Finals movie review: Rajisha Vijayan sparkles till the narrative sidelines her and wanders away with itself
My favourite scene in Finals is the one in which she seeks her father's counsel before making a move in her romance with Manuel.
castRajisha Vijayan, Suraj Venjaramoodu, Niranj Maniyanpilla Raju, Maniyanpilla Raju, Muthumani, Tini Tom, Nisthar Sait, Sona Nair
"Each bicycle I have owned has been a loan my father has taken, each medal we earn is to pay back loans to our families, our people and banks."
These moving, profound, poetic yet practical words are the highlight of a speech delivered by national cycling champion Alice Varghese to a small community gathering in her home town Kattappana in Idukki district. At this point in the first half of the film, it seems that this young woman - wise beyond her years yet charming in the way she copes with the uncertainties of youth - is the protagonist of the new Malayalam release Finals. She is dynamic, she is an achiever and she fights enough battles to make her a captivating heroine in a full-length feature. As long as she and her coach/father are the centre of the action, it is smooth sailing for Finals.
Writer-director P.R. Arun seems not to have recognised that he has a good thing going with his initial focus on Alice, her widowered parent Varghese's and her clashes with a corrupt state sports establishment, Varghese's single-minded devotion to his only child, her blossoming romance with her life-long friend Manuel, and the callousness of a system and a society that threaten to throttle talent every step of the way. As the many turns on Alice's path play out, Arun has a firm grip on his narrative, never allowing its appeal to lag despite the languid pace that only serves to underline the contrast between her busy career and her beloved, visually beautiful, sleepy birthplace. Her heart is in Kattappana but the world is the stage she aspires to be on.
The storyline and storytelling during this phase - bolstered by Sudeep Elamon's gasp-inducing cinematography and Kailas Menon's melodic song Parakkaam (Let's Fly) in Yazin Nizar and Latha Krishna's voices - are engaging enough to overshadow occasional glitches such as the awkwardly cast and written cameo of a Sikh sporting official / coach in north India.
And then at the halfway mark, something strange happens. A dramatic twist of fate alters Alice and Varghese's lives forever, but instead of staying with the girl through a potentially riveting thereafter, the narrative virtually discards her and from then on suddenly becomes about Manuel and Varghese.
It is tempting to wonder - arguably uncharitably - whether this happened because Manuel is played by the film's producer Maniyanpilla Raju's son Niranj and that Daddy wanted a platform to showcase Niranj Mon's talent. More likely though is the possibility that Alice's future was just too challenging for Arun, that he actually did not know what to do with her after the interval, and so he chose the easier option in which she is done and dusted and vacates the spotlight to the two gentlemen.
This is not to say that Niranj lacks charisma or that Manuel is an unworthy hero (neither is true) but that Finals lacks focus. If it is meant to be a film about Alice, Varghese and Manuel, then there is just no excuse for why Manuel is so marginal pre-interval or why Alice becomes next to irrelevant post that. Besides, in the second half, the languor that initially served the narrative so well becomes a camouflage for limited substance. The volume of the background score too is used to fill in much blankness, over-stressing every single emotion, every challenge, every tear, every sigh and every breath to wearying effect.
Niranj Maniyanpilla Raju needs a script with greater heft to pull off a second half that rests largely on his shoulders. He does the best he can, but considering that even a seasoned artiste like Suraj Venjaramoodu (playing Varghese) is stretched to breaking point as the script starts wandering all over the place, perhaps the youngster deserves a long rope before we judge him too harshly here. Point to be noted: he does have a pleasant chemistry with Rajisha Vijayan.
Going by the text plates in the end, Finals seems inspired by a real-life sportsperson. The big regret following a viewing of this film is that it squanders its early gains headlined by Rajisha. The actor has grown noticeably as she has journeyed from her performance as a child-woman in Anuraga Karikkin Vellam (2016) and a woman-child in this year's June to the woman that she is here. She does not deliver Alice to us in mere broad brush strokes, but pays equal attention to both the bigger picture and the little details - like that fleeting absent-minded cracking of the knuckles as she addresses a gathering.
The most endearing aspect of the leading lady's performance is the manner in which she juggles her character's maturity with the inevitable hesitation that comes from her awareness of her limited life experiences. My favourite scene in Finals is the one in which she seeks her father's counsel before making a move in her romance with Manuel. Her matter-of-fact question to Varghese and his unflinching response convey, within seconds, their closeness, her openness to advice from Dad and his common-sense approach to parenting. There is warmth, believability and sweetness in that scene. This then is what Arun fritters away as he pretty much washes his hands of Alice through the second half of Finals. The road to cinematic ordinariness is paved with persons who had good concepts that they struggled to flesh out, especially well-meaning men who find the idea of a strong woman appealing but don't quite know how to deal with one.
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