Director: Ranjan Pramod
Cast: Biju Menon, Hannah Reji Koshy, Aju Verghese, Deepak Parambol
Watching Ranjan Pramod’s Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu (Patron Baiju’s Signature), I was filled with fury. First, we got the cigarette/alcohol warnings. Then, someone thought it was important to let us know that, say, the giant bull vanquished by Bhallala Deva in Baahubali was not, you know, real. We started getting little scrawls saying “CGI.” And now, in this sweet little film set in the sleepy little town of Kumbalam, where people get around in bikes, we get this solemn note: “Riding two-wheelers without wearing a helmet is a punishable offence.” Is this the cinema screen or a graffiti wall? Is there no respect for composition, for the frame, for the art form? Would you do this with books or paintings or music?
Baiju, though, has a much longer fuse. The character, charmingly played by Biju Menon in that I’m-not-really-acting style so often found in Malayalam cinema, could be added in the dictionary as a synonym for “phlegmatic.” I kept wondering what it would take to make him angry. Or at least betray some kind of emotion.
He’s the 43-year-old captain of the cricket team named Kumbalam Brothers (he co-founded it when he was eight). Watching a match, he tells his far-younger teammates – teenagers and twentysomethings – that, in his prime, he used to bat like de Villiers. A boy scoffs, “How can you brag like this with a straight face?” Baiju takes no offence – not here, and not when his face on the flex poster advertising a play he’s in is a fraction the size of the leading man’s.
Or take the uproarious scene where he jumps into a well (he’s perched on the rim) upon hearing that the police are nearby. He’s committed no crime. It’s just the panic one feels when the police is around. Someone clicks a picture as he emerges from the well, covered in weeds. Everyone laughs. Baiju laughs. And when the picture becomes a meme that his daughter sees on her phone, she laughs too. She shows it to Baiju’s parents. They laugh too.
Only Baiju’s wife Ajitha (Hannah Reji Koshy, who’s lovely) isn’t amused. That night – in one of the film’s many dryly observed moments – she sulks that he didn’t tell her about falling into the well. He snaps, “Okay, the next time I fall into a well, I will definitely tell you.” We laugh too.
The reunion between Baiju and an old flame might raise its hand as a candidate for an emotional outburst, but this meeting is one of the gentlest, most unsentimental trips back in time – it is both an acknowledgment of what once was and the realisation that it no longer is, that life has moved on.
It’s only with family that we see Baiju bothering to… get bothered. There’s a plot point involving a sister. Something she did has upset him. There’s another bit about a college student who propositions his school-going daughter. But even these annoyances are swatted away like mosquitoes on a hot afternoon.
So what kind of film is Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu, when Baiju himself cannot rouse himself to the flash point that our movies require from their leading men? And without this, when even the nominal villain (a drug peddler) isn’t allowed to precipitate an action scene, where is the drama? The film’s great strength is that there is none. The lack of event itself becomes a kind of event.
Baiju reminds us of earlier films about sport, especially cricket. As in 1983 (Malayalam) and Chennai-600028 (Tamil), we see how these small competitions can showcase astonishing talents and foster a feeling of brotherhood. But it’s not just cricket and male bonding. It’s also about women and their badminton games. It’s not so much about a particular sport as the tract of land that the locals use as a playground. It’s about how we automatically become part of a larger community when we don’t migrate to cities, lock ourselves up in flats and keep thumbing through our phones.
Baiju is beautifully shot and edited. The frames are dense – there’s always something happening in the background. The camera could change its focus, and there’d be another set of lives, another set of stories to follow
The notion is both idyllic and idealistic. There are things in the cities that we don’t find in small towns and villages. Baiju’s classmate returns from the US and cheers himself hoarse at the Kumbalam Brothers play – and after they win, he says he thought he was happy, but he now sees Baiju is much happier. This is but a temporary tug of nostalgia, from a man who’s soon boarding a flight back to a first-world country and its unimaginable comforts.
This isn’t a diss, though – for the film is careful not to overcompensate by making Baiju some sort of third-world superhero, the sporting world’s answer to a shaman who has a cure for every ailment. He’s not even present when we veer off into subplots about Unni (Aju Verghese) desiring a fair-skinned wife, or Manoj (Deepak Parambol) going on a date with a maddeningly elusive girl.
Baiju is the lynchpin from which these other lives radiate, but his patronage – the fact that he spends all his time hanging around these kids, being a pillar of support – isn’t enough. Some of these kids go on to be successes at the IPL level. Some find through him (and through the sport) a way to overcome personal tragedy. And some kids fail. They fail in love. They fail in matches. They fail when faced with people with deeper pockets.
The triumph, then, is in the sense that the community that sticks together stays together. Baiju is beautifully shot and edited. The frames are dense – there’s always something happening in the background. The camera could change its focus, and there’d be another set of lives, another set of stories to follow.
Towards the end of this nearly three-hour film, the music rises a little, as if to nudge awake those in the audience that have been lulled into sleep by the (intentionally) sleepy rhythms. But it isn’t needed, for this isn’t a film for the impatient. Its rhythms aren’t those of screenplay-writing software but of life itself.
Watch the trailer here: