Now usually, I steer clear of the so-called Award movies; these are the art-house movies, which win awards at various national and international film festivals. These movies are usually preachy, and made for the hard core movie aficionados. They don’t cater to the masses, and most of them do not receive promotions or support from mass viewers.
But every now and then, there comes a movie which does win awards, but for the right reasons. There is something genuinely fresh or new about it, you watch it, and are surprised how such a well made sweet labor of love went unnoticed. This happened to me yesterday, when I watched Manjadikuru, the debut movie of Writer-Director Anjali Menon.
I had heard about this movie earlier, but could not get a good print to watch it, but somehow tumbled on the youtube playlist somebody had uploaded. And I ended up watching the commercial release completely online (the wonders of modern technology).
And my verdict ? It’s a keeper ! If you are from Kerala, and grew up in the 70s/80s/90s, you got to watch this. I don’t think the current teenage generation will enjoy this simple story of relationships and memories the same way we grownups would. I cursed myself for not watching it earlier.
Manjadikuru refers the bright red seeds found very commonly in ancestral homes in Kerala. They are collected by kids for their color, but are not used in food preparations. Many consider them a useless plant, as neither it’s fruit/seeds nor flower is edible. Kids growing up in towns and cities today will not be able to relate to them, but the generation before, like me, have a nostalgic attachment to them.
The entire story of the movie is set in the past, though the exact time is not specified, it is somewhere in the 1980s. In the narrator’s own words, it was when life was much more simpler, before cellphones, before facebook, and before reality shows and tv serials. I guess the viewer is allowed to set whatever time period he wants to to enjoy the movie.
The central character of the movie is Vicky, the 11 year old son of a gulf malayalee couple, who come home to their ancestral home in Kerala to spend 16 days there. And these few days leave him with a lifetime of memories to cherish and learn from. Vicky and family are summoned home to attend the funeral of Vicky’s grandfather (played by Thilakan), the patriarchal head of the family. The whole joint family of uncles and aunts and cousins and distant relatives also are summoned to the funeral. The whole tharavad (ancestral home) is full of people, who have united for the common cause of the funeral, but who have their own problems within themselves and against each other. Vicky feels lost among this cacophony, and his legs are pulled by his cousin Kannan and his kid sister Manikutti. But the small trio of young ones create a small fun filled world of their own, free from grown-up problems.
After the funeral, whole join family is eager to know of the partition of property, and specifically, how will own the big ancestral home itself. The grandfather left a legal will, and there is a lawyer who is about the read it, but the grandmother of the family tells everyone to wait for 16 more days for the will to be read. After a death in a family, the family members traditionally observer 16 days of mourning, which ends in prayers for the departing soul on the 16th day, and a hoisted lunch. This is called the pathinaaradiyantharam, and is held 16 days after the death in the family.
Eager to know of the details of the property division, everyone agrees to wait for 16 more days in the home. This gives Vicky and his gang 16 more days to spend together in the country side, which is what the movie is all about. Vicky learns so much in those few days, of life & death, rich & poor, love & hate in addition to a little swimming . The entire movie is pictured in the lush green countryside of a small village in Kerala, during the onset of summer.
The first thing which stands out, is the casting. Every character is splendidly cast, from the grandfather , right down the little kids, and Roja, the Tamil child servant the family employs. The characters are not that colorful, but are believable and relatable. If you have a bunch of relatives in Kerala (or anywhere else, for that matter), you would have come across such characters.
There is the eldest son (played by late vetran Murali, in his last role) who, after having become a naxalite at one point, discovered religion, and became a sanyasi, after tarnishing the family name. Later , he would confess to his mother and he wore the religious colors as a form of protection, because he was scared for his life.
There is the younger son Raghu (Rahman), who has shifted from the family home and is living in a smaller house in the same land property. There is a case between him and his late father regarding the separating wall. He is the only child who stayed back in the countryside to look after his parents, while everyone else went abroad or away in search of better life. But according to the remaining family members, Raghu did not leave, because he had no where to go, and ended up becoming nothing in life. He and his wife are the parents of the mischievous Kannan and Manikuttee.
There is middle daughter Sujatha (Urvashi), mother of Vicky, who chose to marry a Gulf employed Hari, because she wanted a better life for herself and her family. It is revealed later that she was once in love with someone in the village, but decided to marry a better employed and settled Hari, following her head instead of her heart. She is constantly bickering to everyone, even to her son.
There is the younger daughter Ammu, who is married a government official in Delhi. To outsiders, hers looks like a perfect happy marriage, but her husband (Jagathy) is very unhappy with her, and overworks her at home too. Their teenage daughter having been brought up in the city, hates village life , and wants to run back home. She is having an affair with another distant relative ,a teenage boy.
The youngest daughter , Sudha, is married to someone in the US, and is visibly pregnant. Her husband has not accompanied her, apparently due to his work, but it may also be due to already developed cracks in her marriage. A few years abroad has already transformed her to life’s luxuries; the others are already jealous of her comfortable US lifestyle.
And then there are …the kids. The crown jewels of the set. The three kids who try to enjoy life and the countryside the most are absolute gems ! They first face off, the friction between Gulf educated , well to do Vicky, and the relatively unfortunate Kannan and Manikutty made very visible. Vicky is humble, keeps to himself, and adheres strictly to being neat and tidy. But he is kind at heart, and ready to share his toys and many chocolates as well. The entire movie is narrated by grown up Vicky, so it is his point of view, that we get to see.
Kannan and Manikuttee, on the other hand, grew up in the village. They are smart, mischievous, and talk a loot. Kannan has most of the smartest dialogues among them. And he is also the protective elder brother to his kid sister. His pre-conceived notions about Vicky and the Gulf malayalee lifestyle breaks down fast, when he starts bonding with the every generous Vicky. In the final scenes of th movie, you can see their heart break when Vicky has to return to Gulf, with chances that they may never ever meet each other once the property gets divided.
But the star of the casting show here is Roja, the migrant Tamil teenage home maid. She speaks broken Tamil and Malayalam, and is made to do every chore in the grand house. She does not complain though, even after being over worked and beaten and punished by the family. The grandmother in the family is the only who does not shout at her. Her pain is visible only to the kids, who together hatch a scheme to save her, and to send her back to her hometown in Sivakasi. The kids succeed, of course, and put Roja on a bus home, but she has is found and has to return in the final moments, her return having something to do with the climax of the movie.
The screenplay flows, covering both the wonderful kid’ world, as well as the tumultuous life of the elders equally well. The background music and theme imprints on the nostalgia factor. The scenes are sure to take you back on a journey to your childhood.
My only gripe would be in the songs section. I watched the longer theatrical release, which according to wikipedia, has more scenes and songs than the initial release. None of the songs stayed in my memory. But these can be skipped, as the songs themselves do not add anything new to the movie. The one scene which stood out was the ending of the thiruvathira song, where characters move from the thiruvathira dance steps to taking aggressive fight steps, waking Vicky from his dream turned nightmare.
The dialogues are nicely written. The young ones speak their characters, Vicky, having been brought up abroad, uses English when he is confused about the true Malayalam words. Towards the end, however, his Malayalam vocabulary increases, along with his confidence. The sanyasee maamman speaks in riddles, due to his religious believes. The women in the household all are quick tounged, speak aggressively, along with Raghu, who despises everyone. But, none of the characters speak in the trademark Thrissur region accent. The village is revealed to be in Thiruvillamalai, in Thrissur, where the locas speak in a characteristic regional up-and-down accent. But none of the characters show even a hint of this trait.
After all these problems, the movie ends on a happy note. A happy ending is what the this nostalgic and fun journey down memory lane.