The images of writer Aryadan Shoukath's first film Paadam Onnu: Oru Vilapam, directed by TV Chandran, remains etched in the memory of anyone who has watched it. A scathing look at the practice of how Muslim women are married off to older men before their 10th board exams, the film came with the signature of a director who could turn words into images. This includes the way the women in the film are constantly shown through the frames of doors. In this story about a 10th standard student named Shahina (National Award winning performance of Meera Jasmine), we participate in both her nightmares as well as her fairy tales. A distinct memory of the film includes how the 15-year-old is called out of her classroom during lessons, just so a man twice her age can decide if she's fit to be her second wife.
Varthamanam is the writer's fourth film and his third to be led by a female Muslim protagonist. But the protagonist in Varthamanam has come a long way since Shahina. Faiza Sufiya (Parvathy) isn't tied down by Orthodoxy like her predecessors were. She's a research scholar in a Delhi-based college modelled around the JNU and she hails from a family of progressives which includes her highly educated grandfather who was also a freedom fighter. She wishes to pursue her thesis on a lesser known political figure named Abdur Rahim Sahib who played an important role in dissuading Malayali Muslims from the idea of Pakistan during partition.
But that doesn't mean her time in Independent India is any less tumultuous or devoid of religious tensions. Her arrival at this campus itself happens right in the midst of a protest. Even something as mundane as finding her hostel room includes Faiza navigating the who's who of a students' march. What are they protesting? The stipend of a Telugu-speaking Dalit boy has been revoked for months following a tiff with the members of an in-power political party. His name? Rohan.
Faiza's roommate and closest friend Thusla too is stuck in a similar predicament. If she completes her course, she will become the first doctorate holder from her community. But issues from back home, again related to her caste, are not exactly making things smooth for her. Through Faiza's experiences and the people she meets there, we get a microcosm of India, its people and its politics.
Just when the film appears to be going deeper into the issue of caste, we then move on to religious bigotry and fascism. Faiza's seminar touches upon how we're again witnessing an era of Divide and Rule akin to the efforts of Lord Curzon. This isn't communicated through ideas or events but we literally get Faiza talking directly to us in the form of a PPT presentation, as Bijibal's unapologetically OTT score attempts to make the moment come alive.
Characters are always representations and are never allowed to live and breathe. So when we meet Professor Poduval (Siddique), we know that we're going to be getting a scene where his caste location is used to show how he's an ally, just as how a scene full of mirth at Thulsa's village hints at things getting sour soon. The representations go even further because finally we have a film where all the good guys don't seem like they support one particular political ideology. There's room for differences and it's a film that accepts that. We get a character like Adarsh, who in another film, would have been another enemy. Even the friendship between Faiza and Amal (Roshan Mathew), despite their political differences (he admires Lenin) comes with a sense of camaraderie that we rarely see in our films.
But the film hardly takes any effort to take these ideas any further. There's no conflict, nor is there a debate. Once they unite, it seems like its set in stone. In a sense, the film quickly takes the form of a 'to-do' list with an eagerness to force-fit every pressing issue into its screenplay. Given the timeliness of its message, there's no denying its importance or even its relevance. It's the verbosity of its dialogues and its stagey making that drains the film of its value. This includes the highly amateurish performances of the secondary cast. With a lot of extremely ordinary dialogue-writing, that too in Hindi, it's only their performance that could have made them work. But you'll see none of that. With the exception of the four or five trained actors, almost all of the others look lost in the frames.
Even the bad guys, with their red tikkas and kurtas, appear like the villains in a Shaji Kailas movie. By this point the bottle has become so blurry that we're unable to notice the message that had come with it. That's a shame because the film does manage to question several things that beg to be questioned. In one scene, we see students dressed up as Kalburgi, Vivekananda, Gandhi, Nehru and Ambedkar being put behind bars. It's a powerful visual already but the film goes several steps further to add another character explaining the power of this visual.
Everything is this literal with little room for nuance or subtlety. Ironically, there's a scene in the film where Professor Poduval takes a look at a draft of the play the students are working on and asks them to "increase the visual elements to reduce the reliance on dialogues even further." I wish Poduval had said this to the film's makers as well.