Varthamanam movie review: Parvathy’s sweetness and a gutsy anti-fascist stand are let down by awkward execution
Varthamanam is pulled down by awkward writing, uneven casting, disjointed editing and half-hearted direction
castParvathy Thiruvothu, Roshan Mathew, Siddique, M K Raina
languageMalayalam with some English and Hindi
It is important to state at the outset that director Sidhartha Siva’s Varthamanam, written and produced by Aryadan Shoukath, is an act of courage with its indictment of fascism and portrayal of attacks on students in a JNU-like university in Delhi.
The film was initially rejected by Censors and got a clearance only from a revising committee. While Bollywood has forever cowered before governments and before right-wing forces decades prior to the latter getting the reins of government, it has to be noted that this new Mollywood film has bravely taken on the current establishment through its story and followed that up by battling for its right to be seen by the public.
In Varthamanam (meaning: The Present / Conversation / Daily News), Parvathy Thiruvothu plays Faiza Sufiya who arrives in Delhi from Kerala to do a PhD on the freedom fighter Mohammed Abdur Rahiman, an opponent not just of the British colonisers but also of those in his community who supported the idea of Pakistan. Faiza herself is the granddaughter of a freedom fighter. Her mentor at the university is Dr Satheesh Pothuval (Siddique).
On campus, she meets Thulsa Chakma who is from a marginalised community, and Amal (Roshan Mathew) who is spearheading a campaign for a Dalit collegemate. They introduce her to fellow students from disparate religious, caste, financial and regional backgrounds, all of them part of an anti-fascist students’ movement.
The cauldron of communal and caste politics in the university boils over when Faiza’s stance against divisiveness earns the ire of majoritarian political elements who label her “anti-national”. Adding to her troubles is the exasperation of conservatives from her own community who are upset at her refusal to attach herself to their clique and instead remain part of a diverse set of friends.
Varthamanam’s messaging is incredibly gutsy considering the ongoing repression of artistes in the country. The heterogeneity in the student body at the university is also neatly established. Unfortunately for the causes the film espouses, it flounders too much in its execution. Much of the dialogue writing is stilted, the effort to blend Hindi and English lines with Malayalam is often strained, some of the supporting actors are below the mark, and the writing of individuals other than Faiza, Amal and Dr Pothuval – especially the Dalit gentleman they speak up for – is miserably thin.
There is a shoddily handled character – Dr Pothuval’s banker wife – who has obviously been introduced solely to illustrate the support for the present Central government among non-bigots, but a scene in which she praises demonetisation is so poorly done that it is clear the writer’s heart was not in it. Likewise, the creepiness of Faiza’s male local guardian feels completely superfluous.
And then there are those unnecessary songs.
Worse, the political discourse in Varthamanam is disappointingly basic, failing to go beyond the surface that is skimmed in most real-life drawing room chatter.
Far from being enriched by the conversations between Dr Pothuval and Faiza – read: a reputed scholar and a PhD aspirant – I could not find a single fresh idea proposed by either of them, not one new line of thinking, nor depth hitherto unexplored elsewhere.
This failure is inexplicable since Sidhartha Siva has an impressive track record with films ranging from the cerebral to lighter, middle-of-the-road fare. In Ain, for instance, he went deep into the experiences of a Malabar Muslim youth. And in the endearing Kochavva Paulo Aiyyappa Coelho, he examined existential questions through a little boy’s dreams. Aryadan Shoukath, for his part, co-wrote director T.V. Chandran’s educational and highly disturbing Padam Onnu: Oru Vilapam, which was about child marriages among Kerala Muslim girls.
Yet, the collaboration between these two gentlemen and a talented primary cast has failed to yield results.
Parvathy mines her naturally appealing personality for the role of Faiza, making her a sweetly likeable woman whose surface diffidence harbours a spirited inner core. She is the marquee name of the enterprise, but her co-star Roshan Mathew shows that he has what it takes to get to a similar position with his earnestness as Amal. Siddique is effectively paternal and fierce by turns.
There is only so much these three can do though in the face of awkward writing, uneven casting, disjointed editing and half-hearted direction.
The best that Varthamanam does is in the depiction of Faiza’s blossoming warmth with Thulsa, but there is not enough of that relationship in the script. And the trip that Faiza and her friends take to Thulsa’s remote mountain home is engaging even if not extraordinary. Beyond that, it feels like Messrs Siva and Shoukath did not at any point settle into the setting they chose for their story, resulting in a film that comes off as an outsider’s view of alien territory weighed down further by its transparent desire to dispense multiple messages.
Varthamanam’s gutsy anti-fascist stand and allusions to present-day happenings are laudable in these trying times, but it goes without saying that an intrepid choice of theme is no guarantee of quality cinema.
Varthamanam is currently playing in theatres.
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