Director: Dileesh Pothan
Cast: Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha Sajayan, Suraaj Venjarammoodu, Alencier Ley Lopez
Pay attention to the first few frames of a Dileesh Pothan movie: there's a nutshell of the story-to-come. Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh's Revenge), Pothan's first film, opens with an image of rubber slippers being scrubbed thoroughly. It isn't until interval point that we realise what this footwear will come to signify.
The opening frames of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Exhibits and the Eye Witness) are less cryptic. They're from a stage play, a love story between characters named Sreedevi and Devettan. He says: "I have got a job. I will now ask for your hand." The similarly named Sreeja (Nimisha Sajayan, who's marvellously real, right down to her unshaped eyebrows) will soon find herself in a similarly fraught situation, after she falls for Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu). He will tell her, "I will marry you."
Is it too soon to be anointing a two-film-old filmmaker an auteur? Perhaps. But there is certainly a sense of a vision that makes scripts from two different writers (Syam Pushkaran wrote the earlier film, Sajeev Pazhoor this one) seem part of a continuum.
We have here the story of Prasad and Sreeja, who, after marriage, move to Kasaragod, because her father disapproved of this match. (It's an inter-caste union.) But the plot points aren't about Sreeja missing her parents, or the fights between the couple – what you'd expect from this premise.
Consider the series of random events that leads to Mahesh thirsting for revenge. A fight breaks out in a place where he's supposed to take some photographs, and this fight leads to one man cycling away, and this man's rash driving leads to the collision of another cyclist with a vendor of fruit, and this vendor of fruit vents his anger on his wife, and news of this reaches the wife's brother, who then asks for a soda, and then another fight breaks out, and Mahesh gets involved…
It's a sort of butterfly effect, and in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, it begins with a sneeze. Had Prasad not felt a cold coming on, he wouldn't have gone to the pharmacy, and he wouldn't have seen Sreeja (he doesn't know her yet) buying a pregnancy kit, and he wouldn't have begun to wonder about this in a gossipy way, and news wouldn't have reached her father, and she wouldn't have known that Prasad was telling tales, and she wouldn't have confronted him, and he wouldn't have tried to apologise, and they wouldn't have had that glass of lime juice, and she wouldn't have realised he isn't a bad man after all…
Filmmakers who take on heavy-duty conceits like the butterfly effect want us to note how clever they are, how tricky their narratives are. Pothan, on the other hand, seems to want to hide these designs. His films are so… unfussy.
We have here the story of Prasad and Sreeja, who, after marriage, move to Kasaragod, because her father disapproved of this match. (It's an inter-caste union.) But the plot points aren't about Sreeja missing her parents, or the fights between the couple – what you'd expect from this premise. It is, instead, about Sreeja dozing off on a bus and waking up as a thief (Fahadh Faasil) is stealing her gold chain. Did he? Or did she imagine it all?
And we come to the third auteuristic trait in this filmmaker: the dramatic titles suggest explosive revenge, or (in this case) a thundering courtroom drama. But the films coolly subvert our notion of what a revenge drama should be like, or how an investigation should unfold.
We get the comedy of a habitual drunk who's kept in police custody simply because his wife and mother want to enjoy the temple festival in peace. We get the interrogation of a youth named Salman, and much later, the statement of a man who says he was… pushed. We get kabaddi players. We get various flavours of cops, who turn the police station itself into a character. Even the festival becomes a character, as we witness it unfolding through the bars of a window in the police station.
Simply put, Pothan's films aren't about the incidents suggested by the titles, but around them. Instead of zooming in, narratively speaking, he goes for the wide shot. This is a generous approach to filmmaking. It says that the main characters are a part of the world around them, and this world needs to be acknowledged as well – even if some scenes (or characters) have nothing to do with Prasad or Sreeja or the thief (also named Prasad; at least, that's what he calls himself). This is also a diffuse approach to filmmaking, taking the scenic route to get from Point A to Point B. That's part of the charm.
The most remarkable aspect of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is the mood, reminiscent of the work of the Tamil filmmaker Manikandan. Save for a snatch of the Ajith-starrer Vedhalam seen on TV, there's very little fourth-wall breaking, very little flash.
There's a sense of timelessness in the way the present slips into the past, and the past sneaks up on the present. At the end of Sreeja's flashback – depicting her wedding – we hear Bijibal's beautiful song, Aayilyam, and then we see that this song is actually being sung in the temple festival, in the present day. Even the events in the present segue into one another without warning. At one point, we are laughing at a cop's interrogation of a passenger who slapped the thief. (He's a… seminary student.) The next instant, the cop brutalises the thief, wanting him to confess.
Or take the early interactions between the two men named Prasad. There's scatological humour when, believing the thief has swallowed the necklace, the thief is fed bananas and asked to take a shit. There's slapstick when the thief pretends to flee while Prasad is taking a pee. But after a breathtakingly shot chase (Rajeev Ravi's cinematography is, like the film, free of flash), the two men end up in a canal, one trying to flee, the other holding on to him for dear life. We want the thief to escape, because we are primed to root for the character played by the biggest name in the cast. But we also want him caught, because Prasad is so desperate to get his wife's necklace back.
Simply put, Pothan's films aren't about the incidents suggested by the titles, but around them. Instead of zooming in, narratively speaking, he goes for the wide shot. This is a generous approach to filmmaking. It says that the main characters are a part of the world around them, and this world needs to be acknowledged as well.
To talk about Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is to talk about its writing. There's a terrific scene where we expect a reconciliation between Sreeja and her father, but it's more about what a supremely decent man Prasad is. (Suraj Venjaramoodu nails a tough role, one that we initially see as shady but gradually warm to.)
The scenes keep us guessing. Our feelings (about whom to root for) keep us guessing. The characters keep us guessing, alternately coming off as 'good guys' and 'bad guys'. In one scene, ASI Chandran (the fantastic Alencier Ley Lopez) is a pathetic cog of the System, endlessly manipulated by his higher-ups – but look at him do some manipulation himself, when he slyly tells Prasad and Sreeja how to frame their story so it will hold. He isn't just someone we see in the police station. He gets a smoking habit, a wife who gently chides him, a daughter. Whether you feel you need to know so much about a secondary character will determine your response to this film.
And yet, here's the masterstroke: we get to know very little about the central character, the thief who instigates the story. Here's what we are given: a hint during the scene where he identifies with a hungry child; an inkling when he mails a letter; the fact that his father's name is Purusha (male), which lends the character an almost mythic dimension (plus, he has no ID card, no identity); the instance where he grabs a rock to smash someone's skull and lets go because he's moved; and a motto. ("One should never give up till the last moment.")
All of this adds up to… a mystery, and Fahadh Faasil gives an exquisitely calibrated performance, equal parts holy fool and wily trickster. He keeps his cards so close to the chest that the performance comes off like the wind. You feel it, but you don't see it.