Hasyam movie review: Jayaraj captures the banality of callousness through a tragi-comic tale of a cadaver agent

Although Hasyam sets out to invoke hasya rasa, it elicits a range of moods including, in my case, bewilderment at my lack of revulsion towards the oddballs in this story.

Anna MM Vetticad February 13, 2021 18:10:31 IST

3.25/5

Hasyam (Humour) is the eighth film in writer-director Jayaraj’s Navarasa series that has so far yielded Shantham, Karunam, Bhibatsa, Adbutham, Veeram, Bhayanakam and Roudram, with one more to come. Rasa means juice, flavour or essence, and – to put it in the simplest terms possible –Navarasa in the Indian arts refers to the nine (nava) emotional states as captured by a work of art, and as manifested in the audience’s experience of and response to that work. 

This gigantic project that the multiple-award-winning filmmaker kicked off in 2000 can best be described then as an anthology on the emotions at play in human society.

The title of the latest addition to this collection is not to be taken literally though. Hasyam has been described by the director as a black comedy, but its most striking aspect is its success in capturing the banality of callousness in a morbid profession (hat tip: Hannah Arendt) through the lightness of being in the life of a cadaver agent.

Hasyam’s protagonist is nicknamed Japan, an allusion to his resourcefulness and ability to get things done by fair or foul means, no matter what the obstacles he faces. He illicitly supplies human bodies to a private medical college in Kerala that is facing a shortage. Japan conducts his underhand dealings with a matter-of-factness that is startling and, for a few minutes in the narrative, amusing, before amusement turns to numbness. The man is so immersed in his job and so keen to earn enough to buy a new house, that he even longs for his father’s death.

The humour in the film, therefore, is not of the haha laugh-out-loud variety but of an oh-my-god-did-they-actually-say-and-do-what-they-just-said-and-did? strain.

Harisree Ashokan plays Japan, a man for whom every human is a potential cadaver. His supportive wife Kathrina (Sabitha Jayaraj) is a sweeper. Although Japan and Kathrina’s pragmatism is repugnant at one level, Jayaraj does not go down the lazy path of painting them as overtly evil people. Quite to the contrary, we are shown scene after scene of endearing warmth within their very ‘normal’ family and their affectionate treatment of the elderly parent whose end they cold-heartedly anticipate.

Japan’s desires are limited. All he wants are a few comforts, fun times with his wife and children, and for the latter to use their education to rise above their present station. There is a meeting of minds and depth of feelings between him and Kathrina.

This intelligent approach to the characterisation is why it comes as such a shock each time they speak with detachment of the money the old man’s demise will bring in. These are, you see, nice people. “How could they behave in this fashion?”

The children and Japan’s work associates are also written in shades of grey, each one more ‘normal’ than the next, revealing flashes of humanity when you least expect it.

There’s another easy path Jayaraj avoids: Japan and Kathrina are poor, but they are not written as pitiable creatures nor is theirs a hand-to-mouth existence that might make the viewer more comfortable about not finding them disgusting.

Jayaraj gives his narrative a whole additional layer by throwing a spotlight too on the varying degrees of morality among those who are judgmental towards Japan.

The need for survival, the film seems to tell us, steers people towards choices they may not make if they are born into privilege, and towards jobs that society needs someone to do just so long as it is someone else.

Arguably the most intricately written among this ensemble of characters is Kathrina, who seamlessly switches from genuine grief to practicality within a millisecond. What is chilling though is how her offspring have at such a young age already imbibed their father’s and mother’s unsentimental approach to the body business.

Only a couple of fleeting passages in Hasyam feel exaggerated and for the most part, Jayaraj’s screenplay is completely believable. The initial shock-mixed-with-mild-mirth gives way to quiet confusion over the reactions the story evokes, all of this supplemented by interesting sidelights of Malayali society. (Minor spoilers ahead) I guiltily giggled over a sex worker being known as Available Kunjamma. There’s also an employee of a medical college who is addressed as Bonettan (literally, Brother Bones). (Spoiler alert ends) And don’t miss the passing scenes on the road involving traffic police and errant two-wheeler drivers. In fact, it is impressive how much is packed into Hasyam despite a running time of just about 1 hour and 15 minutes. 

The film’s glaring flaw is its production quality that is, in places, surprisingly sub-par, surprising because it comes from the Jayaraj who pulled off the formidable beauty of Veeram (2016) and the world-class visuals of Ottaal, which swept the top honours at the International Film Festival of Kerala 2015 and won a Crystal Bear at the Berlin Film Festival 2016. When even a layperson can make out that the flies on a prone body were placed there by a CGI pro, you know you have a problem. Fortunately for Hasyam, the effectiveness of the storytelling overshadows this issue.

Harisree Ashokan’s calling card is comedy in mainstream Malayalam cinema. In his remarkably convincing, zero-frills performance as Japan there are no traces to be found of his signature work in the slapstick arena.

Sabitha Jayaraj as Kathrina is a chameleon of the highest order.

Each member of the excellent supporting cast deserves to be singled out for praise, but since space here is limited I will restrict myself to the enchanting Varahalu K.P., Eric Zacharia and Athulya Madhu playing the children without a dot of cutesiness or precociousness that child actors in India are prone to, and Shiny Saarah who shines in the briefest of roles as a hard-as-nails yet soft-hearted sex worker.

It is an ode to their acting and Jayaraj’s writing that though Hasyam sets out to invoke hasya rasa, it elicits a range of moods including, in my case, bewilderment at my lack of revulsion towards the oddballs in this tragi-comic tale.

Rating: 3.25 out of 5

Hasyam had its world premiere at the ongoing 25thInternational Film Festival of Kerala in Thiruvananthapuram. For further screenings at the remaining phases of the festival being held in Kochi, Thalassery and Palakkad, track the schedule: https://iffk.in/schedule-2021/

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