Cast: Tovino Thomas, Sharaf U Dheen, Anna Ben
Director: Ashiq Abu
It’s impressive how quickly Ashiq Abu and his writer Unni R are able to set the mood for the kind of newsroom drama Naradan wants to be. Although Malayalam cinema has had its fair share of films that discuss media and its hypocrisies, not many come close to the opening half hour of Naradan. From the daily grind, the nights spent forgetting the days at the Press Club bar, to the pathetic day-to-day existence of a journalist in Ernakulam, it reveals an unsanitized and unromantic look at a profession that was either portrayed as too glamorous or too caricaturish.
Unlike how a writer-director like Madhur Bhandarkar would enter a dirty world to uncover its “seedy underbelly”, the effort here is to give us an authentic tour of the newsroom and what the pressures of TRPs do to its foot soldiers. Set in and around three newsrooms of different repute and size, Naradan oscillates between realism and satire (a hilarious running gag is about how the profession is ‘infested’ with Nairs) to eventually pit this system against two people Chandrprakash/CP (Tovino Thomas) and Pradeep John (Sharaf U Deen). These characters also represent two styles of journalism with CP believing in concepts like stings, half-truths and bet journalism, whereas Pradeep remains more rooted and ethical as is evident in a cutaway where he refuses to give up his source.
And naturally, it is CP who is far higher up in the career ladder. Like Keating to Pradeep’s Roark, CP’s killer instinct is one that was created right from childhood. His father openly admits to marrying his mother for money and insists that his son should do the same. Like the tale of the hare and the tortoise (a recurring motif is that of CP jogging at nighttime), the race reveals inner conflicts of both characters which culminates in CP abandoning his ethics to cross over to the dark side.
With obvious hints at a personality like Arnab Goswami, Naradan gets you to imagine the events that must have transpired to make a once-respected journalist like him be where he is today. Was it his own mental conditioning and ambition or will the system do this to anyone with a wavering mind? And with big corporate money entering the fourth estate, does it even remain news when it turns into a machine to go wherever the audience goes?
All of this makes for an indictment of what’s essentially the same news story across the country. In obvious references to real-life events, we see how a news channel like Mangalam started its coverage by honey-trapping a politician. We also get a fictionalised account of a character based on Kunal Kamra confronting CP using the same tactics the latter uses to pressurise its victims. Shouting and blackmailing too has become a part of the job and the film alludes to how the system is capable of creating monsters out of regular reporters (a junior editor shouts at another for asking for a loo break).
Despite the relevance of the themes discussed here and the importance they have on our opinions and democracy, one can feel the cracks in the storyline. It’s like the film we see is the result of an earlier draft without the necessary rewrites to make it cohere. The jerky genre shifts don’t help either like when CP joins a life coach to work on his killer instincts (these portions are the film’s silliest).
Which means that even when CP has transformed properly into a supervillain-like figure, we haven’t yet figured out if it’s jealousy, ambition or his vindictiveness that gets the ball rolling. An early red-herring in the form of an ex , doesn’t work at all and we find many elements sticking out. Even the consciously OTT performances of both Tovino and Sharaf, especially when they’re anchoring, does not fit with either the realistic or the satirical pitch.
And that’s what becomes even more confusing when it eventually abandons the newsroom for the courtroom. Although the topics of the case are serious and important, you never understand why a character like Ranji Panicker’s needed to be conceived in such a manner. Is he meant to be a joke or is he not? And why do the courtroom scenes look and feel so basic, like it’s from an earlier decade? This takes away a lot from even the clever bits of writing that has gone into characters like Indrans’ and Anna Ben’s.
With this confusion in tone and texture and with incomplete characters (what happens to Pradeep feels like shoddy screenwriting) Naradan is a bit all over the place even though one agrees and values everything it wants to say. Like a badly hosted news hour with too many ad breaks and a lot of posturing, Naradan lacks the subtlety to work either as a complex drama about a man’s descent into darkness specifically or to be an expose of the media business in general.