Despite its stiffness, in Aarkkariyam, a supernatural glow does shine out of the ordinary, notes Sreehari Nair.
For those who cannot stomach spoilers: I am going to begin by dropping a big one.
Halfway into Sanu John Varughese's Aarkkariyam, the house in which most of the story takes place, where the characters spend their time milling about, praying, cooking, licking their wounds, where they try to feel each other's pulse and where they try not to step on each other's toes, this house, is revealed to be a morgue.
It's a sensational revelation, but do not expect it to be underscored by lightning or followed by a general quickening of affairs.
The man who makes the revelation does not pause to reflect, the man who takes in the revelation does not go for a demonstration of outrage.
Sanu Varughese's film is about the psychological effects of murder, expressed not as a grand operatic piece but as a hum.
Just like how the aforementioned incident plays out so does the rest of the movie, and its background score, which floats by unannounced, is dissipated into the air and is abruptly called back at numerous points. And all this, you come to realise, is by design.
Many scenes might seem to you 'less' than they ought to be. Yet, this relentless holding back, this coolness of attitude, becomes the film's style.
You cannot tell with absolute surety if the performances are brilliant or any good at all, but you can tell why you may be left feeling so indecisive.
Varughese wants to create something mythopoeic, but without bringing into play any of the popular conventions of myth-making.
Aarkkariyam, or at least a big part of it, is told from the point of view of Roy, and Sharafudheen has to do something very tricky with his role: He has to give an almost motionless performance, as a bloke mired in self-doubt and upon whom a burden gets thrust.
It is lockdown time and Roy and his wife, Sherly (Parvathy), move from Mumbai to Sherly's ancestral home in Kerala, where her old man, with eyes that miss nothing and who wants his grey hair to be constantly acknowledged, waits for the couple.
The home is located in the high ranges of Kerala -- and I can see this setting (with its lushness providing the perfect mask for everything grisly) turning into a staple of Malayalam cinema.
Aarkkariyam is about what happens when, in such a sleepy town, odd things start occurring to an ordinary, even a somewhat boring fellow.
Roy is Jeffrey Beaumont from Blue Velvet, and yet, not quite (what he doesn't have is Beaumont's taste for kinkiness).
The zinger in Aarkkariyam is that this average curious guy, who could easily pass off for a mod professor of mathematics, is confronted with truths darker than he can possibly take on (The final shot in the film has him staring, as if into a weighty future).
Staring back at Roy, with a crooked smile, is the film's invisible protagonist: God.
The title, though it contains no explicit reference to Him, translates to 'God Only Knows, and is a phrase that Malayalis often throw around with a casual shrug to emphasise goings-on that lie beyond human comprehension.
Here, it is used to make sport of that fundamental delusion in our nature: one that allows us to classify all our mistakes as 'God's doing'.
As I said, this is not a film blessed with performances that can, as such, be qualitatively analysed.
And yet, this is very much a film that brings to the surface its actors' not-often-publicised strengths and weaknesses.
Biju Menon is one of our major artistes, and it would have taken a major artiste to portray the old man, Ittyavira, as someone whose irritations bear testimony to a life that's now infested with serious gaps in memory.
Parvathy's performance as Shirley proves yet again that she comes into her own, primarily, as a force pitted against society and its conservative ways.
In a film that by and large expects the actress to 'behave convincingly', she feels most alive in a scene where Shirley has to convey the pain of being seen patronisingly by her relatives.
Those who have watched Sharafudheen before (and taken note of how nutty he can be) would be correct in viewing the actor's performance here as evidence of his range.
This is a character whose highlight emotions aren't very different from each other and such personages are what test your generosity as a performer.
There's a terrific scene in the film (probably its best scene) which has Roy gulping down shots of low-quality arrack, and there, his co-actor, Pramod Veliyanad, completely owns the environment, and Sharafudheen has the good sense to hold himself back and let Pramod flower.
Sadly for the movie, what gets lost in all this held-back-ness is a sense of its characters having shared a real history together.
We hardly get to see any throwaway reactions. And the people uttering their lines don't give you the impression that they know each other well enough to let their utterances if need be, vaporise into illegibility. Every word, every punctuation, is pristinely emitted -- and that grates on your ears.
When Roy prepares dosas for Shirley, the whole act feels as organic as Leopold Bloom bringing Molly her breakfast.
But then, they start hurling little nothings at each other, and the naturalness wears off before the next round of batter can be poured.
The dialogues are too polished, in that they don't contain the frustration and the slight annoyance that come with speaking to someone you know intimately.
Also, the switching between languages (Malayalam, English, Hindi) sounds forced, and the only person to ace the transitions is Saiju Kurup -- who swears one way when discussing the details of a business deal and another way when broadcasting affection.
This is cinematographer Sanu Varughese's first film as a director and it says things about him -- some of which point to a strong sense of individuality; others, to artistry which is not yet fully formed.
Like his dialogues, the lockdown-specific details that Varughese works out are nothing too efflorescent. And they suggest a puny and a rather narrow vision of the world.
But then, there's also a stubbornness about Varughese's vision -- which is often a sign that you can grow in certain specific ways as a film-maker.
I think Varughese's sensibility rests on his yearning for a Kerala that he was born into and one that he later left behind while shifting his base somewhat permanently to Mumbai.
He could not get out of Kerala fast enough. And now, he has acquired the eyes of someone who sees the land of his birth as an exotic place, a place that hides inside its everyday details a million mystical tales.
Despite its stiffness, in Aarkkariyam, a supernatural glow does shine out of the ordinary.
There's something especially personal about the way Varughese draws out the religious scenes.
Watching those scenes, I got the feeling that the rituals he witnessed in his childhood are hoarded up inside him like passages from a black theatre.
When the old man, Ittyavira, prays for the atonement of his sins, he expresses both the austerity of the super-pious and the cynicism of someone who has arrived at the end of piety -- he's the Pope and he's E K Nayanar.
Feature Presentation: Rajesh Alva/Rediff.com