Porinju Mariam Jose movie review: Love in the time of class bias, an independent heroine and average writing
In Porinju Mariam Jose, the lead actor is the archetypal superhero of conventional commercial Indian cinema, invincible in physical combat.
castJoju George, Nyla Usha, Chemban Vinod Jose, Rahul Madhav, Vijayaraghavan, Sudhi Koppa, Malavika Menon
Porinju Mariam Jose is based on the folklore surrounding three reportedly real-life friends – Kaattaalan Porinju, Alappatt Mariam and Puthanpally Jose – who were plagued by class snobbery and street violence in 1980s Kerala. Written by Abhilash N Chandran (who was cleared earlier this year of plagiarism charges raised in court by another author), the film has been directed by veteran blockbuster machine Joshiy.
In an era of gang wars and disco fever, the butcher Porinju (Joju George) is unswervingly loyal to his elderly patron/friend, the wealthy Iype (Vijayaraghavan). The older man seems class blind in his affection for the tempestuous yet golden-hearted youngster. The only relationships rivalling this one in Porinju’s life are his unbreakable bond with Jose (played by Chemban Vinod Jose) and his long-time romance with their common friend Mariam (Nyla Usha) who, like Iype, is well above their socio-economic station. The misbehaviour of a satellite character (Rahul Madhav) sets off a chain of vendetta that threatens to consume them all.
Porinju, Mariam and Jose’s basic story is interesting, and there is a lot this film could have been. Among other things, it could have been an indictment of benevolent members of dominant social groups who do great harm with their unwillingness to openly battle injustice, a theme especially relevant in today’s India where silent liberals are being held to account for their cowardice and/or apathy. Porinju Mariam Jose could have been a comment on how class often trumps friendship, but also often does not. It could have been a reminder of how human civilisation would be caught in an endless cycle of violence if history had not been punctuated by individuals who said “stop” at crucial moments. In fact, this film is all the above to a limited extent, but these points are conveyed feebly by a script that fails to explore its primary players with depth.
We get to know what the three protagonists do, we barely get to know them. Every effort is made to build them up as the stuff of local legend, especially with the awe-struck tone of their introduction, but at all times it feels like Chandran does not have ringside access to their innermost thoughts, feelings or motivations. With such weak writing of its leads, it is unsurprising that Porinju Mariam Jose fails to be an involved, emotionally engrossing narrative.
Porinju is the archetypal superhero of conventional commercial Indian cinema, invincible in physical combat. His prefixed nickname “Kaattaalan” literally means “forest-dweller” or “hunter” in Malayalam, but here of course is a figurative allusion to his wild nature. Despite the stereotypical larger-than-life character, the talented Joju George manages to convey Porinju’s love and longing for Mariam without coming across as a creepy stalker.
Nyla Usha looks regal and is convincing as the moneylender Mariam, a fiery woman living largely on her own terms – and on her own – in a conservative society. Mariam is different from heroines of most Malayalam action films: she is not a meek creature waiting to be saved by a man, as we see early on when she startles a molester with a fierce, instant and public retaliation. Her sense of independence is at odds, however, with her conservative reason for not marrying her beloved Porinju. It is also irritating that the writer’s notion of an independent woman includes these clichés – she smokes and drinks, the only woman in the entire community who seems to do so.
Chemban Vinod Jose is on point as the disco-loving Jose whose penchant for violence is such a contrast – a believable contrast – to his seemingly happy-go-lucky nature.
It must be said though that he and Nyla fall short in a scene in which we learn the truth about what is keeping Mariam and Porinju apart. Or perhaps it is not the actors’ fault, since the treatment of that passage – the direction and editing – exemplifies this film’s lack of tautness: Mariam and Jose are recounting a tragedy, yet the scene lacks intensity.
Another scene, this one featuring the three leads, also exemplifies Malayalam cinema’s casualness towards domestic violence and the manner in which this film industry normalises a boyfriend/husband raising his hand to hit a woman.
Much of the violence in the film happens parallel to or during church festivals. Extreme though the bloodshed is, Ajay David Kachappilly’s camera work is not exploitative. The juxtaposition of violence and faith brings to mind Lijo Jose Pellissery’s iconic Angamaly Diaries (2017) in which religious feasts and processions formed an ironic backdrop to the unrelenting bloodletting on screen. Joshiy’s characters are as trigger-happy as Pellissery’s gangs, but inhabit a visual setting far less naturalistic and a narrative far less gripping than Angamaly Diaries (which, coincidentally, was written by Chemban Vinod Jose).
Porinju Mariam Jose is replete with cultural references from the 1980s and thereabouts. The many mentions of the decade’s popular cinema and songs are fun due to their high recall value, but like much else in the film, they lack depth: they serve solely as markers of the time but beyond that tell us little about the characters.
The story at the heart of Porinju Mariam Jose has promise. The film itself is not without merit – it is, for instance, unusual for a Malayalam venture to feature a woman as a title character these days, and not easy for any film to succeed in giving equal importance to three leads. For the most part though, Porinju Mariam Jose is just a could-have-been.
Rating: 1.75 stars
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