Chattambi movie review: Initially gripping, later too sparse to fully explore Sreenath Bhasi’s solo hero potential
The protagonist is the most sketchily written character in Chattambi, a film that is distinguished more by its technical excellence and atmospherics than depth.
castSreenath Bhasi, Chemban Vinod Jose, Grace Antony, Mythili, Uma, Chilamban, Guru Somasundaram, Binu Pappu
directorAbhilash S. Kumar
As Chattambi (meaning: Rowdy) opens, a human body is found lying on a thickly vegetated mountainside. The face is familiar, locals immediately recognise him as Kariah (Sreenath Bhasi), a reputed hooligan whose premature, violent end surprises no one.
Chattambi then sets out to acquaint us with him in flashbacks to his early years and the months leading up to his passing – his miserable childhood, the aggression at home that pushed him into a spiral of anti-social and criminal behaviour, his work with the lawless businessman John (Chemban Vinod Jose).
With the protagonist dead even before the narrative begins, the film’s effectiveness hinges on successfully drawing us into his world, so that we are emotionally invested in him by the time the inevitable happens. It’s a challenge that the team of Chattambi rises up to for a while – only a while – as they spread a pall of foreboding and dread over the entire film.
Chattambi’s screenplay is written by Alex Joseph – also the film’s DoP – from a story by Don Palathara, the critically acclaimed director of 1956, Central Travancore and Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam. The title page says it is based on a true story. Abhilash S. Kumar, who earlier co-scripted 22 Female Kottayam and Da Thadiya, has a minimalist approach to direction that serves this film well in certain areas. The dialogues are sparse, the sound design by Arun Rama Varma is low-key and Sekhar Menon’s music is sparingly used. Nothing speaks more loudly than the emptiness in Kariah’s mother’s eyes, as the son who once rose up to fight for her now fights her as she begs him to lead a normal life.
Characters get bashed up in many places in Chattambi, yet the decibels never hurt the ears and the shooting of the beatings is never sensationalist, blood-spattered and ugly. Except for one unexpectedly gratuitous shot of a wound on John, Alex Joseph’s camera largely watches the assaults and their outcome from a distance, sometimes even opting to avert its gaze while conveying what is happening. Where it does not look away is while capturing those mountains that his frames transform into brooding giants no less intimidating than the men themselves. The camera does just as well with faces, in particular John’s frustrated wife Sicily (Grace Antony) who is not the pushover that he thinks she is, his lover (Mythili), Kariah’s mother (Uma) and his new-found friend (Guru Somasundaram).
The mistake Chattambi makes is in carrying its minimalism into the writing of Kariah. Characterisation is not about simply giving someone a back story, it is about reaching deep into their soul, but the screenplay fails to do that here. Kariah is the most sketchily written role in Chattambi. John, his henchman played by Binu Pappu and Sicily are written with far more detail.
Nevertheless, in his first film as a solo titular lead, Sreenath Bhasi aces Kariah’s combustibility. Each time he is on screen, he gives off a vibe that he might explode any second. One character describes him as being deceptively matchbox-sized, which is an apt choice of words not just because of his physique, but because that slight figure contains a fire and rage. Sadly, that’s more or less all there is to Kariah. As the curtain fell on this two-hour film, I came away without knowing him – actually knowing him – very much more than I did in the early minutes when multiple characters broke the fourth wall to introduce the audience to his background.
Chattambi arouses interest and curiosity with its use of that device, but by the second half it is glaringly obvious that technical excellence and atmospherics are mostly what this film has going for it, leaving us largely with Kariah’s fury in a gorgeous setting.
The script’s sense of humour does give us some interesting passages. One of its best involves two women discussing prayers that could cure a husband’s philandering ways. Its most memorable scene though features Kariah lying in his bed listening to his mother elsewhere in the house praying desperately for him. Actor Uma is brilliant as she breaks down before her lord, but that the scene got me longing for an understanding of Kariah’s indifference towards this woman. It never comes.
Instead, in the climax we get twists that are clearly meant to be clever, but appear to send out a strangely confused, confusing message about power equations – that dominant social groups are not necessarily calling the shots as they think they are, but that unsuspecting members of those groups are likely being manipulated by the seemingly weakest individuals in society, the ones they mistreat the most. If this macro view of the situation was not the writers’ intention, then the choice of characters who are revealed to be holding the puppet strings in Chattambi is quite mindless. The most thoughtless moment involves a man telling another from a widely stereotyped community that he has been cautioned not to trust the fellow, the latter replies that the warnings are right on the money, then proceeds to act in a manner that justifies people’s suspicions of him.
Even keeping aside these concerns, the excitement that is sought to be generated in the final scenes is vastly diluted by the limited substance in the portrayal of the protagonist.
Sreenath is an intelligent actor who, in his career so far, has made a mark in several supporting roles and occasionally playing a joint lead as he did in Kumbalangi Nights and #Home. He is an arresting presence in Chattambi, but the film does not give him enough matter with which to fully explore his potential as a solitary hero. As a consequence, despite its top-notch cast and production values, Chattambi turns out to be just another Malayalam film about endless cycles of violence.
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)
Chattambi is now in theatres
Anna M.M. Vetticad is an award-winning journalist and author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. She specialises in the intersection of cinema with feminist and other socio-political concerns. Twitter: @annavetticad, Instagram: @annammvetticad, Facebook: AnnaMMVetticadOfficial
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