“When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” This extract from Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist published in 1988 has been repeated so often, in private conversations and on public platforms, in works of art and speeches, that like Mozart’s music, many of us may be familiar with it even without knowing the source and author.
Bollywood buffs will recall Shah Rukh Khan’s character delivering this speech in Farah Khan’s Om Shanti Om (2007): “Itni shiddat se maine tumhe paane ki koshish ki hai, ki har zarre ne mujhe tumse milaane ki saazish ki hai. Kehte hai, agar kisi cheez ko dil se chaaho toh poori kaaynaat use tumse milaane ki koshish mein lag jaati hai.” Dear readers who don’t know Hindi, in a nutshell these words mean exactly what Coelho said.
The new Mollywood film Kochavva Paulo Ayyappa Coelho is a tribute to – and an endearing interpretation of – this oft-quoted gem from the Brazilian writer.
Director Sidhartha Siva’s film is about a diehard Coelho fan in the remote Kerala countryside who cites The Alchemist as often as the average Malayali man flips the edge of his mundu and tucks it into his waistband. The likes of Ajay Kumar a.k.a. Kochavva (played by Kunchacko Boban) are not uncommon in small towns and villages – golden-hearted unemployed people-pleasers who so enjoy serving the community, doing odd jobs, helping whoever needs help and being well loved as a result, that they forget to set the basics of their own lives in order.
In the mornings Kochavva teaches the local children to swim, in the evenings he is their cycling coach. He is the guy who can be depended on to help your family during a festival, a wedding or a funeral. Pressing errand to be run? Ask Kochavva. Emergency situation? Call Kochavva. How does he earn a living? Who knows? Not he.
In that same village lives little Ayyappa Das (Master Rudraksh Sudheesh) whose sole goal in life is to fly on a plane. Each time he is close to doing so, fate intervenes. And then the universe conspires to unite Ayyappa’s dream with Kochavva’s vision. The film is about what happens when the twain meet.
The best of children’s cinema worldwide works well for adults too. Kochavva Paulo Ayyappa Coelho (KPAC) may seem like a film for kids but it does not take their intelligence or ours for granted. It is packed with positivity and wise lessons clearly spelt out for the young ’uns, yet it serves up enough depth to challenge their intellect and keep grown-ups simultaneously engaged.
In aiming for its primary audience, it may occasionally dole out some broad brush strokes – such as the portrait of the village as an idyll and rural folk as almost uniformly good souls – but its intentions are so noble that this is not a criticism at all.
KPAC does not rely on its story’s appeal alone to keep audiences in their seats. It is a technically refined film with some nice camerawork by Neil D’Cunha (though it could have done with better lighting in a couple of scenes shot on the balcony of Ayyappa’s house), picturesque locations, songs that while not being earth shattering are still well suited to the mood of the narrative and some amusing dance choreography involving a bevy of mundu-clad, leg-flashing men.
Boban is the film’s producer and we are reminded at the start that this is his 75th film as an actor. The decision to act in KPAC is a master move since on the face of it it may appear that a star has chosen to take a backseat to a child (a seeming act of courage, supreme confidence, even benevolence some would say), but that is not actually the case. One of the most impressive aspects of KPAC is the fine line Siva walks in his writing and direction to ensure that though Ayyappa is his narrator, neither character overshadows the other at any point in the film.
Such subtlety is not unexpected from the man who made 2015’s Ain, winner of the National Award for Best Malayalam Feature Film. That film was about a purposeless, intellectually slow village laggard. Maanu from Ain was innocence personified, but as different from Kochavva as chalk is from cheese.
This brings us to an important point raised in KPAC. Kochavva is professionally goalless, yet it is clear that he has it in him to be otherwise from the concerted manner in which he sets off to help Ayyappa realise his dreams. In a state wracked with unemployment, there are too many young men out there with misplaced hopes of marrying their lovers irrespective of whether either partner has a known source of income – as if households can be run on love and sexual chemistry. Kochavva is one such fellow. Fortunately, the film does not romanticise this aspect of his character, reminding him instead that he needs to get practical about the business of living.
Perhaps this point could have been further underlined, but at least it is raised, unlike so many other films that do not seem to bat an eyelid about such matters. Considering that so much thought has gone into the messaging in KPAC, it is doubly disappointing that the film unexpectedly chooses to take a misogynistic – even if passing – stand on household duties. Describing the context of that statement would involve spoilers, so I’ll leave it at pointing to a highly regressive lament by a husband in the story who clearly subscribes to the view that home management is a woman’s job rather than a shared responsibility. Et tu Sidhartha Siva?
This passage strikes a highly discordant note in an otherwise uplifting film. It is the reason why book and film consumption by children has to be accompanied by conversations with parents who could provide a much-needed counterpoint to the prejudice we see even in the most well-loved classics, the most entertaining contemporary works.
And entertaining KPAC certainly is. Boban is in fine fettle as the guileless, literarily inclined Kochavva. His amiable screen persona – likeable yet not overpowering in a larger-than-life kind of way – makes him the right fit too for this role.
Rudraksh Sudheesh – whose father, actor Sudheesh, also has a small part in KPAC – is a talent to watch out for. The scene stealer though is the sweetheart playing his kid cousin Ambili.
The character that had me choking on my popcorn with laughter was Susheelan played by the inimitable Suraj Venjaramood. He is the closest you get to a villain in this sanitised film – a mischief maker rather than a frighteningly evil man. Comical drunken louts have been done a million times in Indian commercial cinema, but I tell ya no one can do drunk quite like Venjaramood. He is an intoxicant unto himself.
The film’s cast is a veritable role call of Malayalam cinema’s pre-eminent character actors. The venerable Nedumudi Venu and K.P.A.C. Lalitha play Ayyappa’s grandparents with a loveable charm that comes as naturally to them as breathing comes to the rest of us. Then there is Irshad as Ayyappa’s father, Maniyanpilla Raju as Kochavva’s girlfriend’s dad, Mukesh as a kind stranger in Bengaluru and Biju Menon in a tiny cameo of the sort that films have when they know viewers are already enjoying a game of spot-the-star. Musthafa who played Maanu in Ain makes a small yet memorable appearance as Ayyappa’s uncle.
Hats off to Kunchacko Boban for backing Kochavva Paulo Ayyappa Coelho, which will no doubt attract far more eyeballs because of the star association. It deserves every iota of attention it gets. A pity that it has been released outside Kerala without English subtitles considering that it has the potential to resonate beyond language barriers.
If you make a trip to a theatre to watch KPAC, make sure you are in time to catch the opening credits that play out against an animation-cum-live-action introduction by Ayyappa. Barring one jarring note, this is intelligent cinema for children and their chaperones. KPAC is a darling film.