Director: Ahammed Khabeer
Cast: Joju George, Indrans, Arjun Ashokan, Shruti Ramachandran, Nikhila Vimal, Jagadeesh, Lal, Jaffer Idukki
After a series of single-location films that cover almost every setting, we get a film that's set in the absolute last place you want to see during a pandemic. Placed within the walls of a Government Hospital in Mattancherry, we meet all kinds of people from all kinds of backgrounds. They're all waiting for their loved ones to come back healthier, but the film's mood is hardly the grim, depressing place you're picturing right now. With the kind of cheery visual style you'd see in a Vineeth Sreenivasan film, Madhuram renovates this hospital and makes you feel like you're in the artful cafe of an Archies experience store.
Not that this is a complaint because the film's themes can handle all the golden-hour lighting in the world. Written broadly as the story of three couples from three generations, the film is strongest when it's a lecture series on true love as it gets passed down from one generation to the next. The youngest of these is Kevin (Arjun Ashokan) and Cherry (Nikhila Vimal), who are stuck in a broken marriage, just weeks away from divorce. We then meet one half of Ravi (Indrans) and Sulekha, the oldest of the three with over forty years of marital bliss.
But the film's primary narrative motor is the love story of Sabu (Joju Geoge) and Chitra (Shruti Ramachandran), an inter-religious couple who meet at a restaurant's kitchen in Mattancherry. This is where the madhuram in the title comes from and it's a sweet little story that brims with the kind of old-world charm you can no longer expect from a younger couple.
This strand is handled delicately, even when it risks being indulgent and syrupy. The makers are able to do this with the kind of attention to detail that's constantly surprising. Take for instance the way food becomes a flavour for their story. On the surface, this flavour is created in the conventional way with repeated inserts of food to the point where biriyani doubles up as Cupid. Their meeting point is a kitchen too, which further makes room for delicious monologues about recipes that sound like the most beautiful kind of serenading. But food as a motif isn't restricted to the happy times. Which is why we feel a lump in our throats when a doctor explains how Chitra now needs a tube to consume food.
It's a rewarding payoff for an idea the film takes hours developing and this is true of other aspects of Madhuram as well. Like a casual dialogue Sabu tells Kevin that has to do with spilling water. The line is so unremarkable that you look past it like it's someone coughing, but even this was placed there for a reason and it takes an hour to make sense to us.
This is generally the unravelling manner in which the screenplay has been written. There's no tired exposition nor is there a hurry to spoon-feed characters and the setting. Like walking into a classroom for the first time, the film expects its viewer to take the time to walk around, learn the dynamics and the geography before making friends.
Making friends is a major part of Madhuram too because of the nature of relationships you forge here. It isn't a film about the rooms, wards or ICUs of the hospital as it is about the waiting rooms, the clotheslines on the terrace and the canteen for bystanders. It's also a lot more moving because we never get to see the patients, letting us create our own backstories for them and their condition. But it's eventually the time that makes these relationships feel profound.
Suspended somewhere in the middle of a happy past and the unknown future, the only solace the bystanders have are each other. Their friendships are unlikely to have formed in the real world with its class hierarchies, but in these waiting rooms, they have no one but each other and no time for ego or small talk. This gives us access to a set of conversations with a level of honesty that are hard to see even between friends or lovers. And because life itself is in a limbo for these bystanders, there's no need to stop short, just as there is no need to hold back one's tears.
We too become a bystander in due course, forging deep emotional bonds with the people here. Like the mood of a film like The Big Sick, Madhuram feels like a journey towards clarity even as one accepts certain truths, however painful they may be.
These are reasons why you're always rooting for this film, even when it swims in an ocean of niceness. There's a kind of naive goodness to every character where the only difference is in evaluating how golden their hearts are. Another issue that took time to get used to was how two timelines overlap each other. At one point, we're witnessing a flashback in Sabu and Chitra's story. But when these portions are intercut with present-day Kevin and Cherry, it confuses the viewer by jumbling up the chronology.
But the performances are able to hold it all together even when we sense a fracture in the narration. It's like Indrans now has a direct line to our tear ducts with an ability to make us cry at will and this is true of Joju George (who shares a lovely chemistry with Shruti) too because it's a role that needs him to hide a lot of bitterness beneath a facade of positivity.
The dynamics of the relationships are such that it requires Joju's warmth for us to feel like an insider but he has to do this without revealing the weight that's on his back. It really is a lovely performance that grapples with a man who wants to appear strong but is also slowly losing his power to stay hopeful. Add all of this to Hesham Abdul Wahab's soothing score and you find yourself lost in a world that's deceptively cheery, even when you realise there is a lot of pain and hardship behind the smiles and the lights. Feel-good seldom feels so good.