Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil movie review: The Angamaly Diaries team returns with a fun but flawed jailbreak flick
Let us get this question out of the way first: no, Pappachan’s debut directorial venture, Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil, bears no resemblance to Angamaly Diaries.
castAntony Varghese, Chemban Vinod Jose, Vinayakan, Tito Wilson, Sinoj Varghese, Aswathy Manoharan, Lijo Jose Pellissery
When a film’s leading man is Antony Varghese, the handsome hottie who shot to fame as Vincent Pepe in last year’s groundbreaking hit Angamaly Diaries; when Angamaly’s director Lijo Jose Pellissery and writer Chemban Vinod Jose are its co-producers; when Pellissery has a cameo in this film, Jose a major supporting role, and another important character is played by Tito Wilson who was Angamaly’s U-Clamp Rajan; when the same technical team is on board here too; and when Pellissery’s associate on that project, Tinu Pappachan, is the director of this one, of course speculation will arise, as it has, about possible similarities between the two films.
So let us get this question out of the way first: no, Pappachan’s debut directorial venture, Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil, bears no resemblance to Angamaly Diaries.
That 2017 film was an earthy, profoundly insightful take on gory gang wars in a Kerala town. This one is an action thriller set in a jail complex as a new inmate plans a break.
Antony Varghese plays Jacob, a finance firm employee who ends up behind bars for a bloody crime involving a policeman and linked to the woman he loves (Aswathy Manoharan). As soon as he enters this all-male universe, he starts trying to get out.
The film is as much a series of observations on the experience of being a prisoner suffering filthy toilets, mucky food and constant aggression, as it is about the protagonist’s escape strategy. Its title, which means “Freedom At Midnight”, refers to the date (15 August) and time Jacob chooses to take flight.
To say that Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil is elegantly shot is stating the obvious. Girish Gangadharan is one of Mollywood’s finest cinematographers, and his approximately 11-minutes-long uncut single shot of two rival groups battling it out on a crowded street during a jam-packed church festival in Angamaly Diaries is still fresh in public memory.
He seems to be enjoying himself in Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil, playing around with the rain, close-ups of faces and the hero’s pretty eyes. Those frames provide a telling contrast to an arresting aerial view of the jail that highlights its sparseness in comparison with the verdant surroundings and the isolation of its inmates from the bustling world outside. The camera pulls out to that shot in an attention-getting staccato manner.
Gangadharan is at his astonishing best during a ferocious fist fight between two men in a muddy underground tunnel. Shameer Muhammed’s editing sleekly interlaces those orange-lit shots with the stillness and gray-blackness of the night overground.
Their work is beautifully teamed with Deepak Alexander’s throbbing background score. Alexander’s percussion-heavy instrumentation is particularly effective because Pappachan knows when to use it and when not, occasionally letting the film’s soundscape go blank to dramatic effect.
That said, it speaks volumes about Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil that I gravitated towards waxing eloquent about its technical accomplishments before describing its characters. Stylish and suspenseful though it is, the film remains fun at a superficial level because the people in it do not come alive as they should in Dileep Kurian’s screenplay.
And so we never get to understand Jacob as anything beyond a good-looking guy with a ticking brain. Chemban Vinod Jose’s Devassy, nicknamed Kallan (Crooked) Devassy, is never more than a criminal who becomes Jacob’s strongest collaborator. Simon (played by the wonderful Vinayakan from Kammatipaadam) is a brute and an unlikely ally. Vattan (Crazy) Girijan, played by Sinoj Varghese, is the prisonmate whose deceptively off-kilter façade masks a sharp mind. Tito Wilson’s character is at all times only the chap who will not forget that his own attempt at fleeing was impeded by Jacob. As for the drug-peddling twins, they are…well, they are twins who love each other, that is it.
This stupendous cast is capable of great things when given substantial writing material. Antony Varghese, for one, has the confidence and camera-friendliness of a seasoned artiste although this is just his second film. The entire troupe marks their presence in Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil because of their personal charisma, but the screenplay does not flesh their characters out with emotions and motivations we can be invested in.
Even the cultural details that have made Pappachan’s mentor Pellissery’s earlier works so pleasurable are absent here. We are told Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil’s jail is situated in Kottayam, but frankly it could have been placed elsewhere without making an iota of a difference to the storyline or its treatment.
The writing of Jacob’s scheme also required greater thought. While some of his ideas are clever, too many things fall too conveniently into place, and we are expected to buy into too much of what happens just because it does. For instance, without giving anything away, let me just say you cannot throw an unlimited amount of liquefied or soft solids other than faeces down a toilet without clogging it. And, (spoiler alert) did the police in a prison housing murderers lack firearms and communication equipment that night?
If Swathanthriyam Ardharathriyil still remains entertaining, it is because Pappachan’s adept direction, his cast’s appeal and his tech team’s sophistication keep the thrills going when all else falters. The atmospherics, the haunting ugliness of that prison complex and the suspense hold out enough excitement to make this a watchable albeit flawed film.
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