Don Palathara’s Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam is a one-shot film set during the 2020 pandemic. We exclusively focus on Jithin (Jithin Puthenchery) and Maria (Rima Kallingal) as they take a car ride to a hospital. They live together without their families knowing and Maria is getting a pregnancy test. On the surface, the entire film is about the argument they have about their serious situation: she’s not ready and mulling abortion while he feels ready to marry her and face the families. Don Palathara exploits two cinematic devices: a single continuous take and a fixed camera facing the couple in the front seat. They superbly elevate a banal argument into an intricate portrait of conflict in a modern relationship.
The fixed camera brings dialogues into sharp focus — you hook onto sounds if the visuals are static. It also gives you a feeling of being oppressively imprisoned by a single point of view, and that’s also what plagues the couple throughout — they can’t get out of their own heads while accusing the other of being self-centered. Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam works because its dialogues reflect two real aspects of any difficult argument between couples: the scope of the argument expands into the past (raking up memories in a new context) and Jithin and Maria often also expose their inner thoughts without intending to.
It would have been tedious to sit through a bickering for 90 minutes. But in the first part of the film, the dialogues economically and organically reveal the couple’s history and how they really see each other. Jithin thinks Maria is just a tabloid journalist and assumes she has lesser integrity than him, an aspiring but luckless actor. She thinks he’s irresponsible, avoiding problems under the pretense of staying calm, thanks to her earnings as a journalist with less-than-enough integrity.
Even though we’re stuck in a car with the couple, we travel back with their memories as they rake up events to shore up defence on their side. We’re introduced to Jithin and Maria through their criticism of each other. We feel sympathy not because we identify with them, but because we see how unfair they are to each other. Without investing in either of them specifically, we’re invested in their conflict.
They also reveal sides to themselves that shock the other. It’s like the existential stress due to a possible pregnancy was revealing a side of their minds they had suppressed. When Maria tells Jithin that his personal hygiene is unimpressive, he tells her that none of his previous girlfriends had a problem with that, only for her to rebut that she hasn’t slept around like him and so wouldn’t be able to respond to that. It’s clear that this is not an argument just about Maria’s pregnancy or what to do about it. It’s almost as if they were both waiting for an excuse to settle all doubts about their relationship once and for all: Maria even mulls aloud whether they should get married, hinting that she’s unsure of the fundamentals of their relationship.
There’s a five-minute stretch where we stare at an empty car and wait for Jithin and Maria to return and resume their conflict. You could argue the car is a microcosm of their world: it moves forward but it also keeps their bodies motionlessly trapped in it. This becomes especially apparent when they give a lady a ride and she seems to embody all of society judging an unmarried couple. Maria and Jithin behave differently in the presence of a talkative stranger within a confined space. You can imagine how they’re burdened by the constant judgement of society (especially their families).
There’s even a mocking and self-referential comment about this stretch of nothingness when Maria interviews an acclaimed film director on her phone. She asks him why his earlier film had a five-minute shot of two buffaloes eating grass. The director’s response: people don’t understand what the buffaloes represent.
In Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam, we’re tied up and made to watch a pointless argument between a couple. Even though — as it turned out — they didn’t need to have that argument and we didn’t have to observe it so intensely, we got a peek into their complicated minds, got to know them better — warts and all — through their conflict. At the end of the film, that’s probably true for Jithin and Maria too; they get to know each other better, if not grow closer, through an intense argument in a suffocating space.