What's the deal with recent Malayalam movies and their central cast comprising almost entirely filmmakers? We saw it recently with Trance in which all the negative characters were played by directors such as Dileesh Pothan, Soubin Shahir and Gautham Vasudev Menon, with another villain being played by Chemban Jose Vinod, the writer of Angamaly Diaries. Add the fact that the film was shot by Amal Neerad, a director, and this brings up the total number to four, apart from the film's actual director.
Manoharam is another case where there are more directors than actors. Of course, Vineeth Srinivasan (the director of Thira and Thattathin Marayathu) plays the lead in this sweet film. His sidekick is the hilarious Basil Joseph who directed Godha and Kunjiramayanan. We then get VK Prakash in an extended cameo, apart from Jude Anthany Joseph (Om Shanti Oshana) in a cameo. Also, a supporting character is played by Ahmed Siddique, who wrote Mammootty's Gangster. If you're into conspiracy theories, this is perhaps directors colluding to finally take back power from the stars. Then again, this is in an industry where the biggest-ever hit (Lucifer, a film starring directors Fazil, Suresh Chandra Menon and Kalabhavan Shajon) was directed by a star Prithviraj.
The director of Manoharam is Anvar Sadik, who had earlier made Ormayundo Ee Mukham. He seems to be a major fan of Darren Arnosofsky, given the number of tiny montages he loves to insert into his films every 15 minutes or so. Instead of traditional establishing shots, it's again these montages that set the tone before every scene, starting with a lovely opening credits sequence. So even in a seemingly insignificant scene where Manoharan (Vineeth Srinivasan) just asks for directions, we see dozens of tiny shots of kids playing with tops, and men sitting under a banyan tree playing their own board games. It doesn't suddenly make this a great film, but it certainly makes the mundane more…manoharam.
You see this even in the lovingly detailed cuts. In a scene where the heroine's friend blasts Manoharan for getting her fired, the shots are intercut with close-ups of knives carving out slices of shawarma from the rotisserie. Even later, a shot of a flex printer being switched on is cut with Manoharan kick-starting his bike, hinting at the two machines that take his life forward. Again, it's not much but it's an indication of what good filmmaking techniques can do to lift even the simplest of stories.
Because stories don't ever get simpler than Manoharam, which is about a banner and hoardings painter who is forced to modernise to the new world of flex printers and photoshop. What he earns through this pure art-form is hardly enough to keep him afloat, so when his fiancé elopes with a graphic designer the night before their marriage, you don't hate her. She's just moving with the times.
This battle of the old versus new is suggested even in the names of these characters. Our hero is the old-fashioned Manoharan whose tech savvy competitors are people with 'cool' names such as Vijay and Rahul. They ride the latest bikes, while he's satisfied with a Yamaha that's almost as old as he is. But Manoharam is not a film that's about how old is gold. It understands the need for someone like Manoharan to move forward, even if it means exchanging his paintbrushes for the latest printers. What's non-negotiable throughout the film is the true artist who doesn't die just because his tools have changed.
The film is also a case study of what happens when this true artist decides to go into business. Apparently, even the seemingly harmless world of flex printing is a business filled with double-crossing relatives, conniving competitors, fly-by-night scammers and a lot of local politics. But can this true artist with an eye for beauty survive in an ugly world?
Eventually, this too is a film that fits perfectly into Vineeth Srinivasan's sub-genre of feel-good cinema. People do bad things but they always come around at the end. Which means that the film remains comforting even when everything goes wrong.
But all this lightweight drama comes at the cost of some real depth. The term 'inferiority complex' is used throughout the film to describe Manoharan's character. He doesn't come from wealth and he studied in a Malayalam medium school, which means that he doesn't speak any English. But these bits are given to us in the form of information; we never feel this complex ever coming in the way of Manoharan's thought process. Neither do we feel that he is somehow any lesser because of his circumstances.
The love angle too does not add an extra layer to what's eventually a film about the artist finding his way. Apart from these, the DOP also opts to shoot midshots in conversations on a gimbal, which means that there's annoyingly constant movement of the camera that makes regular scenes difficult to sit through.
These apart, there's always the warmth that makes Manoharam a film you want to watch just so it can transport you to a world where there's order and a niceness we all miss today. Is it compelling cinema? Maybe not. It's more a cuddle from your grandmother on a cold, rainy day and that, in its own way, is manoharam.