Njan Prakashan movie review: Fahadh Faasil and Sathyan Anthikad end 2018 on a life-affirming high
Njan Prakashan is a life-affirming film with a life-as-it-happens tone that ends a largely disappointing 2018 on a high for the Malayalam industry a.k.a. Mollywood.
castFahadh Faasil, Nikhila Vimal, Devika Sanjay, Anju Kurien, Sreenivasan, K.p.a.c. Lalitha
languageMalayalam with some Bengali and German
Sometimes I want to wrap Malayalam cinema in a big, warm bear hug and plant affectionate, grateful kisses on its cheeks. I felt this way for the nth time in my life this weekend as I sat in a packed hall in Gurgaon watching Sathyan Anthikad's Njan Prakashan, a life-affirming film with a life-as-it-happens tone that ends a largely disappointing 2018 on a high for the Malayalam industry a.k.a. Mollywood.
In a Facebook post earlier this year, Anthikad had described Prakashan as "a typical Malayali youth of the sort we see all around us". Quite appropriately, at that point the film was even titled Malayali. Contemporary commercial Malayalam cinema tends to normalise the ways of young men in Kerala who hang about doing nothing but blame their fate on the state, who perennially view women with suspicion yet long for girlfriends and wives, who want marriage although they do not financially support themselves, who claim victimhood if women choose not to be with them ("avalu chadichallo da," she betrayed me, being a constant refrain about women who merely said no), who prefer unemployment to work they consider menial or unmacho, and are obsessed with going abroad even if it means doing jobs in other countries that they would refuse to do in theirs.
Njan Prakashan's hero possesses several of these characteristics, but is not shown assuming - in typical Mollywood style - that all women are potential traitors. He simply dehumanises them, as he dehumanises pretty much everyone around him, seeing them all as nothing but passports to a vaguely envisioned, financially secure future. The difference between this film and regular mainstream cinema is that the writing does not romanticise the leading man's misbehaviour in any way. The fellow's dishonesty often leads to laugh-out-loud circumstances but the dishonesty per se is not treated as funny.
The Kerala media is full of the news that Njan Prakashan reunites the legendary hit combination of Anthikad and actor-writer Sreenivasan after a gap of 16 years. It also reunites the director and actor Fahadh Faasil for the first time since their box-office success with 2013's Oru Indian Pranayakatha. In a sense, that film's roguish Aymanam Sidharthan spills over into Njan Prakashan's protagonist who also bears marginal shades of the thief played by Faasil in Dileesh Pothan's Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017) and the scamp he was in Venu's Carbon this year.
But he is more than that because Anthikad and Sreenivasan make sure he is more. He is not the benign crook he appears to be courtesy Faasil's deceptive look of wide-eyed innocence, and in fact, he is much more than that "typical Malayali youth" Anthikad spoke of. That he is untruthful and untrustworthy is clear early on, but the way he treats his ex-girlfriend Salomi (Nikhila Vimal) proves that he is callous and calculating too.
Prakashan is a laggard who changes his name on a whim to P.R. Akash to be his idea of cool, a qualified nurse who refuses to practise his profession under various pretexts, a fellow with his head in the clouds who reflexively stretches his arm around his head to reach for his nose instead of simply lifting his hand to his face.
At some point in his interactions with Salomi it becomes evident that this frustrating man is so used to his twisted, over-smart thinking that he does not take the straight path not only because he does not want to, but because he genuinely no longer sees it.
Njan Prakashan inhabits familiar Anthikad territory yet within the familiar, the director manages to unearth the refreshing and the new. It is hard to explain what the film is about because it is not about anything in particular, yet it is about anything that matters - life, death and the relationships that come in between.
Everything about Njan Prakashan is understated, from the lessons it offers the central character, to the throwaway line in a fleeting scene that takes a swipe at Kerala's political parties, Shaan Rahman's sweet melodies, and S. Kumar's camerawork that zooms in and out of picture postcard settings with a casualness underlining the everydayness of Kerala's beauty that locals are likely to take for granted just as human beings take for granted the beauty that the cosmos routinely sends our way.
The other striking aspect of Njan Prakashan is the manner in which it looks at "the other". The fervent Christian family, for instance, is amusing but not caricatured. And the Bengali migrant labourers Prakashan's mentor Gopalji coordinates, though not fleshed out as definable characters in the storyline, are spared the casual parochialism that sometimes rears its ugly head in commercial Mollywood - instead, they are treated with affection and respect, a mark of which is the fact that Anthikad goes so far as to include an entire Bengali song in the soundtrack with Faasil visible among these impoverished, hard-working men.
The star is in top form as Prakashan. His personality lends itself well to the Common Person he has played in so many films. His skill is what enables him to distinguish each of his Everyman performances from the other. Here he portrays the busyness of Prakashan's mind without underlining it unnecessarily, is hilarious and poignant by turns, and journeys chameleon-like from unthinkingly cruel to humane in an utterly convincing fashion.
The writing of the women characters is even more interesting. The conceptualisation of Salomi, in particular, is outstanding. (Alert: some people may consider these questions spoilers, I do not) Was she reduced to tears of joy on discovering that her feelings were reciprocated by a man she loved or was she shocked at the extent of his opportunism and his apparent conviction that she would not detect it? Was she really unable to understand his overtures and jokes, or was the joke on him? Was she mocking him or genuinely dense? Had he really managed to double-cross her or had she seen through him and allowed herself to be taken for a ride? I am being intentionally obtuse in this paragraph to avoid spoilers. Come back and read these questions after watching Njan Prakashan, and you might see that the screenplay leaves Salomi completely and entirely open to viewer interpretation. Nikhila Vimal is excellent in capturing the intentional ambiguity of the writing.
Devika Sanjay and Anju Kurien are just as good playing Teena and Shruthi respectively, the other two women who have a crucial impact on Prakashan.
Through his interactions with these three, his eyes gradually open up to a world beyond his earlier selfish, narrow gaze, with some help from Gopalji played by Sreenivasan himself. This is a world in which Prakashan a.k.a. P.R. Akash cannot assume he has the upper hand with his deceptions since others may well have a trick or two up their sleeves too, and where the greatest trickster of all is life itself.
At different points in Anthikad's controlled narrative I found myself bewildered by Prakashan, exasperated, giggling, smiling and sobbing my heart out. What a wonderful end to 2018 this is.
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