Basheerinte Premalekhanam movie review: Manikandan Achari steals the show from a lukewarm hero in a tepid tale
Director: Aneesh Anwar
Basheerinte Premalekhanam (Basheer’s Love Letter) harks back to the days when televisions were not ubiquitous in India, when the only house in the neighbourhood with a TV or a radio (not as we know it right now, but those boxy thingies, remember them?) would become a social hub even in an urban locality, and when the absence of cellphones and limited availability of telephone landlines made forbidden romances a far greater struggle than they are today.
The story is set in a Kerala village in the 1980s, when the arrival of a TV from the Gelf becomes a talking point in the entire community. Usman (Manikandan Achari) sends one as a gift to the home of the haughty Hussain Haji (Joy Mathew), father of Suhra (Sana Althaf) who has been promised to him in marriage.
Hajiyaar’s radio has already made his home a star attraction in the area. From the first moment the screen of his new Onida TV comes alive with moving visuals, the locals are hooked. The radio is relegated to the interiors of the house while everyone gathers on the balcony each day now to watch films, sports and Chitrageet on the electronic miracle that one of them describes as a radio with pictures and a devout fellow resident labels a “cheythaanpetti” (satanic box).
Basheer (Farhaan Faasil), a tech-savvy polytechnic pass-out, becomes a mini neighbourhood celeb when he does the job of setting up the cheythaanpetti. He falls for Suhra, but of course her situation is complicated.
Basheerinte Premalekhanam is about the hurdles they face in their romance while the goings-on around them – party politics, the battle over a bridge that needs to be built, religiosity and more – provide a peek into the world as it was back then. The title is as much a reference to Vaikom Muhammad Basheer as it is to the hero of the film, since the latter plagiarises the celebrated Malayalam writer’s novel Premalekhanam to impress Suhra.
The opening 20 minutes or so of the film are pleasant. The set-up is promising, as director Aneesh Anwar hits the nail on the head with the tone, look and detailing, including the visuals accompanying the opening credits, injecting humour and nostalgia into his deliberately kinda-over-the-top narrative. At that point, to all appearances, Basheerinte Premalekhanam looks set to be an entertaining, slightly farcical representation of a time when technology had less of a role in our lives, when the current information and entertainment overload had not yet invaded our collective existence and when attention spans were not as limited as they are now, so that a phenomenon like the Onida devil could be the talk of the town for months.
Gradually though, what emerges on screen proves to be of limited depth, and the film settles into a lack of freshness and spark that it does not recover from. Even the nostalgia ride into the 1980s does not go far enough. For instance, for a film that features so much of Doordarshan-watching from back then, it is almost unforgivable that DD’s signature tune – a cultural fixture in those days – is not played even once with the logo. I missed it.
The only thing that remains pleasing from start to finish is Sanjay Harris’ camerawork, which seems purposefully not to capture the magnificence of the Kerala landscape, opting instead for its beautiful niches, thickly green corners and wooded country lanes.
Like director Jis Joy’s Sunday Holiday last week, it is clear that Aneesh Anwar too is aiming at giving us a slice of life, even if he frames Basheerinte within farce. Whatever Sunday Holiday’s failings may have been, it had more content than this one, plus it had Aparna Balamurali’s pizzazz and Asif Ali’s sweetness going for it. Farhaan Faasil, whose second film this is, remains as uncharismatic here as he was on debut in Njan Steve Lopez (2014). This Faasil – brother of Fahadh, son of director Fazil – does not even have age for an excuse, as his leading lady does. Sana Althaf is about a decade his junior and can do little to rev up an ordinarily written part.
The legendary Madhu’s grace and dignity, on the other hand, fills the screen with warmth every time he comes on as Suhra’s late grandfather, the watchful sutradhar and guardian angel of the narrative. Not that his role is any better written than the rest. It is intriguing at first but does not go anywhere, but Madhu… well, Madhu is always just really nice to watch, now and forever, Amen.
Another legend, Sheela, does not do half as well in her over-cutesified role as Suhra’s spirited, supportive grandmother. To be fair, any star would most likely have struggled with a screenplay that requires the old lady to be amused and charmed on seeing a creepy chappie – namely, Basheer – removing rooftiles to peep into her granddaughter’s bedroom. Ewwww!
This is not the only instance of questionable behaviour towards a woman being normalised and humourised in Basheerinte, but then that is all in a day’s work for most Malayalam commercial cinema. At one point in the film, when a man says he does not drink from used glasses, a listener concludes aloud that the man’s runaway girlfriend then clearly does not stand a chance with him.
For me, Sheela and Madhu will always be Karuthamma and Pareekutty from Chemmeen, my all-time favourite Malayalam film. Oddly enough, despite having cast the two stalwarts as a married couple, Basheerinte does not give them a single scene together, unless you count a blink-and-you-might-miss-it joint appearance in a song.
Manikandan Achari has a much smaller role than Faasil and steals the show from right under the titular hero’s nose. It is a pleasure to see him play a character as different from the iconic Balan in 2016’s Kammattipaadam – his calling card so far – or even the simpleton Murugan in the lesser known Ayal Jeevichiruppundu (2017), as chalk is from paneer. There are those who felt that Achari was credited for great acting when all he did was play himself in Kammattipaadam. I disagreed back then, but it is still a relief to get proof of his versatility and a reaffirmation of his genuine talent in this film. The tenderness Achari brings to his character Usman is the closest this film comes to being worth the price of a ticket.
That said, even Achari and Madhu cannot save Basheerinte Premalekhanam from its overall limpness. It is not unbearable or any such thing, what it is is blah.