Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 movie review: A crotchety old man bonds with a robot in Kerala
Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 is written and directed by Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval.
castSoubin Shahir, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Kendy Zirdo, Saiju Kurup, Parvathi T, Megha Mathew, Rajesh Madhavan, Sivadas Kannur, Unni Raja
directorRatheesh Balakrishnan Poduval
A buffalo on a rampage, teenaged human beings and a robot in addition, of course, to adult humans – these have been the protagonists of Malayalam films in 2019 so far. Not that serious Indian cinephiles are unaware of this, but if anyone does ask, here is proof that this is a time of experimentation for one of India’s most respected film industries.
Writer-director Ratheesh Balakrishnan Poduval’s contribution to what has been a magnificent year for Malayalam cinema so far is Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, a darling film about a mechanical engineer struggling to take care of his grouchy ageing father while also building a career for himself.
Subrahmanian, played by Soubin Shahir, dearly loves his exasperating Dad. Over the years he has quit several big-city jobs, at each instance to return to his village in Kerala because good care-givers are hard to come by and even the halfway decent ones find this rigid old man intolerable. Bhaskaran Poduval (Suraj Venjaramoodu) remains ungrateful and unmoved by his son’s evident affection. He has always wanted Subrahmanian to find a job in the vicinity of their home so that he can be available at all times. Do it not out of a sense of duty, he keeps insisting though, do it out of love.
Now in his mid-30s, desperate for a job and a life of his own, Subrahmanian ropes in a robot to be Bhaskaran’s companion and domestic help while he is away.
Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 raises a question that is increasingly occupying filmmakers worldwide. Can even the smartest machines experience love and fulfill the human need for it? American director Spike Jonze’s moving Oscar-nominated 2013 film Her had a lonely man (Joaquin Phoenix) falling for a virtual assistant (Scarlett Johansson’s voice). The equally moving British film Ex Machina starred Alicia Vikander as a humanoid robot being tested to see if she can match human intelligence. The far less tech-driven yet just as visually impressive Android Kunjappan explores the relationship that develops between a crotchety elderly human and a robot who never feels insulted.
Film budgets in India are a microscopic fraction of what the West can afford. Poduval has told the press that financial constraints prompted the team to actually physically build a robot instead of conjuring one up with VFX. The result is arguably better than any illusion that could have been constructed on a computer screen. The boyish-looking machine along with Kerala’s lush greenery and Bhaskaran's decaying house as shot by cinematographer Sanu John Varughese make for an interesting and unique visual combination in this endearing, thoughtful story.
The people of Bhaskaran’s village nickname the robot Kunjappan. He is a loveable little fellow, but Poduval does not let the narrative get cutesy around him. The film is packed with snapshots of life in rural Kerala, its colourful characters ranging from the merely curious to the painfully intrusive, from gossips to unimaginably supportive folk. Android Kunjappan is unrelentingly funny, yet it is at all times profoundly philosophical.
Soubin Shahir is pitch perfect here as a son torn between a parent he loves and his desire for an existence beyond his village. At 43, Suraj Venjaramoodu is not the natural choice to play a 70/80-year-old. Since older men are not denied opportunities in the way women are, this is a point not related to principle as much as to the artistic challenges involved. As it happens, Venjaramoodu’s makeup and his impression of a fiery but frail old man are astonishingly good. The actor does not allow this to become the overriding aspect of his turn as Bhaskaran though – truth be told, his gait and posture are so consistent throughout, that early in the film I forgot the character is about double the age of the actor. All that is visible on screen is his sensitive performance.
Bhaskaran’s considerate nephew Prasannan is played by the gifted character artiste Saiju Kurup. It is a well-written part, and as always Kurup does full justice to it.
The other key individual in Android Kunjappan is Hitomi, Subrahmanian’s colleague of Japanese-Malayali descent played by debutant Kendy Zirdo. Hitomi is unusual for Malayalam cinema – a foreigner who is not exoticised or given sketchy characterisation. Beautiful though Sudani from Nigeria was, Samuel/Sudu in that film always remained an outsider being observed by the storyteller, always “the other”, whereas it is clear that once he dispenses with Hitomi’s explanation for her knowledge of Malayalam, Poduval gets down to viewing her as a person rather than a Japanese-Malayali person.
That said, unless you have never met an Indian from east of the Orissa-Bengal belt, you have to just hear Hitomi speak a few words of English to know that Zirdo is not Japanese. Sure enough a Google search reveals that she is from Arunachal Pradesh. Perfectionism would have called for coaching the young actor to sound Japanese. That should be the next step in Mollywood’s evolution. In the present context though, it is a pleasure to see Malayalam cinema looking beyond Malayalis and beyond even Indians for its stories, and writing a foreigner as a credible character with empathy. Zirdo is a sprightly ball of energy, she makes Hitomi charming and her Malayalam is a joy to hear.
The smaller satellite roles in Android Kunjappan are played by artistes who look and sound so real, it is as if they have been recruited from the local populace.
Android Kunjappan’s all-round adorability overshadows its flaws and moments of hesitation. The strand involving Saudamini, played by Parvathi T, for one, does not quite come together. (Some readers may consider the next two sentences spoilers) In a scene where we discover that Subrahmanian has been secretly observing his father in the house through a camera, the tone of the narrative suggests that Poduval has not considered issues of privacy in the context of the elderly. And in the end, when Subrahmanian tailors his plans once again around his father, thus allowing Bhaskaran to get away with not budging from the status quo, it does seem like the script opted for a path it deemed comparatively safe in a society that tends to romanticise parenthood and demand that we deify parents irrespective of their failings. (Spoiler alert ends)
I suppose what makes Android Kunjappan special anyway is that it takes courage to even acknowledge on the Indian screen that a parent could be selfish and not a saint. What gives it nuance is the way it makes the hero’s love for his difficult father believable, and how it works to endear Bhaskaran to the audience even as we accept that he is a jerk.
This is what makes Android Kunjappan a pathbreaking film steeped in commentary about age, caste, class, religious bigotry, social and familial pressures. When Bhaskaran and Kunjappan discuss the former’s attraction for a woman in the neighbourhood, Kunjappan points out that in Japan if you love a person you openly tell them so. “That is not how it is here (in India/Kerala),” Bhaskaran replies. “Here you either rape her or pour petrol on her and set her on fire.” The scene is not designed as a joke — thankfully, Pudoval is no Omar Lulu — so its matter-of-factness makes his observation a tighter slap on the face of Indian/Malayali society than any character delivering a speech on the subject of consent.
The use of technology in this film is impressive precisely because it does not overtly seek to impress with its futurism. Kunjappan is cute and looks slick, but it is clear that the story and its humanity are of paramount importance to Poduval. It is no wonder then that despite its overall light-heartedness, Android Kunjappan Version 5.25 paints a poignant portrait of loneliness and potential human-machine equations enriched by the writer’s deep comprehension of the incomprehensibility of human love.
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