Take Off movie review: Parvathy’s brilliance headlines a riveting survival saga set in Iraq
Director: Mahesh Narayanan
You know you are having a grand time as a film buff when it is still the first quarter of the year and already your 'Best Indian films of 2017' list has begun writing itself in your head. Take a bow, Mollywood, for having the capacity to deliver an Angamaly Diaries and a Take Off within the same month.
And take a bow Indian cinema as a whole for having the capacity to deliver a Take Off from Mollywood and an Anaarkali of Aarah from Bollywood within the same week.
Sadly, language politics in the coverage of films by the so-called ‘national’ media is such that most English platforms have either entirely ignored or given short shift to two of these three films because they are not in Hindi. Sad, because Take Off is an ode to the Indian spirit, not the Malayali spirit alone. There is that other little matter: it is brilliant.
Well-known film editor Mahesh Narayanan makes his directing debut with a story inspired by the real-life experiences of Indian nurses held captive in 2014 in Tikrit, caught between Iraqi government forces and ISIS. The nurses’ ordeal is recounted through the fictionalised life of one, Sameera played by Parvathy.
Take Off gives us time with Sameera, extensively covering her personal history before placing her in Tikrit, so that when tragedy ultimately strikes, we already deeply care for her.
We see Sameera through professional challenges, as a dutiful daughter asserting the right to provide for her parental home after marriage and fighting the conservatism of her marital home. Within minutes, as the power of Narayanan’s storytelling draws us in, her journey becomes ours. And so we follow her at work, through her romantic relationships, marriage, motherhood and ultimately to Iraq where she travels for a job. It is important that we do so, because by the time she comes face to face with ISIS, we are fore-armed with the knowledge that battle is a habit for her and courage is second nature.
At one point, before the jehadists take over her hospital, Sameera says: How long will I be afraid? Growing up I was afraid of my father, then my husband, and now my son.
It is a turning point in our understanding of her, because while fear itself may be a reflex reaction beyond human control, succumbing to that fear is a choice – a choice this woman does not make.
The escape of Indian nurses from Tikrit was widely covered by the media, so we already know this story’s ending. It is a testament to Narayanan and his co-writer P.V. Shajikumar’s skills that despite this, in Take Off’s final moments they spring a surprise on us drawn from the fictional elements of the script.
There has been talk that Take Off has shades of Airlift. This is an unthinking parallel, because apart from the fact that both are based on true stories set in Iraq involving Indians stuck in conflict zones, the two films are as different as a single apple and an orchard full of oranges. Airlift was entertaining, slickly produced and unusual in that commercial Hindi cinema usually steers clear of contemporary history, but it was also an intentionally dishonest film that painted real-life stars as villains in an effort to build up its protagonist played by Akshay Kumar.
Take Off has integrity. Of course Sameera is the central figure, but she is not artificially lionised by diminishing others in a bid to play to the gallery. The names of the characters in this real-life drama are not used in the film, but several are present: a fictionalised Indian ambassador to Iraq (played by Fahadh Faasil) who engineers the nurses’ escape, a foreign secretary played by Prakash Belawadi, in addition to Minister for External Affairs Sushma Swaraj and then Kerala CM Oommen Chandy, both of whom make an appearance as unnamed voices on the telephone.
Though the ambassador is the kingpin of the op, it is implied that all four are a cohesive team.
Central to the success of this film is Parvathy’s flawless performance as Sameera. She seems not to strain a single nerve or muscle to capture the spirit of our incredibly strong heroine. You would think that she is not acting, she is just being.
The supporting cast is as impeccable. Kunchacko Boban deserves a special mention for his endearing turn as the unconventional man behind this unconventional woman, even if his character provides perhaps the only episode of incongruity and indecisiveness in the film, the only episode in which the writers appear unjust and conservative in their view of a woman's right to make decisions regarding her life or prioritise herself over others.
Faasil holds himself back to just the right degree, to ensure that his character’s heroism never acquires a filmic swagger. Asif Ali’s brief but impactful role momentarily erases thoughts of the godawful Honey Bee 2: Celebrations that is also currently in theatres.
Every tiny role – whether of Indians, Iraqis or others – has been cast with the sort of attention to detail that makes Take Off the work of genius that it is.
Narayanan has co-edited the film with Abhilash Balachandran. Their flair is particularly evident in the smoothness of the intercuts between multiple strands of Sameera’s life in the first hour of Take Off – far from being confusing, the narrative structure serves to highlight the unrelenting nature of Sameera’s struggles. How is this woman not exhausted?
No individual is caricatured here, though it must have been tempting to at least parody ISIS. What you do not show is sometimes as telling as what you do. By hinting at a flash of humanity from a bigot at one point and not clearly revealing the man’s act of kindness (we can only guess at it), Narayanan snubs his nose at the “you are either with us or against us” attitude pervading our world. Life is not a college debating society where you must be for or against a motion, life usually plays out in confusing shades of grey of the sort Narayanan chooses to capture.
This is a thinking man – even the most minuscule element in the film points to that. The use of language, for one. Take Off did not have English subtitles in the NCR theatre where I watched it, but embedded in the film are Malayalam subs that suggest a stance on the country’s language debate. Narayanan clearly does not subscribe to the average north Indian’s vision of Hindi as a language all Indians ought to know or the false notion that it is a language every Indian does know. As characters in Take Off slip in and out of Malayalam, Arabic, Hindi, English and even a spot of Tamil, it is interesting that Malayalam subs come up on screen for the Arabic, English and Hindi dialogues but not Tamil, reflecting the reality of language as it is understood by Take Off’s primary target audience who are Malayalam speakers.
One argument I have with the film is its fleeting lack of clarity on the matter of women’s reproductive rights: without giving anything away, let me just say that under Indian law a woman does not need her husband’s permission for an abortion, although many conservative doctors act as moral police in this matter. The fuzziness here seems deliberate, which is disappointing in a film that is crystal clear with every other point it makes, sans sermons or lectures.
Barring this passage, Narayanan speaks in an assured voice, complemented by world-class technical departments. Sanu John Varghese’s cinematography, Shaan Rahman and Gopi Sundar’s music, the measured sound design (Vishnu Govind, Sree Sankar) and credible production design (Santosh Raman) all contribute towards making this a realistic, thoroughly nuanced, gritty and gripping film.
Take Off is not what might conventionally be described as ‘issue-based’, yet its every word, shot and line brims with meaning. The film is packed with commentary on gender, religion, terrorism, questionable decisions that are inevitable in diplomacy, mental wellness, Kerala society, poverty, unemployment, immigration, the enemy within Islam, the mindlessness of the many who adopt a path of violence without foreseeing consequences for themselves, and more.
In one potent scene, Sameera camouflages a pregnancy by voluntarily donning a burqa, a garment she had earlier pointedly avoided, thus earning her in-laws’ censure. Is she now succumbing to patriarchy? Or is she, as a member of a marginalised social group, cleverly using a tool of exploitation to her advantage, to beat the exploiter at their own game? Like the diplomats in the film who use their knowledge of forces of evil to overcome them?
Did I forget to mention that Sameera is pregnant through most of Take Off? That her resilience urges us to rethink our definition of strength? Or that the beautifully understated use of the national anthem in Take Off should serve as a lesson to those currently pandering to self-styled ‘nationalists’ by foregrounding Jana Gana Mana in a contrived manner in their films?
No I did not, because there is just too much to say. Take Off is one of most intelligent thrillers I have seen in a long time. This is a riveting survival saga, made by a team gifted with acute political and social awareness. It is, in one word, stunning.