Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu movie review: Biju Menon is magnetic in a sweet but rose-tinted tale
Director: Ranjan Pramod
Biju Menon could stand in front of a camera staring aimlessly for an hour, and somehow make that work. His comic talent, his knack for subtly suggesting that something else beats below the seemingly frivolous surface and his chameleon-like ability to supplement comedy with gravitas and poignance at the drop of a hat are the fulcrum of Ranjan Pramod’s Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu (Signed: Patron Baiju).
The film is set in Kerala’s languorous interiors, in a kinda sorta village called Kumbalam far removed from the urban bustle although Kochi is within touching distance. Time seems to stand still here. Those who leave zip ahead of those who stay back. As it happens, many Kumbalam residents simply do not want to leave.
Menon plays Baiju, a work-shirking government official who pours all his energy and passion into mentoring local cricket-loving boys. Thirty-six years back as an eight-year-old, he began playing the game on a vacant plot of land in the area. He never stopped.
Baiju is a founder member of the club/team Kumbalam Brothers. The Brothers and their playing ground are a microcosm of life in this village, which is reluctantly becoming a town and might be a city someday soon.
Baiju is a kind man, the sort who is exasperating to have as husband, father or son, but great to have as a neighbour or friend. Most of his time is spent away from home and office, on the field with his boys. He is a senior citizen in comparison with them, but continues to be a team member. He is not a man of indifferent cricketing talent, but his role in Kumbalam Brothers is way beyond that. He is their captain, patron (rakshadhikari), mentor, father figure, elder brother and buddy, often at the cost of short-changing his own family.
He is the one the boys turn to when a rich parent will not pay for a desperately needed cricket kit. He is the one they confide in through heartbreaks, career struggles and personal loss. Of course there are those in the village who take him for granted, but never with malice. The boys though are utterly and completely devoted to Baiju with every cell of their beings.
In short, he is everything to Kumbalam Brothers and they are everything to him.
There is much that is beautiful in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu. The innocence of Kumbalam’s inhabitants, the simplicity and lack of complication, Baiju’s own delicious lack of ambition for himself are all designed to make a city dweller yearn for another way of life. Besides, the pacing — slow and almost sleepy — perfectly complements the seeming aimlessness of the protagonist who is content with his choices even while he celebrates the successes of those who move on.
The humour too is under-stated, like everything else in Kumbalam. Nobody tells jokes, they are just funny, real, believable people.
Ranjan Pramod has had greater success so far as a screenwriter (Manassinakkare, Achuvinte Amma, Ennum Eppozhum) than as a director (he has helmed only two other films so far). That he is a gifted writer is evident in the manner in which he creates about a dozen memorable characters in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu without making the film seem crowded. There is Baiju’s sidekick (Aju Varghese) who is searching for a white-skinned bride, there is the team member wooing the pretty woman who lives right next to the playground, the irritable old man whose property also adjoins the playground, Baiju’s slow friend and — though women are marginal to this film’s proceedings — Baiju’s complaining yet loving wife Ajitha (played by the stunning Hannah Reji Koshy) who is thankfully not turned into a ‘nagging shrew’ stereotype.
The casting has been done with great attention to detail, the exception being a construction team whose voices we hear in the end — no doubt we are meant to assume that they are north Indian, but their accents suggest that they are Malayali actors who speak Hindi fluently. The rest though are a roll call of fine artistes, established and unknown. Menon, of course, is fantastic.
Although it seems like nothing much happens in this film, it is packed with stories, sub-plots, satellite characters and meaning. Without sermonising, for instance, it quietly throws light on the colour prejudice and gender segregation rampant in Kumbalam, which is a mini Kerala unto itself. Women are unwelcome on the playground, but are allowed to stay when they put their foot down. Dark-skinned people are accepted in the fold when they stick to their guns.
What is jarring though is that in comedifying that colour bias without qualifiers in a relationship involving a Kumbalam Brothers member, the film unwittingly trivialises the pain it can and does cause. In many ways, Pramod also betrays the narrowness of his male gaze when he reduces each woman’s existence to being someone in relation to a man in this story, not a person unto herself, and when scene after scene goes by with not a female human in sight. It is as if he — like the men in his film often do — forgets, or wants to forget that women exist.
So Ajitha, though not a caricature, is still someone Baiju is happy to leave behind at home. One Kumbalam Brothers player describes the cricket ground as oxygen away from a clingy wife (we have no idea what she thinks). Later, when a woman breaks up with a man she has not even fully hooked up with, the fellow’s friend promptly describes her as a user and a tease. This is the only kind of conversation they ever have about women. Yes, such situations and talk happen in real life — the point is the lack of a countering voice from the filmmaker.
Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu also tends to romanticise the countryside. Except for pointing out the need for medical facilities in Kumbalam, there is no mention of how tough rural life can be, how discrimination (caste, gender, communal and more) is much harder to flee or shrug off in small, close-knit rustic communities than in the much-vilified ‘urban jungle’.
In Shanavas K Bavakutty’s exceptional Kismath last year, a low-caste, poor Hindu girl targeted for falling in love with a well-off Muslim man escapes to the big city where she is shown savouring being a drop in an ocean. Our popular cinema rarely reflects this, but the anonymity metropolises afford can indeed be a great escape. Kumbalam though is projected as an unadulterated idyll. The negative characters are asides, the “them” in the midst of the good-hearted “us”. There are two male villains, but they operate on the fringes. Even the supposedly treacherous female lover seems to be in Kumbalam only because her father is in a transferable government job.
This is a rose-tinted view of what can be a harsh reality. Village life is alluring from a distance, but it is definitely not the smooth ride it is often made out to be.
A 360-degree take on Kumbalam might have made this a more mature film. Baiju reminded me a lot of Kunchacko Boban’s Kochavva in last year’s loveable Kochavva Paulo Ayyappa Coelho, but that film by director Sidhartha Siva did not come across as being so selective though it too took a romantic view of the countryside.
As it happens, what we are served in Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu is so entertaining and Biju Menon is so magnetic, that it would be easy to not look beyond the sweetness and humour of the proceedings or Ranjan Pramod’s smooth narrative. Not counting the needless ‘lesson’ stuffed in our faces in the end, which under-estimates the audience, Rakshadhikari Baiju Oppu is fun and, in its own way, insightful, even though it chooses to tell only part of a story — the charming part, of course.