Director Lijo Jose Pellishery begins his new film with a letter of gratitude. In it, he thanks God for waking him up from those nights of inscrutable dreams. He then acknowledges an old ad film for planting the seed for Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, along with gratitude for the many jumbled human lives that got converted into characters and films by his beloved filmmakers. Nanpakal is a concoction of all three—a set of dreams knotted together, a thin one-line idea best suited for an ad and the magic of a loved filmmaker combining the two and then planting real people into it.
Put plainly, it’s the story of an unplanned detour that takes a Malayali theatre troupe into a village in Tamil Nadu on their way back from Velankanni. With the troupe being led by a miserly James (Mammootty), we get long stretches of beautifully thought-out static frames (by Theni Easwar) that record the quirks, the relationships and the hierarchies of this group. Some of these elements, like a character (Ashokan) who is in a hurry to get back to his ration shop, gives the easy pace of the film some much-needed urgency. Others, like two shots placed right after the other, shows how the concept of humour works differently for a group of women (their jokes are about the impossibility of finding a toilet) as opposed to men who appear comfortable in the exact same context.
It is during the half way mark of this journey, a few minutes after lunch, that we enter into the other universe that is being constructed by Lijo. If a doorway to Churuli’s (Jose's 2021 film) universe opened up by the way of a bridge, it’s somewhere during this post-lunch nap-time that we witness reality take a back seat. Similarly, the only handholding we get to understand the rules of Churuli came in the form of an animation sequence that narrated the story of a sage and a pangolin. In Nanpakal, this guide comes in the form of a verse from the Thirukural—‘to sleep is to die, and to wake up from sleep is birth.’ With this verse being read out to James in Tamil, that too with every God in attendance peering down at him, this recital gets the significance of a magic spell being administered. Is this the moment that changes James forever?
The film forebodes this shift in James cleverly: one such hint comes in the form of the movie the troupe watches on their bus journey. Not only do we catch James watching Parampara (1990), a movie in which Mammootty played both father and son, but we enter during a scene in which the two characters meet after a long separation. This is also perhaps the instance from whereon the concepts of duality move up to the foreground.
This is ideal because Nanpakal gets you to rethink the concept of double roles in our movies. This transformation from James to Sundaram happens smoothly, with the ease of a master theatre performer assuming a new character. He simply wakes up from his nap, climbs down from the bus and into the life of Sundaram. It is only later that we notice how the screenplay had already planted clues to further the dichotomy between the two men in one body. For instance, James seems to hate the payasam-like sweet tea of Tamil Nadu even though Sundaram wants even more sugar in his. Another line suggests how James is likely an agnostic even though it is obvious from Sundaram’s prostrations that he is as devout as they come.
From the board on their bus, we’re told that they’re currently performing a play called Oridathu, but the events that unfold after James becomes Sundaram is closer in spirit to another Aravindan classic, Thampu (1978 film). If Thampu showed a travelling circus changing the entire landscape of a sleepy village during their brief stay, over here, you get the intervention of a theatre troupe disturbing all notions of normalcy. In a sense, Nanpakal is a film that’s built on the reactions of people around James/Sundaram than it is about the protagonist’s transformation.
This quandary gives birth to fascinating moments, one of which includes the unique state of existence where James appears to be both alive and dead at the same time. This is true even of Sundaram, a man who gets one extra day back at home after leaving a good two years ago. After a stage, you catch your loyalties shifting from James’ family to that of Sundaram’s. Sundaram’s wife, for instance, refuses to call the man an imposter like others in the village, retreating instead to her bedroom to accept the “bonus” day she may have been gifted with. You find a similarly moving emotion when you see Sundaram’s mother’s reactions to his return. She may be a blind woman but it feels as though only she can see her son for what he is, not letting his new voice or body take away from the last day she gets to spend with him.
What adds a second meta layer to this concept is how we’re constantly reminded of the world of cinema and theatre. The film uses only diegetic sounds, that too in the form of music or dialogues that arise from the radios or televisions around the characters. This is done so organically that you enjoy it even when you’re not paying attention to what it adds to the plot. When it does, like when we hear “Partha Nyabagam Illayo? (Do you not remember me?), as people fail to recognise Sundaram, you understand how smart it is, but the moment works just as well even if you didn’t notice. From James’ perspective, what is this day except the ultimate performance of his career as an actor? Or did the events of the film really take place or did we simply witness James’ dream as he takes that nap after lunch?
The static approach also contributes to the notion that we’re watching a play, with elements like the pillars of a house, the frames of a door or a set of tubelight creating the two-dimensionality of the stage. Mammootty too is unforgettable in this space where he abandons his subtlety for the loudness of Sundaram’s character. It’s as though you can sense Sundaram’s muscle memory taking over, the minute James steps into his house. A film that becomes increasingly tragic as we remain in Sundaram’s world, Nanpakal leaves you thinking about how Sundaram needed a stranger from an unknown place to give him one last day with the people he loved, even if they failed to recognise him.