Kappela movie review: Same ol' patriarchal trope wrapped in taut direction and a charming cast
Kappela is alluring and visually pretty, but progressive it absolutely is not.
castAnna Ben, Roshan Mathew, Sreenath Bhasi, Sudhi Koppa, Tanvi Ram, Muhammed Musthafa
Nothing is what it seems in Kappela in which life changes for a young woman in the mountainous Kerala countryside when she dials a wrong number one day.
The fellow at the other end of the line, an autorickshaw driver in another town, keeps calling her back to chat. Despite her initial disapproval of his stalkerish behaviour, she is ultimately drawn to him. And so ensues a romance between the two - Jessy (played by Anna Ben), who is from a lower middle-class family and hanging about at home after flunking her high-school exams; and Vishnu (Roshan Mathew) of whom we are told that he financially supports his dependent sisters and whose many kindnesses to members of the community establish him as a genuine nice guy.
The first half of writer-director Muhammed Musthafa's Kappela (Chapel) is spent conveying Jessy's innocence and immaturity parallel to Vishnu's decency. The story takes a grim turn in the second half when Sreenath Bhasi's character Roy enters the picture.
I spent the pre-interval portion of Kappela battling my irritation at the portrayal of stalking as a benign act and an acceptable form of courtship for the nth time in commercial Indian cinema. Mollywood has had its fair share of normalising dangerous male behaviour over the decades - for a disturbing example from recent years you could check out Annayum Rasoolum starring Andrea Jeremiah and Fahadh Faasil. Kappela, however, is the most insidious instance I have seen in a while, because if you find yourself exasperated by Jessy's naivete and the apparent legitimisation of Vishnu's peskiness, then all I can tell you without giving away spoilers is that your exasperation will be used against you in the second half to drive home the point right in the end that women are best served by following what Daddy and Mummy want for them.
Same old same old.
The message is snuck in quietly though, packaged in remarkably taut direction and a charming lead pair, with editor Noufal Abdullah handling a significant time and place shift so deftly that you won't know what happened until much after it has passed.
The consequence is a gripping narrative that does not let up until the last 15 minutes or so when its understated patriarchal agenda and glaring loopholes become evident.
Those loopholes are the result of too-clever-by-half efforts to mislead the audience and preach Kappela's second message: that appearances are deceptive. Sorry brother, red herrings must make sense in retrospect even if they hold a different meaning with the additional information the audience has by the time we look back on them - writing them any other way is an insult to public intelligence and indicates an assumption that we will not ask questions.
(Spoiler alert for this paragraph) One ploy employed to create a particular impression about Roy is his proprietorial attitude towards a woman called Annie (Tanvi Ram) during his introductory scenes. Much later she reveals that she is his cousin. Clearly Roy's earlier misconduct was being used to suggest that he is a hot-blooded ruffian. The news that Annie is his cousin was clearly being revealed to reassure us that he ain't so bad after all. But...err...a romantic relationship between them was earlier implied. So what are you trying to say, Director Saar? That Roy was flirting with Cousin Annie and this is routine in his circles? Or that it is okay to be territorial about your cousin and rough her up a bit? Or that grabbing her hand when she does not want it does not amount to roughing up at all? No seriously, what on earth are you saying? (Spoiler alert ends)
The unspoken sermon for women in Kappela's climax seems to suggest that the film endorses Jessy's father's aggression with his daughters and sense of ownership of the girls evidenced repeatedly before the interval. Yes yes Kappela fans, I hear your objections, so let me say it in black and white: such men do exist in real life, the issue here is that the team of this film seems to think it is okay for Daddy to be this way.
None of what Kappela wants to convey is spelt out in clear letters though, which is one of the many tricks up its sleeve.
Among the most potent weapons in Kappela's arsenal is Anna Ben who plays Jessy. In an industry notorious for giving women limited choices, this newcomer has managed a substantial role for the third film in a row, her second as the protagonist.
'Her naturally sweet personality has been mined in all three, but the big difference between Babymol from Kumbalangi Nights, Helen from Helen and Jessy is that the first two were self-assured women whereas Jessy is a girl whose spunk is the sort a person usually has when they are on the cusp of adulthood and don't really know that they don't know so much. The young actor has the versatility to convey that characteristic subtly and is helped by Jimshi Khalid's camerawork that distinctly plays up her slight stature, youthful slimness and guileless face in such a manner as to stir up feelings of protectiveness in the viewer.
Roshan Mathew is well cast in Kappela. Mathew has had a decent run in Mollywood so far - my favourites among his performances have been the mute guy in a same-gender romance that formed a beautiful element in the otherwise tepid Moothon, and his small role in Anjali Menon's Koode. Last month he made his Bollywood debut as the leading man in director Anurag Kashyap's Choked. In Kappela he makes smart use of his innate charm.
The usually brilliant Sreenath Bhasi's talent, however, is poorly utilised to further Kappela's game of deception.
Muhammed Musthafa is a fine actor debuting as a director with Kappela. The film became a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic when theatres in Kerala were shut down just days after it came out in early March. The national lockdown that followed in end March robbed Kappela of an all-India theatrical release. Now streaming on Netflix, it has generated considerable buzz especially since Kashyap praised it on Twitter.
With its naturalistic storytelling style, on the face of it Kappela seems to fit well into the Malayalam now-not-so-New Wave that has been earning accolades across India in the past decade. The best films of the Wave, however, have been by and large progressive (despite arguments one might have with certain aspects of them) and when portraying troubling realities in Malayali society, these films have certainly not given them a stamp of approval. Kappela is alluring and visually pretty, but progressive it absolutely is not. Worse, it uses its allure and prettiness to camouflage its patriarchal intent.
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