'Movie plots clearly don't excite director Dileesh Pothan as much as true stories where life had come dizzyingly close to becoming like a movie and then, had fused back with life.'
'This means that a conversation he overhears at a tea shop is more likely to give Pothan a setting for his next picture than a brainstorming session inside a conference room,' says Sreehari Nair.
He steals, like his orgasm depended on it.
There's something startlingly seductive about Fahadh Faasil's necklace stealing-act in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Mainour and The Eyewitness).
Beginning with a clinically precise cut, he lets the severed necklace rest for a bit, and then, after feeling its grain and treating it with due respect and care, he wraps the necklace around his finger, and almost calls it toward him.
For Fahadh, here, pocketing a necklace isn't enough: He must also go through the ritual with certain poise.
By his own admission, the big glory in what he does is the weightlessness of his technique.
Fahadh Faasil in Dileesh Pothan's Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is no jailbird-punk; he's an honorable thief with a craft worth celebrating.
Also, if 'Titles above Names' is your style, he's the Man with No Name (like Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, a whistling tune underscores his brightest moments) and it may even be argued that he has stepped out of a Spaghetti Western into dry, dry Kasargode.
While it confines itself mostly to a police station in Kasargode, Kerala, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum's concerns are universal: It's about authority and hierarchies, both in law and in life, about how we see the system and how the system stares back when we're not looking, about the status positions we take and status positions that are thrust upon us, and about the slacker reaches of our bureaucracy.
Oh, and yes, it's also a comedy of anxiety!
Compared to Pothan's debut feature, the magnificently vaporous Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum has a smaller scale but a bigger scope: It's braver, its vibrations travel farther, and it leads you to the fuzziest corners of your heart where taking sides and pointing fingers would both seem immaterial.
While its plot-line hardly thickens, it becomes a movie that explodes in your head.
By the end, you're likely to emerge thinking more clearly.
As photographed by Rajeev Ravi, this a picture soaked majorly in browns and greens, with vigor just this side of dryness.
At a certain point in the film, when Fahadh Faasil's nameless character runs away from the brown-world of khakis and police station walls, and throws himself into a burst of greenery, you may feel like you're watching an innocent primate escape into his natural habitat.
Fahadh's moonstruck nature is never explained, but, quite evidently, there are remnants of a half-lived childhood still rumbling inside him.
And when the time for obeying comes, he takes the system for a bonfire and dances around it.
Norman Mailer had once propounded: 'It's a better world, when the criminals get better, and the cops get better. It's a poorer world, when the cops are dull, and the criminals are dull.'
In creating a thief who's full of imagination and vitality, with pride in his craft, with his Hemingway-like display of grace under pressure, and his insistence on flouting all codes except artistic ones, Dileesh Pothan and Fahadh Faasil may have finally calmed Norman Mailer's twitchy soul!
How will self-righteous Facebook statuses respond to that?
In Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, there are three lives that Fahadh Faasil affects.
15 minutes into the picture, in what is a one-in-a-thousand failure for his craft, he de-ornaments -- during a bus-ride -- the neckline of a lady named Sreeja (Nimisha Sajayan), who turns around and just as a yell escapes her throat, Fahadh swallows her necklace.
After a romance that blossomed over the many boat-rides they'd taken together, back in their hometown of Alappuzha, Sreeja and her husband Prasad (Suraj Venjaramoodu) now occupy different seats in the bus.
Back in Alappuzha, he had his grocery business, and she worked in a supermarket, and now, they're about to take up a different status position in the same retail-ecosystem -- all for love.
They have married out of caste, and a scarcity of water -- the same water that once brought them together -- now threatens to tear them apart, here in arid Kasargode.
She's from an upper-caste family, and he, a comrade from a time past, is perpetually worried if she's ruing her decision to marry him.
When Sreeja loses the necklace, Prasad links it to the callousness with which she views their relationship; in his heart of hearts, he still feels smaller to her.
Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum suggests that the tragedy of authority and social hierarchies is that while we can all pretend they don't exist, society is built in ways that reinforce such pyramidal structures.
It's 'hierarchies acknowledged' when Sreeja's mother roughs her up on discovering her affair with Prasad and, it's 'hierarchies acknowledged', yet again, when Prasad's lower-caste parents accept Sreeja wholeheartedly.
This isn't a picture that looks away from painful realities; it's an unflinching portrait, and not an advertisement for social equality.
It's easy to describe Suraj's performance as steeped in good nature, but look closely, and you'll see how brilliantly he portrays the frustrations of man who has become an immigrant in his own state, as he strains hard to understand the new intonations in a language he has spoken since childhood.
When the passengers in the bus do a gherao on Fahadh, it's only Prasad who treats him with due respect.
And when the passengers round Fahadh up and take him to the nearest police station, he watches them, as their act reflects the very dharma of the alien land: It's a brown, arid land where forces of nature are being constantly trapped -- the sun by way of solar panels, water by way of canals, and artist-thieves like Fahadh by way of law.
It's, however, when the complaint is registered that the great irony of Dileesh Pothan's latest dawns upon us.
There's no Mainour.
If, in Maheshinte Prathikaram, he had added so many overlapping rhythms that the central story of revenge was subverted, in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, Pothan deducts the two words that dominate the posters.
This is a picture that has swallowed its own title!
Before Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is over, worlds crisscross, personal frailties come flooding into the police station, the glow of authority is shed, and they are all swimming in the same cesspool that Fahadh generates.
The picture doesn't shy away from telling us something crucial that a Visaranai, in its earnest desire to supply Exploitation genre juices, had sidestepped: The truth that an unempathetic system is not a standalone entity but an outgrowth of the basic human desire to be seen as virtuous.
By not classifying the police as all vultures, and the common public as all sheep, Pothan and his writers manage to debanalise an entire dynamic.
When Fahadh Faasil's character is caught in the act, the passengers in the bus unify in their berating of him: Some shout him down verbally while others get physical.
Later, at the station, the police sub inspector plays the verbal and the physical abusers against each other, and their unity dissolves in a matter of seconds.
This scene is then replayed inside the high-rungs of the police force, when the circle inspector sets his subordinate officers against one another in a bid to pin down the one officer responsible for the lapse in duty.
It's the great daring of these New Wave filmmakers in Malayalam (Pothan, Rajeev Ravi, Lijo Jose Pellissery), that they don't go cashing in on such mirrors and paradoxes.
Cinema to these brats no longer belongs to a culture of neat tapestry-making or three-act structures.
To these filmmakers, cinema is quilt-making: A piece created through tiny patchworks, and created for an audience to come take the design forward.
Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is a picture, where, if symbolisms have to be suggested they are sourced from within the reality of the scenes.
Like in an exterior scene where the whole system crowds around Fahadh after his guilt is confirmed, Rajeev Ravi inserts a shot of a honeycomb being sucked at by a swarm of bees.
The sound design is a matter of great interest for Dileesh Pothan, and in this picture you're constantly fed gradients of noises as the characters take the most innocuous of turns.
In a scene involving Sreeja and her father, the sounds on the two sides of a bathroom door, amplify the chilliness of the moment.
Rajeev Ravi's frames here are not for beauty; they have a deep logic to them. The characters in his frames become coordinates in the authority-play; telling us how the system sees the accused, how it sees the complainant, and how the complainant and the accused view each other.
Alencier Ley as the investigating officer ASI Chandran (a masterful performance deserving of accolades that those legendary performances in the world of theatre often receive), never shares a frame with Fahadh and Sreeja-Prasad -- his authority requires him to deal with their worlds separately.
It's only toward the end, after their desperations have cross-currented, and their vulnerabilities become collective, that Ravi makes them share a frame.
Quentin Tarantino had a made a big fuss about his usage of 70mm when promoting The Hateful Eight (that there was so much happening in the background that the movie deserved a 70mm); but all that turned out to be mere marketing-talk.
Here, Pothan and Ravi achieve Tarantino's intended effect without any of the bogusery: They map out the scenes so that the many realities happening inside a frame's primary reality are presented to us; the picture then becomes mysteriously alive!
It's in the intimate world of the police station, that the comedy of manners and comedy of anxiety becomes entwined.
You constantly get the two-bit winks: 'Who's the complainant here?' is the introductory question, after which the complainant gets a seat while the accused remains standing; the sub inspector takes decisions inside his room, and the subordinates walk out and take the credit for it; statements are re-crafted based on how flexed the law-muscle feels on a particular day.
The decision to cast real cops in the picture gets revealed as a masterstroke when you see how these cops approach their scenes: they're never going for the laughs, but for those little strands of behaviour.
The script, from what I think is a true story that journalist Sajeev Pazhoor had narrated, has been rewritten on-the-go under the supervision of Creative Director Syam Pushkaran (with the dialogues often improvised by the actors).
It's the kind of guerilla-writing that fits perfectly with quilt-making artistry of the brats.
The narrative of the movie can only afford small deviations and those deviations here significantly deepen the meaning of the picture.
Like that decision to juxtapose Sreeja-Prasad's personal struggle to get married with their struggle for justice, or that sequence when the narrative leaps over a small time-frame as ASI Chandran reads out the statement: Life goes on, as does the endless wait for justice.
ASI Chandran chews on a toffee as he starts to read that statement; it's a toffee that you see Prasad buying as part of the case-registering 'stationery' in the scene before.
If ASI Chandran is the big priest of the case-registering ritual, Dileesh Pothan is a details quack, and after bucking for the story to get established, we now see him flying in all directions!
What Syam Pushkaran irons out are the slightest hints of exposition: As a viewer, you experience something at the exact moment that the characters experience it.
It is Nimisha Sajayan's Sreeja who magically internalises this spirit of surprises suddenly blasted out.
Pothan is a marvelous director of actors, and is almost Bergmanesque in his direction of actresses -- he knows how to capture them in their lone moments, and then show us their public moments, and those two eccentrics together helps him bring to us wholesome female characters.
When Sreeja prays to her local deity and then gets her first bite of authority at the police station, when her statement is re-crafted and it restores her integrity, you get the complete journey of that supermarket girl who's now receiving a crash course on the depths of power.
As in Maheshinte Prathikaram, the post-intermission sequence in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum is one that's unrelated to the core story, and it's a tease, meant to wake us up from the fake world of advertisements and life-affirming messages and wrench us back into the real world where easy answers are hard to come by.
The greatness of directors like Pothan, Chaitanya Tamhane and Raam Reddy -- who are making some of the finest Indian movies of our times -- is that these directors are concerned with big themes, and their pictures expand our perspective and don't just confirm our pre-existing biases.
Of these three directors, it's Dileesh Pothan who starts with the thinnest of plots and then matches his echoes with the other two.
Movie plots clearly don't excite Dileesh Pothan as much as true stories where life had come dizzyingly close to becoming like a movie and then, had fused back with life.
This means that a conversation he overhears at a tea shop is more likely to give Pothan a setting for his next picture than a brainstorming session inside a conference room.
A man's mythologising of his own revenge story and a thief's swallowing of a necklace he had stolen: Gossip that turns into tiny ballads are Pothan's favourite sweets.
By the end of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, power equations are reversed, and the tables turned -- it's the police who now require Sreeja and Prasad's intervention.
And Fahadh himself, after persistently taunting the system, now wants Sreeja-Prasad to muffle for him the droning of hellish voices.
In the beginning, the couple had to be lucky. By the end, they are expected to be brave.
It can be argued that the final three minutes of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, with all that softness, happens to be its weakest section.
What the movie needed was a stop; instead, it goes into the territory of expiation.
But then again, it's a nod to the picture's unwavering ambition that a scene such as that, which in a conventional movie would have even been described as 'beautiful', gets classed as 'conventional' here.
Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum gives us so much of the sun that when its final scene offers us only sunshine, it hurts our eyes.