Helen movie review: Kumbalangi’s Anna Ben aces a smart survival thriller that spotlights social prejudice
Anna Ben, the charming curly-haired debutant from Kumbalangi Nights, proves with Helen that she has the acting muscle to carry a film on her slim shoulders.
castAnna Ben, Lal, Aju Varghese, Noble Babu Thomas, Rony David, Binu Pappu, Bonny Mary Mathew, Cameo: Vineeth Sreenivasan
On the face of it, Helen is a survival flick. The protagonist gets stuck in a dangerous space where no one knows she is trapped. Watching her desperate effort to stay alive is a chilling experience made all the more so by the text in the end revealing that her story is inspired by true events. But the film is so much more than just that.
Helen Paul’s life choices and every aspect of her identity play a role in what happens to her here. The fact that she is a woman, an independent woman, a woman whose work and social engagements often keep her out of the house late at night, a woman with a boyfriend, a Christian woman with a Muslim boyfriend — all these factors combined result in the tension that ultimately leads to her disappearance and the response to it.
Helen is a nurse keen to migrate to Canada to improve her financial prospects. Her widower father Paul dotes on her. Helen juggles English language classes with a job, home management, commitments in the neighbourhood and her love life. She is affable and popular, so when she vanishes, there are many people anxious on her behalf.
This in itself distinguishes Helen from most successful survival dramas revolving around solitary figures — usually, their central characters have been individuals whose absence is not felt because they are either loners or away from their families or they had unwisely taken off without informing loved ones. The most high-profile of these in recent times, British director Danny Boyle’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated 127 Hours, was about a man who goes hiking in a treacherous canyon without intimating anyone about his plans. The spotlight in that film was inevitably on the mental strength and instincts that helped the hero get back home. Helen is as attentive to the heroine’s decisions within her prison as it is to the chauvinism that led to her plight and even affects the search for her.
Helen is written by Alfred Kurian Joseph, Noble Babu Thomas (who also plays Helen’s boyfriend Azhar) and Mathukutty Xavier. It is Xavier’s first shot at direction, a novel choice for a debut and an unusually perceptive film for its genre. (The next four paragraphs analyse an episode in the film in detail. They contain no spoilers, but please proceed at your own discretion.) Without giving anything away about the the leading lady’s exact situation, let us scrutinise a single episode that illustrates the entire narrative’s subtle but meticulous dissection of Malayali society in particular and Indian society at large. Azhar is out drinking with his male buddies one night when Helen phones to fix up an impromptu date. He is not a very responsible chap, so it is not surprising at all that he drives a two-wheeler without a helmet. This violation of traffic rules is what causes a police squad to stop them, but what makes the greasy cop Ratheesh Kumar stay fixated on them is his objection to two people of the opposite sex out together, and worse, the realisation that they belong to different religious groups. This is why he phones Paul to inform him of his daughter’s whereabouts.
Note how Ratheesh treats the woman as a protectorate of her family. A genuinely liberal parent would be appalled at the infantilisation of his adult daughter in this manner, but Paul is furious with her instead. Helen’s reaction is just as telling: instead of questioning her father’s right to be angry, she is apologetic. But for what?
Of course none of this would have happened if Azhar had not been a jerk who rode a scooter without wearing a helmet and after consuming alcohol beyond the legally permissible limit, but the point is that Ratheesh makes those contraventions of the law his excuse to bat for gender segregation and parental supremacy, lash out at social non-conformism and intrude on people’s personal lives.
It is unclear whether Paul is just opposed to inter-community liaisons or balks at the mere idea of his daughter picking her own partner irrespective of community. Either way, it is important that Helen chooses to feature a Christian-Muslim couple rather than a Hindu-Muslim pair, serving as a reminder that while no doubt the communal biases of the majority community ought to be condemned, minority communities too need to be called out for their biases against each other.
All this emerges from an incident that takes only a few minutes in the film, so you can imagine how insightful Helen is in its entirety.
Anna Ben, the charming curly-haired debutant from Kumbalangi Nights, proves here that she has the acting muscle to carry a film on her slim shoulders. Her confident turn as Helen is especially impressive since she spends half her screen time all alone and the rest mostly with a seasoned performer like Lal who plays Paul. The latter, in fact, is the only cast member who raises Helen’s pitch a notch a couple of times. For the most part though, he makes Paul believable and loveable despite his flaws.
Among a capable team of supporting actors, the most significant performance comes from Aju Varghese playing the slimy policeman Ratheesh. The actor should give himself more such breaks in a career dominated by comic roles that are often indistinguishable from each other. His rendition of pride and prejudice in this film froze me to the bone.
The writing of Helen dips only occasionally, but these instances do adversely affect the narrative. (Some people may consider this paragraph a spoiler) That accident in the middle of the search for Helen, for one, needlessly piles melodrama on top of already nerve-wracking melodrama. Producer Vineeth Sreenivasan’s cameo feels superfluous and gimmicky. (Spoiler alert ends) The background score needed some turning down. And hey, we understood early in the film that Helen and her Dad are a snug twosome, so there was no need to lay it on thick with a mushy flashback to her childhood and their life-long friendship, underlined with loud music. That stretch and the over-dramatised moments assigned to Paul as the film draws to a close are completely unnecessary.
These departures in tone aside, Helen is clever in the way it never allows its socio-political inclinations to override its fundamental goal of being a survival thriller. This is a consequence of some shrewd editing by Shameer Muhammad post-interval and Anend C Chandran’s matter-of-fact camerawork combined with a largely focused screenplay.
Helen’s real triumph though is that even when it separates the heroine from everyone else in the second half, it does not suddenly conjure up a male saviour for her in keeping with commercial cinema’s tendencies nor does it ever stray from being a film about her. I cannot vouch for whether Mathukutty Xavier and Team got their scientific and medical facts right, but I can tell you I almost chewed off my nails worrying about that young woman’s fate. In a year in which the Malayalam film industry has outdone itself, Helen is right up there with the best of 2019.
Watch the trailer here —
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