C/o Saira Banu movie review: Manju Warrier lends warmth to a relevant but patchy film
Director: Antony Sony
Manju Warrier is a sweetie. There are no high-falutin, sophisticated adjectives that could describe her better. She is a sweetheart who fits well in a David-versus-Goliath scenario, because her David is one you so want to root for.
In debutant director Antony Sony’s C/o Saira Banu, there are moments when that quality spills over into self-conscious cutesiness, but for the most part she is reined in at just the right point. There are also moments when Sony seems too aware of her beauty and charm, when he indulges in needless close-ups, lingering more than required on that pretty face, that sharp nose and those trademark large eyes. His awareness too, fortunately, is reined in more often than not.
This control is essential to the effectiveness of C/o Saira Banu, in which Warrier stars as the heroine of the title, a postwoman and foster mother to a law-student-cum-photography-aspirant not young enough to be her biological child. The ‘child’ is Joshua Peter (Shane Nigam), whose brief rebellion against Saira in a fit of anger one night, leads to a tragic incident with the potential to ruin his life. Saira, whose formal education ended with Class 10, is pitted against the noted lawyer Annie John Tharavady (Amala Akkineni) in her battle to save Joshua’s future.
It is an unusual conflict, one that is imbued with empathy for the seeming enemy, a determination to protect oneself without taking revenge on the one who has wronged you, and heartwarming female bonding. It has resonance in the present global political scenario of hate, and in so many ongoing national debates, including the one on capital punishment where the bloodlust of the masses and a desire for vengeance seem to override humanity, common sense and the larger social good.
Sony’s direction and R.J. Shaan’s writing are not always polished, but their lack of finesse thankfully does not overshadow the crucial questions they raise through his film. The two also wisely steer clear of being preachy, a trap that a story such as this could have easily fallen into. Saira and Joshua’s differing backgrounds, their unconventional relationship and the assumptions people make based on their names are all introduced without blowing bugles or beating drums.
Still, Team C/o Saira Banu must be called to account for its overly long first half and the many disruptions in the narrative. Too many songs, for instance, a couple of maudlin numbers sung at a gratingly high pitch, and music superimposed on a montage of Saira and Joshua’s interactions to convey the easygoing nature of their relationship in a cliched fashion, all divert attention from the overall mood.
The film does itself no favours either with its sloppy closing scene set outside the state, and a silly red herring thrown at the audience towards the end, to manipulate us right before the appearance of a crucial witness in court. Why exactly did that character risk turning up in the crowd if he was not forced to be a witness? The loose thread is left hanging there.
Such intermittent amateurishness is irritating. FYI Mr Sony, no magazine of Nat Geo’s stature would accept Joshua’s awkwardly structured caption for a prize-winning photograph, however good that photograph might be. In fact, this film needed an English language consultant at several places. Good intentions are no excuse for slipshod direction.
It is a measure of the immense strength of C/o Saira Banu’s theme, that its socio-political relevance and emotional resonance overcome even these distractions.
Warrier has the personality to carry a film on her shoulders. C/o Saira Banu is greatly helped by her charisma and Shane Nigam’s likeable presence – watching him as Joshua, it is easy to understand why a woman might go to such lengths to protect this flawed boy. Biju Sopanam deserves a special mention for his performance as a small-time lawyer and Saira’s unlikely ally.
The clincher in the casting though is Amala Akkineni as Ms Tharavady. Returning to Malayalam cinema after a quarter of a century, Akkineni brings layers to her character as does the writing by Shaan. Her actions are disturbing, yet it is impossible to hate her. The actress is also a nice example of loveliness getting better with the grace and dignity that age brings.
In a disturbingly male-dominated industry, it is a pleasure to see that rare women-oriented project that has heft and is not positioned as an offbeat, weepy non-entertainer. This though is not what makes C/o Saira Banu worth watching despite its weaknesses. What makes it worth watching is its thought-provoking storyline, its seasoned artistes and unexpected suspense.
“Yathartha jeevithathilolla drameyude pakathi polum oru kathayilum illa, Moley,” an old man tells a youngster during the film. “There is not half as much drama in fiction as there is in real life.” Saira’s is a very dramatic story, but at the end of the day she is but an ordinary woman who clutches straws in drowning desperation and ends up pulling a bunch of people including herself out of an intimidating, life-threatening ocean.
C/o Saira Banu examines varying definitions of motherhood without elevating mothers to devi status in a stereotypical manner. The women of this film make morally questionable choices to save their offspring from difficult situations, but it is not as if they let themselves off the hook. They did what they did. They are not saints. They exist. The film makes no excuses for them.
Power games too come in various forms. There are wheels within wheels in C/o Saira Banu, and we are reminded that the David we are cheering on may well be guilty too of taking advantage of another person’s relatively small stature to save her own neck. One person’s David, as Saira Banu learns, may well be another person’s Goliath. It is worth looking past this film’s follies and uneven treatment to arrive at that point.