9 movie review: The lovely Prithviraj, an intriguing premise share space with confusing treatment of mental health
Once it settles into its rhythm, Prithviraj's 9 is entertaining and thought-provoking.
castPrithviraj Sukumaran, Alok, Wamiqa Gabbi, Mamta Mohandas, Prakash Raj, Rahul Madhav
Language: Malayalam with Hindi
Rating: 2.75 (out of 5 stars)
A little boy stands watching a solar eclipse with his father in 1990 with a rough-hewn contraption on his head. The scientist Dad disabuses him of misconceptions about this natural phenomenon that have been spread by superstitious and ignorant folk. Never stop asking questions even when adults tell you that not every question has an answer, the father says.
Fast forward to the present day, the child Albert has grown up to be a respected astrophysicist, still asking questions. He is also a widower struggling with the upbringing of his son Adam who is constantly getting into trouble.
Meanwhile, humankind is awaiting the passing of a red comet at unprecedented proximity to Earth. Electromagnetic waves from the comet are expected to cut off all electrically operated equipment for nine days. With even the smallest of batteries bound to be affected, and no modern means of transport available, a panicked public stocks up supplies and riots break out in some places. Albert for his part takes off for the Himalayas with Adam for a research project. Their lives go haywire following the arrival of the comet and a woman called Ava in their home.
9, as the news media has already reported, is Sony Pictures Entertainment's first foray into an Indian film industry other than Bollywood (for heaven's sake please let's stop using that awful, marginalising term "regional cinema"). It has been produced in collaboration with Malayalam superstar Prithviraj Sukumaran's newly minted production house.
Prithviraj multi-tasks with this project, also playing Albert on whose shoulders the entire film rests and Albert's father in his prologue appearance. The film is based on an intriguing premise that merges the very human fear of the unknown with mental health issues, science, the supernatural and a disturbed father-son relationship, the starting block of which is the fact that the boy Adam's mother died in childbirth. Adam (played by the child actor Alok from Clint) is thus a constant reminder of what Albert lost that his son may be born.
Writer-director Jenuse Mohamed's plot takes a while to lift off. At first a needless, obvious effort is made to up the already satisfactorily restless atmosphere with some manipulative camerawork especially in the introduction of Albert's mentor Dr Inayat Khan (Prakash Raj) and shots focused on Albert's face. A pointless romantic number involving a flashback to Albert's late wife Annie (Mamta Mohandas) ends up being stilted and clichéd.
9 truly gets into the groove though as soon as the comet and Ava (Wamiqa Gabbi) enter the picture. Once that happens, Mohamed and his able cast, backed by Shameer Muhammed's slick editing and Arun Ramavarma's sophisticated sound design, roll out a thoroughly engaging, perfectly paced narrative. Past the problematic initial half hour, DoP Abinandhan Ramanujam strikes a fine balance between closing in on the characters and pulling out to give us an eyeful of the pristine Himalayan setting of most of the film. With a first-rate team on board, Mohamed delivers a psychological-meets-the-paranormal thriller that remains captivating till the big reveal in the climax.
Prithviraj's controlled performance as Albert, particularly after he figures out the mysterious goings-on around him, is the fulcrum of 9's effectiveness. A big salute to him too for his diction while delivering the considerable number of Hindi dialogues assigned to Albert.
(As an aside here, it is worth mentioning that Indian cinemas other than Hindi/Bollywood are far more representative of pan-India cultures and languages than is Hindi cinema which almost entirely confines itself to the Hindi belt or at best to other parts and peoples of north India. Sometimes though, the use of Hindi in Malayalam films feels strained, as though Hindi is seen by the writer as aspirational and a mark of coolth, somewhat mirroring the average Hindi filmmaker's attitude to English — this can be irritating. The use of Hindi in 9's dialogues works because the language is relevant to the setting and context, but sounds forced in that song featuring Albert and Annie although it is set in Delhi.)
Little Alok is a remarkably mature actor, his confidence is especially impressive in the scenes he shares with his seasoned co-star.
Gabbi may seem to be overdoing her work in places, but be patient - in the end it becomes clear that she is actually spot on with her take on Ava. The writer's choice of gender for this character is interesting.
Mohandas' charming personality makes her an apt casting call for a wife that a man might find impossible to get over.
In addition to its focus on science and rationality, 9 is important because it spotlights mental health concerns in a cleverly artistic way designed to invite audience empathy. However, at a crucial juncture it comes across as being confused in its understanding of this sensitive subject. (Spoiler alert) Why and how on earth, for instance, does a cosmologist and not a psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist diagnose and counsel a seriously unwell individual? And what was the writer thinking showing this 'counsellor' intimidating and threatening the patient with a deadline to get sorted? (Spoiler alert ends) This review is not expecting 9 to have been a documentary on mental wellness, but considering the widespread ignorance in this matter in India and the prevailing attitude of "this is how such people should be handled", the film's casualness in that brief scene, including incorrect terminology, is unacceptable.
9 then is not all smooth sailing, but because its missteps largely occur in passing (the mixed-up portrayal of mental health, the use of a stereotypical black-is-for-evil-white-is-for-good colour palette among other things), once it settles into its rhythm, it is never less than entertaining and largely thought-provoking.
Besides, I would willingly pay the price of two tickets to watch any film in which Prithviraj Sukumaran is in good form. He is here.
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