It's a village in Payyanur. A religious rite is in progress. Someone has died, and prayers are being offered so that his soul may rest in peace. But here, the peace slowly begins to disappear. The officiating priest doesn't seem to know the significance behind the rituals. The "helpful" people around begin to chip in, with "helpful" comments and suggestions. Gradually, we see that one man is beginning to stand out, being more "helpful" than the others. He's one of those old men we know all too well, someone with no sense of time and place and propriety, someone to whom the feelings of others aren't all that important. He'll say whatever he wants, whenever, wherever. Crotchety, cantankerous, grumpy, ornery — you can throw the thesaurus at him, and every single descriptor would stick.
His name is Bhaskaran (Suraj Venjaramoodu), and he's the protagonist of Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, written and directed by Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval. For a while, especially after the hilarious "sambar" joke at a local eatery, the film feels like the "amusing and easy rhythms of village life" drama that Malayalam cinema does so well, with characters being slowly sketched out with similarly easy rhythms. (Nothing is forced.) After a fall, Bhaskaran needs a caretaker, and one of his questions about the first one who takes up the job is about her caste: "Is she a Poduval?" (Refer, again, to the director's name.) It's not something we should be smiling about, but we do because he is an old man who is set in his ways — but more importantly, because his son, Subramanian (Soubin Shahir), softens the sting by noting that she belongs to a caste that's higher than theirs.
Subramanian is the story's motor. He is a mechanical engineer in his mid-30s. Bhaskaran keeps finding ways to keep him around, refusing to let him go anyplace else for a job (even if Subramanian says he'll take his father along). And the story slowly takes a turn into darker territory. Subramanian gets a job in Russia, and we get a superb scene where he tells his father that he is not exactly happy leaving him. But Bhaskaran doesn't even look at him. He just comments that his son is not a cow that he can keep tethered to a post. Soubin Shahir, as always, does so much by doing so little "acting". He seems to be like water. He takes the shape of the character he pours himself into. In a film like Sudani from Nigeria, he comes across like an opportunist. Here, the same face, the same expressions register filial love and helplessness and a mild defiance that makes him finally snap free from the tether.
Soubin Shahir, as always, does so much by doing so little "acting". He seems to be like water. He takes the shape of the character he pours himself into
In other words, Android Kunjappan doesn't take the easy way out. The drama (and, yes, a lot of comedy) arises from Bhaskaran being left alone after his son moves to Russia — but Subramanian is not the "bad and selfish son" we usually get in these stories. That would make it so much easier to sympathise with Bhaskaran. But here, we feel for both characters. As Subramanian says, his hair is falling and he isn't married. But Bhaskaran doesn't seem to care because his son's marriage may complicate things. It may bring a new person into the household. He just wants Subramanian around because he is scared he will die alone.
But his loneliness — after Subramanian leaves for Russia — is alleviated in the most unexpected way. Subramanian's high-tech company has created an android that's like the world's best butler, capable of doing everything you want done. On a quick trip home, Subramanian brings it along and programs it for his father. This development requires a huge leap of faith from the viewer. For one, the Russia scenes are weaker than the ones in Payyanur. But more importantly, we are asked to believe that a company that knows that its robots could malfunction would casually send one along to a remote village. Forget the fact that someone could inadvertently end up damaging such an expensive piece of machinery. The machine could end up killing someone.
As the film progresses, the narrative becomes more unfocused. For the cussed old man that he is, Bhaskaran's changes of heart (or even his acceptance of Kunjappan) come about a little too easily. And a quasi-romantic angle isn't able to decide whether it wants to be light comedy or drama
This contrivance could have been written more convincingly, but it's also what makes Android Kunjappan so unique. Films with androids and robots are usually sci-fi action spectacles. This is more a humanistic drama along the lines of Steven Spielberg's AI or ET. As in the latter film, government agents take the "creature" away, and it even ends up in a mundu, which reminded me of ET's Halloween costume. And like ET, the "alien" ends up in a very normal residential neighbourhood, which opens up all kinds of comic possibilities. (The villagers want selfies with the android and name him Kunjappan.) And like the 1950s sci-films (say, The Day the Earth Stood Still), the "other" is used to comment on humanity's faults — say, Bhaskaran's obsession with caste or the priest who says only Hindus can enter a temple.
Two ironies instantly present themselves. One, Bhaskaran is such an old-fashioned purist that he doesn't even use a mixer or grinder in the kitchen — and now, his entire existence depends on a machine. And two, despite his guilt-trips on Subramanian, Bhaskaran doesn't really want a flesh-and-blood son. He merely wants a "servant" who won't talk back and obey every single command. He tells Subramanian that he kept calling him to play chess because he actually wanted to talk to his son and he says things like "love is not a duty, it is an emotion", but for me, it looked like he simply wanted a robot that says, "It is my duty to serve you."
The small scenes work beautifully but the bigger themes aren't handled as well. And the unhinged ending is tonally off
We all know men like this, men who are uncomfortable with emotion and choose to remain distant from their own families but can get along amazingly with strangers. That's why it feels odd when, later, Subramanian says his father never made him feel like he missed his mother (after her death). I couldn't see Bhaskaran that way. It's easier to buy Subramanian's jealousy over Bhaskaran's bond with Kunjappan. He shouts, "I looked after you… But did you ever treat me with such affection?" As the film progresses, the narrative becomes more unfocused. For the cussed old man that he is, Bhaskaran's changes of heart (or even his acceptance of Kunjappan) come about a little too easily. And a quasi-romantic angle — Bhaskaran uses Kunjappan to e-stalk a widow (Parvathi T) he is in love with — isn't able to decide whether it wants to be light comedy or drama.
But then, you could say that about the film, too. It's very likeable, very entertaining, but mood-wise, it's all over the place. Subramanian's love interest — a half-Japanese, half-Malayali named Hitomi (Kendy Zirdo) — needed a much sturdier character arc. The horrific black-and-white opening needed a much stronger follow-up. The small scenes work beautifully but the bigger themes aren't handled as well. And the unhinged ending is tonally off. I loved it for what it is, and for the chilling way it conflates the son Bhaskaran has and the kind of son he wants. But it needed a much better lead-up, something that established the Bhaskaran-Kunjappan relationship with far more depth, far less "cuteness".
Suraj Venjaramoodu does far more for Bhaskaran than the writing does. The physical manifestations of old age are marvellously done — the little stoop, the little jerks of the head. But the internal transformation is what's really extraordinary, and I was reminded of what Adil Hussain said recently about acting being less about "hardware" changes (the physical stuff) than "software" changes (the internal stuff). He said, "I define realistic acting as something that has so much depth and concentration of character that I become the bonsai and looking at me, people should see the whole big tree." That's what we see here — not an actor "playing" an older character, but an actor who summons up the very essence of old age. Thanks to his skills, Bhaskaran ends up as miraculous an invention as Kunjappan.