Director: Lal Jose
Cast: Biju Menon, Nimisha Sajayan, Saranjith
Given that director Lal Jose can now safely be termed an industry veteran (he made his debut 21 years ago), he seems to have developed certain skill sets that allow him to execute certain ideas with particular ease. There still aren’t too many directors around who can picturise songs like he can. Even in Nalpothiyonnu (41), you can see how he has this gift of stitching together little moments in a love song to give ordinary, everyday routine the beauty of a major event. He’s also got a special talent to tell the story of places. In most of his films, you invariably get this feeling that you know the place and its people within the first 30 minutes or so.
He does that in this film too, but the place in question isn’t just another harmlessly apolitical Valluvanadan village. Located close to Kannur, the story of rationalist Ullaskumar (Biju Menon) takes place in Chekkunnu. The name of this place itself reflects the ambitious conflict the film tries to debate. As three old men sitting in a bus stop discuss, the place gets its name from Siva Kunnu (Siva’s hill), which got abridged to become Chekkunnu. But one of these men has another theory. According to him, the hill isn’t Siva’s. It’s Che’s. Which one, you ask? “Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara,” the old man argues.
The people in this place too share this dichotomy. The local Communist party office is populated with believers named Nambiar, Aboobacker and more, who aren’t shy to wear their faith on their sleeve. But, their comrade Ullaskumar is very different. There are no pictures of gods in his bedroom. Instead, we get Marx, Engels and Sri Narayana Guru. A teacher in the local college, he’s also the author of a book that roughly translates to God As A Businessman. He reminds you of Sreenivasan’s character in Sandesham, with a love story that’s eerily reminiscent of a ‘what-if’ scenario, had that ‘pennu kaanal’ from hell progressed to marriage.
You’d think the film’s going to be about an incident(s) that will shake the foundations of Ullas’ faith, or the lack of it. It is, in a way, but the film isn’t just about him. It’s also about Kannan (Saranjith), a believer and an alcoholic who is constantly at loggerheads with the right wing in his village. The party assigns Ullas with the duty of rehabilitating Kannan, and even comes up with a plan. It demands that Ullas and Kannan make a trip to Sabarimala, after undertaking the 41-day vrutham (resolution), which will likely wean Kannan off the bottle.
With a setup like this, it’s easy to assume that a lot cannot go wrong from here. But boy, was I wrong! The problem isn’t just how non-committal the film is with its philosophical core. It is, after all, a road trip involving a believer and a rationalist as they travel to one of the holiest places in India. The problem is also about how it gets even the smallest of things wrong. Like the scene where Ullas is coaxed into undertaking this trip. The second the scene is set up, you know exactly how it’s going to play out. Even the slightest bit of effort could have made this the scene of the film, given how excellent Biju Menon is at portraying embarrassment, but the scene itself is so poorly written that it feels like a lazy rehearsal of the first draft.
It only gets worse. Most of the film’s first hour or so is treated with the exaggerations you’d find in a satire. So, it comes as a rude shock when it takes a U-turn in terms of its tonal shift. This is also where the film starts behaving like an advertisement for Kerala’s temple tourism. Large stretches of no real drama and dialogue make you suspect you’ve entered the wrong movie after the interval. It’s like the makers stumbled upon an interesting conceit, but realised that it’s easier to play it safe and expect the audience to write their own movie in their heads.
Apart from what feels like the discovery of a talent in Saranjith and a mildly engaging first half, Nalpathiyonnu (41) offers precious little. Of all the years and decades Malayalam cinema had to make a film on Sabarimala, it’s surprising that this is the time and this is the film we ended up with. Atheist or believer, there’s not much to debate about the quality of this film.