Mandharam movie review: Asif Ali's earnestness is sucked dry in this poor imitation of Premam
Whatever rewards Mandharam may offer - the pleasant songs and background score by Mujeeb Majeed being among them - they cannot make up for the bland writing
castAsif Ali, Jacob Gregory, Arjun Asokan, Vineet Vishwam, Varsha Bollamma, Anarkali Marikar, Megha Mathew
Asif Ali is earnest. There is no film yet that I have seen featuring him in which it feels like he takes his work for granted or his audience lightly. His sincerity and commitment are no compensation though for his choice of directors and scripts that has led to a string of boring films in recent years, films that wander about seemingly endlessly, not knowing where to go and when to stop, sometimes despite starting out with an interesting premise.
Adventures of Omanakuttan, Sunday Holiday, Iblis, the list is long. Mandharam does not even have a novel concept. Characters and situations seen in this film have been featured in Malayalam cinema countless times before, but most recently - and energetically - in a blockbuster that caught the attention of audiences outside Kerala too. Whatever Premam's follies may have been (among them, an immature hero without a graph and the humourisation of stalkerish behaviour) it still had in its favour Nivin Pauly's charm, Sai Pallavi's dynamism and one very striking female character, the unforgettable Malar played by the latter. Ali, dedicated though he is, ain't no Pauly, and the women in Mandharam are superficially written, ordinarily acted, inexplicable, insipid creatures. What writer-director Vijesh Vijay's Mandharam is then is a sort of Premam poorly rebooted.
The film takes us through a couple of decades in Rajesh's romantic odyssey and his long-running search for the meaning of the words "I love you" that he heard as a child from Mohanlal's character in a film. First comes a pre-pubescent schoolboy crush. Next, the grown-up Rajesh (Asif Ali), now a student in an engineering college, struggles to communicate his feelings to Charu, whose indecision and hesitation to hurt her parents compound the hurdles in his path. Then he goes off on a long journey - literally - in search of himself. Then he finds himself in a reverse circumstance where he becomes the object of a woman's affection before he notices her. Then...yawn...who cares?
Between his romantic disappointments and confusions are sewn in snapshots from his life with his three close guy friends played by Jacob Gregory, Arjun Asokan and Vineet Vishwam. While interactions among this quartet do lead to occasional moments of amusement and believability, these are diluted by the overall lack of energy of the narrative and the normalised misogyny of some of their conversations such as when one of them laments being slapped by a girl he was pursuing despite her open expression of disinterest, to which a member of the gang replies that he should persist in his courtship - that she will relent being treated as an inevitability - and on their wedding night give the girl a tight slap as revenge.
I do not doubt that men do indulge in such animosity in the real world, but the tone of endorsement in the narrative is what is off-putting here. Film after Malayalam film offers a window into the extreme gender segregation in Kerala society, but not enough of them take a critical view of this disturbing reality. Quite to the contrary, the othering of women and the male gaze on them is so complete in Mollywood that even little girls are routinely viewed as romantic partners to the hero's child avatar - Mandharam continues the irritating trend.
Overall, the women in Mandharam get the worst of its unimaginative story by Vijesh Vijay himself and screenplay by M Sajas. Anarkali Marikar's character is dull, and Varsha Bollamma's Charu is led by mysterious motivations inserted into the film purely, it appears, to provide some desperately needed conflict even if it makes no sense. Why, for instance, would a woman describe a man as "cheap" merely for expressing a desire to spend the rest of his life with her when, in the preceding scenes, they have been shown comfortably hanging out together and developing an equation of considerable warmth? That she may not reciprocate his feelings for her would be understandable, that she may point out to him that he misunderstood her friendliness too would be understandable, but "cheap"? Why, unless the writers are weighed down by the stereotypical notions that all women are teases, that it is impossible for a man to ever understand a woman, and that women say "no" and "maybe" when in fact they mean "yes"?
The characterisation of the men too is inconsistent. Rajesh is projected as a nice guy throughout. He is that uncommon Malayalam hero whose response to heartbreak is not macho chest-thumping and talk of women's traitorous ways but endearing, copious tears. It is rare to see a leading man in this testosterone-ridden industry openly displaying vulnerability - this one buries his head in his father's chest and cries as unabashedly as a baby. Yet, during the course of his efforts to woo Charu, when he spots her in a dangerous circumstance surrounded by a clearly potentially violent group of men one day, this same sweet Rajesh tells his buddy almost gleefully: "This situation is a godsend for me."
Whatever rewards Mandharam may offer - the pleasant songs and background score by Mujeeb Majeed being among them - they cannot make up for the bland writing with its been-there-seen-that-in-other-films feel and the inconsistent production values. Vijay seems to have gotten confused between lifelessness and the engaging realism of what some people call Malayalam New Age cinema. Mandharam is so uninspired that it makes you wonder why anyone bothered to make it at all.
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