Director: Muhammad Musthafa
In one of the first scenes in Kappela (chapel), set very much in today's world, we see an old man waiting next to a postbox. He had posted a love letter for an old flame days ago and is waiting for the postman to arrive with her reply. "Why don't you just buy a mobile phone?" Is the question even the postman asks him, hinting at a man who is stuck in time.
The conversation that follows is about embracing modernity too, but from another point of view. Jessie (Anna Ben) and her friend Lakshmi (an excellent Nilja Baby) return to their high-range village on a jeep after a shopping trip to the town. Lakshmi's broken slippers suggest their arduous commute but she quickly smiles when she notices the board of a new textile shop opening up. Jessie joins her in the enthusiasm, hoping that this would soon lead to the opening of a movie theatre, a beauty parlour, a park, and even a beach, for their tiny village to finally grow into a 'town'.
As we zoom in on Jessie, we quickly understand the power dynamics of her family. Her father is a daily-wage labourer and her mother chips in with her earnings as a tailor. Framed through the bars of the window, we learn that the women in Jessie's family are being controlled by her very strict father, to the point where even kids giggling make him angry. The debate about modernity enters this household as well, but the symbols are different. Jessie's younger sister is caught riding pillion with an older boy, and says she needs a cycle to be able to go to school comfortably. As for Jessie, her mother says she needs a touchscreen phone…the kind with a camera.
In Kappela, the mobile phone is as good as a living, breathing character. So, it's important that we know that Jessie's phone is outdated and that her friend Lakshmi doesn't even own one. Even the film's central "meet-cute" revolves around the dialling of a wrong number. Jessie gets just one digit of a phone number wrong, for an auto-rickshaw driver named Vishnu (Roshan Mathew) to start calling her back. At first, she starts getting worried and insists he stop. But the scene in which we see her perception of him change is so effectively written that even the audience can't stop falling for his charm. And when you add Sushin Shyam's lovely tunes to accompany the images of a character that looks like Roshan Mathew, you're as smitten by him like Jessie is.
For Jessie, an outsider like him is also a golden ticket to freedom (almost every shot of her in her village is accompanied by an image of Jesus behind her). What he promises is a life in a big 'town' like she had earlier imagined, one next to the sea. What he looks like is unimportant and neither is his income or wealth. With the proposal of the local rich guy getting more serious, even time is running out. So when she hops on a bus to get to Vishnu, we're really rooting for her.
And that really is the magic of Kappela. It creates a level of comfort within the viewer, only for all that to be taken away in a second. And when we enter the second half, it feels like the start of another movie, this time from the point of view of Roy (Sreenath Bhasi, in one of his best roles yet).
What we observe here is how we've already been trained as an audience to look at certain characters. For us, Vishnu quickly becomes a maryada purushottam, or a version of Ram we expect our heroes to be. We see him helping a lady after she gets attacked by her husband. We also see him taking kids to school, a lady to a hospital and her sisters to a movie, and we're sold on his good character. Add the fact that an actor like Navas Vallikunnu (Soubin's bestie in Sudani from Nigeria) plays the Laxman to his Ram and we're happy for Jessie.
But Roy gets the opposite treatment. His best friend is played Vijilesh Kiriyad (the creep from Varathan). There's not a scene where we see him without a cigarette. We see him drink too and he looks at chain-snatching as a viable career alternative, having been denied a chance to migrate abroad. In short, he's already Raavanan to us and what we make up in our heads with this information is the trick the movie plays on the audience.
Subconsciously, the clues were always there for us to pre-empt this shocker of a twist. Why does a female petrol pump employee behave so strangely to Vishnu? Why does the camera linger a bit too long when Vishnu plans his first meeting with Jessie? The questions were there but the screenplay does a fine job of hiding it from us. Calling the film a role-reversal is simplistic too, because Roy's character is more complicated than that. In the age of social media, it's all about perception, and that's what the film underlines repeatedly. Who you're seeing is just a projection of an image and like Jessie, we too can just as easily be fooled by this.
And that's perhaps why it's easier to see Jessie as a reflection of all of our innocence, rather than a living, strong-willed woman. And had the film's messaging, about Jessie merely retreating to her old life and village not been the final resolution, Kappela may have been a better film. Even the ending is simplistic, playing out like a cautionary tale in the mould of Oru Vadakkan Selfie, giving the female lead little agency and power. But purely as compelling cinema, centered around the audience's personal biases, Kappela is impossible to ignore. It's not just a film we're watching. It's a film that watches us too.