aren't any good or bad guys here – just damaged human beings who are coming to grips with their own capacity for hate and ruin. Ranjin Raj's background score adds to the film's mystery and melancholy.
National Award-winning actor Suraj Venjaramoodu anchors the film as the flailing father. His range is astonishing. Paul is loving and affectionate but also grieving, wounded and dangerously obsessive. Suraj nails every note but without any outsized dramatic flourishes. There is something seething but quiet about him. Suraj makes us care for Paul but also be afraid of him. It's a brilliant performance. Tovino Thomas as Allen and Aishwarya Lekshmi as Sneha are also very good. Tovino, who played the charming saviour in Uyare, does a total about-turn here – Allen is desperately flawed and frayed. These are human beings on the edge of freefall.
Kaanekkaane isn't afraid of messy emotions but the screenplay ties up the narrative threads a little too neatly. Life is unlikely to have the symmetry that this film does. The character of Sherin isn't as fleshed out with the same care as the rest. We don't get enough of a sense of her relationship with Allen, which makes Allen's behavior a little harder to grapple with. The semblance of a happy ending is also not wholly convincing given what has gone before.
The film throws up larger questions about the morality and psychology of human beings. Even if the answers it offers aren't wholly satisfying, the narrative stays gripping until the end.
And what stayed with me was a scene in which Paul, raging and heartbroken, tells Allen about the life he might have had if Sherin had lived. It's a masterclass in acting.
You can watch Kaanekkaane on Sony LIV.