Nalpathiyonnu (41) movie review: Lal Jose takes a Communist to Sabarimala but plays it safe from then on
Nalpathiyonnu (41) does make some interesting observations about the challenge of being opposed to religion when your loved ones are culturally and socially rooted in it.
castBiju Menon, Nimisha Sajayan, Dhanya Ananya, Saran Jith, Indrans, Suresh Krishna
Kicking off a religion-versus-rationalism debate is a risky business at any given time, more so now when skins in India have gotten thinner than they have ever been since Partition and temperatures are on the rise. Fear of causing offence does not stop veteran director Lal Jose from selecting this theme although it does seem to hold him back from offering a full-blown critique of religion in Nalpathiyonnu (41), as he tests the atheism of a senior Communist in Kerala by sending him on a pilgrimage to Sabarimala.
Biju Menon plays that party member, Ullaaskumar, a teacher from rural Kerala where locals debate whether their place of residence, Chekkunnu, got its name from Che Guevara or Lord Shiva.
Ullaas is committed to his atheism, but it is twice tested during the course of this narrative: once through his romance with his student Bhagyam whose family are devout Hindus, and later when his organisation virtually coerces him to join his party colleague Kannan on a trip to Sabarimala. That a Communist set-up would show any commitment to religion may seem unconvincing, but this one has its reasons. Getting Ullaas to accompany Kannan to the Ayyappa shrine is the party's desperate solution to the latter's alcoholism: they are hoping that Ullaas' monitoring will force Kannan to stick to the gruelling 41-day vratham - no meats, no alcohol or other intoxicants, no sex and so on - demanded of those hoping to have a darshan of the deity.
Lal Jose and writer P.G. Prageesh roll out their story in slice-of-life form, weaving in everyday insights about small-town life and party politics as they go along. Some of it is humourous and endearing, some of it contrived and clichéd. Like the scene in which Ullaas is caught in a bind that can be seen coming from a mile and then becomes tongue-tied.
The treatment of the relationship between Ullaas and Bhagyam (Nimisha Sajayan) too feels dated. A young woman chasing a reluctant hero played by a much older star is a ruse many filmmakers have used to establish the attractiveness of that male star. The seemingly liberal Jose's decision to not pair Menon with a female actor his own age is a measure of the low value attached to romantic overtures by an older woman and of the ageism in casting that women face in cinema, more so in Mollywood a.k.a. the Malayalam film industry where the average age difference between older male stars and their female romantic partners on screen is 20-30 years, as if to suggest that this is routine in real life. The Nimisha Sajayan-Suraj Venjaramoodu pairing in Dileesh Pothan's Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum just about passed muster on this front, but Menon, loveable as he is, looks like Sajayan's daddy.
That said, through Ullaas' dilemmas, Nalpathiyonnu does make some interesting observations about the challenge of being opposed to religion when your loved ones are culturally and socially rooted in it. It also features a far better written, far more convincing man-woman relationship: the one Kannan shares with his wife Suma.
Menon plays Ullaas with the natural ease that is his defining characteristic as an artiste. Sajayan is wasted in a marginal role that seems unworthy of an actor who already has Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum and Eeda to her credit. The supporting cast playing their relatives and associates are competent. But the scene stealers in this film are Dhanya Ananya as Suma and Saran Jith as Kannan, the former managing to impress although she gets much less screen time than the latter.
Unlike the recent Sathyam Paranja Vishwasikkuvvo?, one does not end the film wondering why on earth this woman likes this no-hoper. By the end of Nalpathiyonnu, we know.
Dhanya Ananya and Saran Jith along with S. Kumar's cinematography - aimed not so much at showcasing Kerala's beauty as at capturing the ruminative mood of the narrative - are the USPs of this film.
If Nalpathiyonnu does not have the fire and grit that would be expected from an exploration of such a potentially powerful theme, it is largely because of what comes across as a hesitation to truly critique the irrationality of faith. If Jose and Prageesh were afraid they would be accused of lacking objectivity, they could have additionally examined the insensitivity that some atheists direct at religionists, but both groups are spared an unsparing microscope.
This reluctance combined with loose editing results in a film that works only in parts, is thoughtful but just not enough, lacks punch and ends up being ambivalent. It makes you wonder why a filmmaker would pick such a subject in the first place if the intention was not to go the whole hog.
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