The lure of Anuraga Karikkin Vellam begins with its poetic name. “Anuraga” means “love” in Malayalam, “karikka” is the word for tender coconut and “vellam” is “water”. String them together and you get “a love that is like tender coconut water (sweet but immature)”.
The film is about a father and son, and a point in their journey when their love lives intersect. It was released in Kerala on Eid and has now travelled to Delhi.
Biju Menon plays Raghu, a conscientious policeman who sees red when men misbehave with women. He often gets violent with the culprits in such situations, even inviting disciplinary action for taking the law into his own hands (one assumes the punishment is because he does so in public, instead of within the four walls of a police station, away from cellphone cameras).
His concern is genuine, but he has not been able to build that up into a meaningful relationship with his wife Suma (Asha Sarath) who longs for an expression of affection from him but takes no initiative to romantically express herself. You know they care for each other, as do many couples in boring middle-class homes across the country, but there is no spark in their humdrum existence. He dutifully fulfills all his responsibilities towards the household, does not have a wandering eye, and is home on most evenings for dinner. She cooks, cleans, watches over their children and serves him. It is a routine that is mechanical and dull, until his first girlfriend unexpectedly returns to his world.
Asif Ali plays their son Abhilash/Abhi, an architect on the threshold of life. He is a bit of a layabout when we first meet him, choosing to hang out with his friends swigging alcohol rather than investing time in his profession. He has a girlfriend called Eli (Rajisha Vijayan) who he finds too clingy. It is hard to blame him since she seems to have nothing to do other than constantly phone him to find out what he is up to, where and when. The friction with Eli leads to a misunderstanding involving his father and the aforesaid ex.
And so it goes…
Will they or won’t they shake themselves out of their inertia? With Mom and Dad moving like automatons and Abhi not seeming to move at all, there is much to be yawned over in their story.
Their ordinariness is the film’s driving force, and debutant director Khalid Rahman manages to extract humour, warmth and social insights from this unexceptional domestic set-up. In a deeply patriarchal national cinematic scenario where barely a whimper is heard about 30-year-old Radhika Apte being cast as the wife of 65-year-old Rajinikanth’s character in Kabali, where the casting of 28-year-old Anushka Sharma as 50-year-old Salman Khan’s girlfriend in Sultan is deemed routine, it is interesting to see Biju Menon take on the role Asif Ali’s father though just 15 years separate them in real life. As we all know, women routinely prematurely play mommies so it is not unusual at all though that Sarath is just 12 years older than Ali.
The point is, first, that Menon looks the part, therefore the casting works within the context of the film; second and more important, that the mere act of making such a choice is a statement within the context of the industry and society he operates in, so hats off to him.
With such an uncommon starting block, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam holds out a promise of being uncommon — and it is. It is not flawless, but it still has plenty of material for a discerning viewer.
The film is filled with acute observations of Kerala society, conservative middle-class life and man-woman relations. Such as that scene in which a busy mother tells her kid daughter to help with the dishes once she finishes eating, without for a moment considering making a similar request to her son or husband who are also both present. Or the physical awkwardness between a couple who have procreated together yet do not openly display fondness for each other. Or the fact that Eli is a qualified professional but her sole focus seems to be the goal of loving and being loved by a man. Or Abhi’s reaction to her, and the realisation that he appears to have lost interest in her for no other reason than that she became overt in her expressions of interest in him. Or the way he mindlessly flits from his primary field to a call centre, in a state that boasts of enviable education levels but little career counselling and a high unemployment rate, as a result of which professions are chosen too often based on potential job security or Gulf-worthiness rather than passion. Or the uncontrived Hindu-Muslim-Christian composition of that group of friends hanging out together, in a state where both minority communities form a far larger percentage of the overall population than they do in the country as a whole — the cosmopolitan nature of the group, quite understandably, does not merit comment and yet differences are unapologetically acknowledged.
There is no lecture here, no sermon on secularism, equality or the government, but nor is there a glorification or trivialisation of social negatives. What happens happens, as it might in real life.
Director Rahman and writer Naveen Bhaskar have infused the proceedings with an unaffected air and a natural flow so captivating that it is tempting to overlook the handful of disruptions: the chain of circumstances that puts Raghu in touch with the woman he believes to be his former girlfriend is confusing to say the least, the actions of Abhi and Eli’s friend in the end are unconvincing, and portions of the climax are borderline silly, not only because silly characters do silly things, but because the narrative itself becomes somewhat farcical.
Forgiveness comes easy though, since the film has so much to offer. Raghu and Suma are incredibly cute together in those moments when he tries his hand at romance. And the scenes featuring Abhi with his boy buddies are hilarious. Soubin Shahir’s Fakru/Fakruddin is an absolute killer — both the actor and the character leave a mark. It needs to be said though that there was an “inn logon mein aisa hi hota hai (that’s how it is with these people)” populist feel to that needless aside about his parents having another child, a happenstance that takes on so much meaning in the present global atmosphere of prejudice and hate.
While Ali and Vijayan acquit themselves well enough as the often juvenile young leads Abhi and Eli, it is Menon and Sarath as parallel leads who make this film what it is. The senior actors lend dignity and charm to their characters as only they can. Sarath needs to be especially lauded for this achievement since she is greatly hampered by the limited character development of Suma.
Therein lies Anuraga Karikkin Vellam’s flaw. It is an enjoyable, gentle, lyrical film that tells us much about Raghu and Abhi, but not enough about Suma and Eli. It is no doubt a pleasant experience, but the superficial treatment of Suma in particular robs it of considerable depth.
Still, the husband-wife interactions and the evolution of the father-son bond (very different from the standard Indian film treatment of this relationship) are well worth the trip to the theatre.
As Raghu and Abhi ruminate over the women they have loved and lost in one scene, Dad says: “Love comes and goes, but even when it goes, it leaves something good in its wake.” Always and forever. Raghu-cheta, you hit the bull’s eye with that one.