Director: Prajesh Sen
Cast: Jayasurya, Samyuktha Menon, Siddique
In Vellam, Jayasurya plays Murali, a hopeless alcoholic who spends each sober moment looking for a drink or finding money for it. And his presence makes the film watchable. In the early parts of the film, he looks perpetually dazed and stumbles appropriately through his performance. But Murali is not a goner (even though he steals from his own house). He exhibits a degree of self-awareness that’s visible to us. You see that he is aware of his problem. Can he use it to reform himself? An interesting thread throughout the film is how director Prajesh Sen toys with the limits of Murali’s self-awareness.
At times, it looks like he is in control and might be able to fix his problem. It’s in this stretch that we get dialogues where Murali says — with tears held back by alcohol-induced dehydration — that it’s not like he doesn’t understand it when people ask him to quit. What no one tells him is, how? In moments like these, you think that Murali might get better if only he had access to scientific treatment. He has a wife (Samyuktha Menon) and a daughter, after all. A friend takes pity on him and helps him with just that.
And so, Murali gets high — up on the mountains, this time — and checks into a de-addiction center. Scenes that show Murali’s tedium without the thrill of drink and his involuntary visualizations of partying with friends show how his habit creeps up on him in unexpected ways until the pressure explodes—and he breaks. He escapes, desperate for a drink.
This tennis match between his self-awareness (when sober) and thickheadedness (after a drink) is interesting at first, but Prajesh has no variations to his Murali-makes-up-his-mind-but-breaks-at-the-sight-of-a-bottle theme. Like Murali’s see-saw between sobriety and drunkenness, most of the film is spent swinging the audience from pitying him to feeling hopeful about him.
What keeps it watchable, apart from Jayasurya, is the film’s take on alcoholism: it’s a problem but it’s not a vice. A character in the film even says that there’s nothing wrong with alcohol as long as it doesn’t run (and ruin) your life. There’s a scene where Murali helps girls above the drinking age get a drink at a bar that won’t serve women. But Vellam isn’t a film that celebrates drinking. The song that plays in the bar is about unrequited love: like Murali’s own. Prajesh recognizes that alcohol can be helpful.
So, in a film that takes an enlightened view of addiction, when Dr. Subrahmanyam (Siddique) who runs the rehabilitation center lashes out at Murali for breaking his vow not to drink, it runs against the grain of the film. You’d think that the only reliable way to reform someone was to scare and shame them as individuals worthless to society—basically, shock treatment. For a film that lovingly chronicles the many ‘cuttings’ Murali has at different locations, it spends very little time showing how he becomes de-addicted. He didn’t have to go to a de-addiction center if homilies about responsibility could fix his problem.
Because sequences that depict the way Murali returns to normalcy are presented as montages, they don’t have the specificity or detail of scenes that depict his drunkenness. Murali is more convincing (and relatable) as an alcoholic than as a businessman. It’s not that we don’t believe in his change. It’s just that he is far more endearing drunk than sober. Vellam is basically Murali’s staring contest with his next glass, with little else going on.