“However much paint you put on an autorickshaw, it will not become a BMW,” says a man to an aspiring actor in Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan. The reference is to the listener’s looks, which in this film is almost entirely a commentary on the average Malayali’s obsession with light complexions and contempt for dark skin.
Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan (KRR) is the story of a young man in the town of Kattappana in Kerala who wants to be a movie star. Krishnan a.k.a. Kichchoo’s father is a loader. His mother died when he was born, a fact that Senior holds against him. Kichchoo is taunted by the community – his own parent, family friends, schoolmates and others – for his skin colour, but their attitude changes when he bags a small role in a big film. The snide remarks however return when he spends a decade playing an extra – even if a familiar face – in Malayalam cinema.
Director Nadirshah’s film takes us through Kichchoo’s struggles with his career, unrequited love and the crippling bias he faces at every turn.
Anyone who is acquainted with Kerala will tell you that in the collective psyche of India’s most literate state, light is beautiful and dark is inadequate if not ugly. In a 1997 interview, Arundhati Roy toldIndia Today’s Rohit Brijnath this about her growing up years in Kottayam: “I was the worst thing a woman could be in Kerala – thin, black and clever.” If north Indians are by and large convinced that they are better-looking than their fellow Indians south of the Vindhyas, it is equally (sadly) true that Keralites place north Indian beauty on a pedestal higher than their own. KRR is a stinging indictment of Kerala’s white colour preference couched in rib-tickling comedy.
Just as importantly though, Team KRR unwittingly reveals that although they have good intentions, they too have not entirely been able to get past their own social conditioning.
And so, while the nasty barbs thrown at Kichchoo are never glorified in the narrative, the casting tells its own story. Kichchoo falls for Ann Maria who is projected as a beauty. Kani is the next-door neighbour who he barely notices although she is in love with him – she is projected as a plain Jane. Ironically, both women are played by extremely pretty actresses with one telling contrast: in the role of Ann Maria is the light-skinned Prayaga Martin while Kani is portrayed by the dark-skinned Lijomol Jose. The fact that Nadirshah thinks Martin is a stunner and Jose is ordinary reflects his own subconscious predispositions.
Likewise, the hot guy in the film (the one Kichchoo thinks Ann is hooking up with) is pointedly north Indian. And yes, the Rithwik Roshan of the title is an amusingly distorted reference to Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan whose looks – light eyes, light skin and tall, muscular frame – evidently constitute Nadirshah’s ideal of Indian male beauty.
Until the director overcomes his own deep-seated prejudices, there is Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan, a film worth watching despite its flaws because at least it means well.
KRR is written by Bibin George and Vishnu Unnikrishnan who also wrote the director’s first film, the 2015 hit Amar Akbar Anthony. Unnikrishnan also plays Kichchoo while Dharmajan Bolgatty steps into the role of his best friend Dasappan. They are a hoot together and for the most part their conversations had me giggling helplessly. The talented supporting cast includes veterans Salim Kumar and Siddique as Kani and Kichchoo’s respective fathers.
Nadirshah and his actors are blessed with impeccable comic timing, thus giving KRR an unrelenting pace. Film buffs will enjoy the insights into the workings of Mollywood and the multiple references to Indian cinema across languages.
For the most part, KRR’s humour is at once heart-wrenching and hilarious. It is used cleverly to soften the slap this film lands on the collective faces of the audience who must confront their own colour obsession while watching it. There is so much to love in it – the comedy, the messaging, the acting – that its failings hurt more than they might in a crude, unthinking film.
For instance, KRR is that rare Malayalam film which chides a man for assuming that a woman was leading him on merely because she was friendly. It is also that rare commercial Indian film that acknowledges the possibility of a friendship between two people of the opposite sex after the woman has rejected the man’s romantic overtures. But the film’s gender politics is confused and disappointing. For example, Team KRR serves up a running joke about stalking featuring a likeable comedian, rounding it off with the common – and dangerous – Indian cinematic cliché of a woman who is at first disgusted by her stalker but then becomes interested in him.
In a film that is clearly designed to be sensitive, this disturbing track unintentionally reveals as much about Kerala’s reality and Team KRR’s mentality as the story it intentionally tells.
Kattappanayile Rithwik Roshan is entertaining and moving for the most part. Perhaps a day will come when Team KRR is cured of their own prejudices, enabling them to make a film that is truly worth celebrating. This one is a baby step on a dismal cinematic and social landscape.