Cast: Sibi Thomas, Athulya Pramod, Indrans, Dileesh Pothan
Sidharthan (Sibi Thomas) is a Thira performer and folk doctor. And as a character in the film puts it: he’s a rebel. But not the typical angry rebel because Ashaprabha’s depiction of caste oppression in Sidharthan Enna Njan is clinical and almost completely devoid of anger (even when events in the film make us angry). The film is an unhurried visual and aural depiction of life in the remote areas of Kerala where the nearest hospital is a few streams away through the woods. It actually begins with a rush to such a hospital: as upper caste men with a jeep watch inebriated, a woman nearing labour is hurried on an improvised stretcher through the jungle.
The men carrying the stretcher give us the film’s context through their conversation. Parts of this sequence are energetic: the men vent and rant about how upper caste men in power have contrived this. In a few economical dialogues, we get a picture of caste dominance in the area. And it feels natural that the people would raise these points precisely when they’re hurting, if only to distract them from the hardship. After a point, though, this dialogue-based exposition begins to sound repetitive. By a miracle, the woman gives birth and we see how if one is a part of the oppressed caste even being born — not just living — can be a challenge.
This short, effective stretch which leads to Sidharthan’s conflict with the Ajayan (Sarath Kovilakom) who is part of the landowning family of the area, a romantic track with his girlfriend who is Ajayan’s sister, and his equation with his father (Indrans, in an effective cameo). These narratives come together and Sidharthan loses livelihood and social status. Scenes that show how Sidharthan acquires the moniker ‘Evil Eye’ unfairly, just as his own father had, show how the seeds of bias are sown in the community. Gradually through a series of minor events, ‘evidence’ builds up and Sidharthan is ostracized by the community.
Scenes where it seems to us — and even to Sidharthan — that he has a special power are conceived believably and gradually built up. They are the most effectives scenes in the film as they show the sense of the creeping doom Sidharthan feels. But these are interrupted by a romantic track with songs that adds little to the film and takes away its momentum. A clinical film that doesn’t give in to anger needed a tighter narrative that single-mindedly focused on Sidharthan’s fall. The generic parts of the film make the clinical feel plain dull.
The film also needed better performances to sustain the narrative that goes from one vignette to the next. Sidharthan Enna Njan is interesting for its nuanced treatment of a serious issue and for the landscape and culture the story takes place in. It also talks about interesting ideas around how caste stereotypes are unfairly propagated in the name of folk wisdom (there’s a superb example of how Sidharthan subverts a proverb). But its characters are one-note and unmemorable.