Vaanku movie review: Under-par filmmaking undermines a special story of a young woman who wants to recite the azaan
The over-arching issue with Vaanku is the shallow characterisation of the female lead.
castAnaswara Rajan, Shabna Mohammed, Vineeth, Thesni Khan, Sarasa Balussery, Deepa Kartha, Nandana Varma, Gopika Ramesh, Meenakshi, Joy Mathew, Major Ravi
A young college-going Muslim woman tells close friends that her sole dream is to recite the azaan, the Islamic call to prayer. Raziya – that’s her name – discovers almost immediately that her seemingly simple wish is not viewed as such by furious religious conservatives in her Kerala town. Raziya remains unwavering, leading to unforeseen consequences for herself and her family.
Vaanku (Azaan) is based on this fascinating premise, drawn from a story by the Malayalam New New Wave’s current favourite writer, Unni R, who is also a co-producer here. The theme combined with the casting of the charming Anaswara Rajan as Raziya would have amounted to half the battle won even before Day 1 of shooting for debutant director Kavya Prakash. She is defeated, unfortunately, in the other half.
Vaanku begins commendably though. The impressively taut opening 19 minutes or so set up the story well. A melodic song plays out against gorgeous visuals of the Kerala countryside – exquisitely shot by Arjun Ravi – alongside the credits, followed by conversations that quickly establish the complex equations within Raziya’s family, with a light touch coming from the amusing banter between Raziya and her girl friends as also between their cheeky classmates and an easygoing faculty member.
The film soon descends into ordinariness from there in the face of awkward writing (starting with the silly suspense over why Raziya’s friend wants to hug an elderly male teacher), a mixed bag of gender politics (including – for Chrissake, what were they thinking?! – a tasteless rape joke by a teacher), insipidity, superficiality and a transparent “see, I’m conveying a message” attitude that shines through the narrative.
The over-arching issue with Vaanku is the shallow characterisation of the female lead. There is no natural progression towards Raziya’s announcement that she wants to recite the azaan. We know by then that she is a sprightly girl, a rank-holding student who is close to her mother Jazmi and does not share her father Razag’s irrationalism and illiberalism. Yet how she gets to that pivotal decision is inadequately conveyed.
There is so much beautiful, challenging complexity in the feminism-vs-faith debate. All the major world religions have over time become vehicles of patriarchy and its primary enablers, so when a rights-conscious woman remains immersed in religion even though it fails her, the situation demands depth that Vaanku lacks.
Jazmi and Razag are written far more intricately than Raziya. He is at one level fond of his family but is also stiff-necked about religious and social practices in addition to being a patriarchal jerk who is imperious with his wife and belittles her. Jazmi describes him as a once fun-loving man who became a bore under the influence of “a bunch of devils who have emerged, creating problems in God’s name”. She in turn wants more for Raziya than she herself has had in life and towards that end, rebels covertly, but is hemmed in by a fear of Razag, social prejudice and pressure from relatives.
Vaanku’s inadequacies are particularly glaring because another Malayalam film, The Great Indian Kitchen, is currently such a national talking point for its sophisticated examination of patriarchy’s enduring bond with religion and because the ongoing International Film Festival of Kerala where Vaanku is being screened has showcased another riveting film on the theme, Biriyaani. Unni’s own profound understanding of gender was evident in one of the best Malayalam offerings of the 2010s, Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Ozhivudivasathe Kali, that was based on his story.
Vaanku, unlike these films, does not have the chops to satisfactorily deal with the tricky territory it chooses to enter. At a time when Muslims are being painted as a homogeneous regressive block by majoritarian forces in India, the film’s emphasis on rebellion from within the community – which, for the record, is a reflection of reality and not a figment of the writer’s imagination – is important, but Vaanku does not do justice to its subject matter.
Anaswara Rajan, who was such a firecracker in Thanneermathan Dinangal and Udaharanam Sujatha, is sweet to begin with in Vaanku, but gradually wilts under the progressively scanty script by Shabna Mohammed. The latter also plays Jazmi. While she and Vineeth (who plays Razag) pull off their respective roles – the best written of the lot – efficiently, the rest of the supporting cast consists of too many uncharismatic actors who add to the film’s averageness.
Vaanku’s overall effect is at odds with the remarkable use of Ouseppachan’s title song to unobtrusively drive home a point. Accompanying stunning visuals both in the beginning and the end, the track is sung by a male singer (Najim Arshad) with the opening credits, but is led by a female singer (Varsha Ranjith) when it plays with the closing credits, with the second and third rounds of the chorus being a duet with a man in this second rendition. This play of gender in the choice of voices for the song becomes significant, and is a slap in the face of narrow patriarchal interpretations of religion, because the lyrics by P.S. Rafeeque are about the oneness of humankind, God and nature. “La Ilaaha Illallaha, Allahu Akbar (There is no God except Allah, Allah is the greatest)… Who are you? You are me. I am you. I am the soil. I am the rain. I am the sunshine. You are the morning. I am the fire,” he sings alone at first. And then she sings it. Then he joins her.
Will the Kavya Prakash who thoughtfully directed these two brave, powerful passages please stand up and tell us where she went missing during the rest of Vaanku?
Rating: 2.5 (out of 5)
Vaanku is streaming on Neestream. It is also being shown at the ongoing 25th International Film Festival of Kerala. For further screenings at the final phase of the festival being held in Palakkad, visit https://iffk.in/
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