Jan-E-Man movie review: An immaculate blend of laughter, tears, sense and sensitivity

The outcome of Chidambaram's confident direction and a sharp script is an intelligent and entertaining film.

Anna MM Vetticad December 13, 2021 11:29:23 IST


Language: Malayalam  

Unpredictability and the challenge of finding the right balance lie at the heart of the funeral film, a genre that rests on the possibility of a sorrowful situation lending itself to comedy. Lijo Jose Pellissery achieved a smooth blend in Ee.Ma.Yau (2018) that revolved around a poor man who promises his father a striking send-off minutes before the old man passes away. Three years later, debutant director Chidambaram places a death in a house across the road from another where birthday revelries are in progress. The emotions seesawing between the two homes form the crux of his film Jan-E-Man (Sweetheart).

Basil Joseph in Jan-E-Man plays Joymon, a young nurse who decides to escape his loneliness in a snow-laden Canadian winter to celebrate his birthday with school friends back in Kerala. Battling depression and doing his best to mask it from his buddies, he plans a big bash at the residence of Sambath (Arjun Ashokan) with their classmate Dr Faizal (Ganapathi) in tow.

Joymon’s ‘friends’, it turns out, don’t care that much for him, but he is soldiering purposefully towards a merry mood anyway when a neighbour dies. As that family grieves, Joymon refuses to drop his plans. His unpredictable behaviour, the shockers he throws at Sambath including his choice of guests for the party, the history of tension between the two nearby households and their current contrasting circumstances are a combustible mix. Chidambaram – who has also written Jan-E-Man, along with Ganapathi (the actor playing Faizal) and Sapnesh Varachal – lets the sparks fly, allows a fire to rage, extinguishes it, re-lights it, then puts it out once again with the assuredness of an experienced hand.

The outcome of his confident direction and the sharp script is an intelligent and entertaining film. 

The writer-director and his team lay out a buffet of people and sentiments before the viewer, serving each one with attention and care. Well okay, not each one – sadly, this film too, like much of contemporary Malayalam cinema, remains a saga of men told by men with some  promising women present but not given as much importance, depth or space as the men, and at least one woman existing in the plotline merely and solely as a male character’s romantic interest. It is exhausting to have to make the same point persistently, but Mollywood really needs to introspect about and fix this recurring issue. 

So why the Hindi-Urdu title? Too often, Malayalam cinema forces incongruous Hindi lines into its dialogues and songs, treating the language as a mark of coolth, in the way Hindi cinema has been known to use English. In how many Hindi films did Amitabh Bachchan, for one, suddenly switch from Hindi to speaking paragraphs of English in an overt effort to impress an India still nursing a post-colonial hangover? While the word jan-e-man has relevance to this storyline, the shift in language adds nothing in particular to the film and feels superfluous. 

Jan-E-Man tunes into another significant trend from the Malayalam film industry, this a worthy one. It does not treat mental health casually but chooses instead to address Joymon’s state of mind with empathy at unexpected moments on this rollercoaster ride. 

That’s the thing about Jan-E-Man: you just do not know what to expect from it as it turns the next corner, but twists are not contrived simply for effect. A parade of giggles comes right before an affecting and iconic funeral hymn, laughter and tears are rolled out in quick succession, but the comical episodes, the sense of humour even in the soundtrack and the insensitivity of some of the characters are not for a second allowed to overshadow the filmmaker’s sensitivity towards them. The last time I recall being similarly on edge, for fear that a director might fall off a tightrope any time, and feeling extreme relief because he did not, was in 2017 while watching Althaf Salim’s Njandukalude Nattil Oridavela (An Interval in the Land of Crabs), a bitter-sweet account of a family coping with a mother’s illness. 

In Jan-E-Man, the dead man’s brother, Kochukunju (played by Lal), and Basil Joseph’s Joymon are the only characters who seem poised to go overboard at a place or two, but just as they teeter on the edge of raising their pitch above the overall pitch of the film, they pull back. This is what fine actors are capable of when given a solid script and direction. 

The large ensemble cast makes its mark collectively and individually, including Riya Saira and Gilu Joseph as the dead man’s daughters despite the limited writing of their characters. Among the primary actors, I confess to a soft spot for Ganapathi who meshes sweetness, flashes of lack of consideration and a considerate heart into his Dr Faizal; and for Lal whose ability to switch chameleon-like from a grave demeanour to light-heartedness and even frivolity has not ceased to surprise even after all these years of seeing him on screen. 

The beauty of Jan-E-Man lies in the fact that the scenarios, the people and the prejudices in the script are all familiar. It is what the writers do with this familiarity that makes the story so real, so funny and ultimately, so thought-provoking. The laughs lend an even greater poignance to the heartbreaking reminder unobtrusively woven into the plotline that a road running between two houses could – literally and metaphorically – either connect or divide them, and behind a chirpy façade or a passion for film songs could be a heart filled with pain, a lifetime of heartache and so much else that the exterior does not reveal. 

Ladies and gentlemen, sahodaris and sahodarans, Chidambaram has arrived on the Malayalam film scene…and how!

Jan-E-Man is playing in cinemas across India.

Rating: ***1/2

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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