Director: Mahesh Narayanan
Cast: Parvathy, Kunchacko Boban, Asif Ali, Fahadh Faasil
When we first meet Sameera (Parvathy), she's missing a certificate. She's at the Department of Health, applying for a job as a nurse in Iraq, but they won't give her the necessary papers unless she produces that certificate. She screams, in frustration, at an official. She calls her son, asks him to search their computer. A colleague, Shaheed (Kunchacko Boban) offers to help, but she refuses. Later, she grudgingly accepts.
We've already been told, at the beginning, that the events in this film are based on the 2014 crisis, when nurses from Kerala found themselves captives of the IS in Tikrit – so why this obsessive account of the hunt for a missing document, something that seems, at best, a small note on the margins of a much-larger story?
The answer is this: we are being told, gently, that Sameera doesn't need to go to Iraq to get embroiled in a crisis. Her life is already in a state of strife. There's that document, failing to retrieve which she will not go to Iraq, and if she doesn't go, she won't make enough money to send home to her parents, which means the family home may have to go.
There's a streak of self-sufficiency that won't allow Sameera to ask the boy next door for help to fix a leaky roof, but maybe it's just that she doesn't want to deal with men anymore. She's divorced. Her (male) supervisor has been assigning night shifts to her, four weeks in a row. And worse, Shaheed is soft on her. Love is the last thing she needs.
The first half of Mahesh Narayanan's impressive debut feature, Take Off, is breathtakingly brilliant. It paints a portrait of a woman who wants nothing more than to go to Iraq (of course, she'll spend the second half wanting nothing more than to get away from there). Narayanan doesn't take the easy route. He doesn't, for instance, make Sameera's ex a monster. Faisal (Asif Ali) is just a traditional man from a traditional Muslim household that expects her to cover her head and stay at home.
When Faisal asks her why she needs to work, we get a wonderful scene – one of many. Instead of exploding with indignation, Sameera simply smiles and asks if he's going to give her the money she needs to send her parents. It isn't a taunt. It isn't coming from a place of women's lib. It's just a shrug of the shoulders, something that just has to be done.
The first half of Mahesh Narayanan's impressive debut feature, Take Off, is breathtakingly brilliant. It paints a portrait of a woman who wants nothing more than to go to Iraq (of course, she'll spend the second half wanting nothing more than to get away from there)
There is much melodrama in Sameera's life – her son has yet to be told about the divorce; later, when he joins her in Iraq, she has to find a school for him, one whose syllabus he can follow – but the film is remarkably unmelodramatic. As is Parvathy. When her son asks about his father, she doesn't turn away, with quivering lips and eyes pooling with tears. She looks the boy in the face, wincing at the effort at keeping all those emotions in check. Sameera is a brave woman, and Parvathy gives a brave performance, aided by superb character writing. When she's forced to wear a burqa, it isn't a moment of outrage. The circumstances, instead, make us smile.
Then the second half happens. War happens. And the film does Sameera – and us – a minor injustice. Sameera and her colleagues are now captives, and the focus shifts to the steps taken to secure their release. A woman's story becomes a man's. Fahadh Faasil (breathing quiet dignity into a stock character) appears as Manoj, an official at the Indian embassy in Iraq, and though we still keep eavesdropping on Sameera and her colleagues, the film's dimension shifts from the personal, the psychological to the physical, the logistical. It's no longer about "How do I handle this information my ex has just hit me with?" It's about "How do we get a sat phone across to the hospital you're trapped in?"
The film, thus, lands in a Roja-meets-Airlift zone. These portions are still very well done. The director isn't after your average rescue thriller. He wants to explore this chapter of recent history, and even through the fictionalising techniques, we sense documentary-like precision in the way information has been gathered and is now being disbursed to us. Who called whom? How was this deal brokered? More importantly, the facts that ground this fiction. Like how Indian nurses get more respect outside the country. Like the number of patients in Iraq having increased by 30 per cent. Like the fact that Sameera's hospital is near Saddam Hussein's palace.
The production values are outstanding. Cinematographer Sanu John Varghese is no stranger to this territory – he shot Kamal Haasan's Vishwaroopam. He bleaches the screen of vibrant colour, and the jittery frames take on an urgency that sucks us right in. At one point, Sameera is giving her son a wash. The calm moment is blown to bits when a bomb explodes behind her. The filmmaking is so precise, I jumped out of my skin. Which is exactly what Sameera would have done. The only downer is the background score, which is insistent on reminding us how tragic all this is. We don't need that cello. These faces are enough.
The Iraq-set portions reinforce the good-Muslim/bad-Muslim divide. An Iraqi doctor, for instance, refuses to treat a terrorist because Islam does not condone killing, and it's an Iraqi who risks his life to take Sameera to the Indian embassy. And in the film's most contrived episode, Shaheed discovers one of the terrorists is a Malayali. But we don't need these bits of political correctness, because, back in Kerala, we've already been presented with the idea of a good Muslim, none more so than Shaheed, a man so decent he makes you weep. As amazing as Parvathy is, Kunchacko Boban delivers the film's trickiest performance. He plays a saintly man without making him a saint.
At one point, Sameera is giving her son a wash. The calm moment is blown to bits when a bomb explodes behind her. The filmmaking is so precise, I jumped out of my skin
And his disappearance from the second half – as Manoj and his colleagues take over – is a reason we don't feel as much. If this seems like a complaint, it isn't. It's just that I was greedy to spend more time with Sameera and Shaheed, with that little boy whose awakening into adulthood is underlined with the subtlest of transitions (when he realises the upheavals at home are nothing compared to what's happening in the world around), and even with the nurses who leave behind the very families they are earning money for.
Even when it's clear they cannot stay at the hospital anymore, some of the nurses refuse to leave. One of them says she won't budge until she's paid. You slap your head at her stubbornness, because what's money when you may not live to spend it? But then we get the reason. The salary they'll make once they return to India won't even pay the interest on the loans they've taken. They need this money. Because your family will be happy when you return, but that happiness will last just a day, just till they realise you're safe. And then, when reality hits, when you see those loans haven't gone away, the struggles start again. The war, in other words, is never really over.