Who movie review: Interesting theme ruined by a laboured tone and discomfort with its chosen language
The first half of Who evokes curiosity despite its obvious flaws, because Maaney, the camerawork, and the theme keep it going
castShine Tom Chacko, Shruthy Menon, Pearl Maaney, Rajeev Pillai, Prashanth Nair
Language: English, Malayalam
What if we are characters in another person's dream and death is that person waking up?
What if we could communicate in our dreams with individuals we have never met?
Writer-director Ajay Devaloka addresses these questions in Who: Chapter 2, an English-Malayalam film that travels back and forth across several decades all the way up to 2040 AD. Through this time we encounter a young woman called Dolores and a reclusive man called John who are both troubled by what they see in their sleep. In the same region, two policemen are investigating the disappearance of a woman named Isabella when they learn that tragedy strikes in that area each year on Christmas day.
Dreams and the scope of the human imagination have pre-occupied philosophers and literateurs for generations. Devaloka's theme per se remains captivating, until a long-drawn-out voiceover in the end decides to idiot-proof it for us with a detailed explanation about electromagnetic waves, cosmic connections and other blah.
Before that finale, when we are left to ourselves to interpret the goings-on, large swathes of Who are quite interesting, and what appear to be loose ends are forgivable since a companion film called Isabella has been reported. "Quite interesting" but not entirely so because the film never comes to terms with its chosen language of communication, that is, English with some Malayalam. Its awkwardness with the former - in the writing and much of the acting - makes its silences preferable to too many of its spoken conversations.
Those silences, draped in the mists of a mountainous region "somewhere in India", come swaddled in an alluring air of mystery, foreboding and desolation. DoP Amith Surendran embraces the film's setting with both arms, his magnificent frames tempering the rich green of the mountainside with a perennial gray.
Visually then, Who is stunning. Thematically too it is filled with promise. But all the intriguing paranormal and pop psych questions in the world, the Biblical knowledge, the referencing of King Nebuchadnezzar's dream from the Old Testament, and beautiful cinematography cannot camouflage the fact that though the dialogues are written primarily in English with some use of Malayalam, the writer's English does not flow comfortably.
The choice of language is in itself inexplicable. Where in India is this film located that people would force themselves to speak English even in private spaces although it does not come naturally to them and they do have a choice since everyone seems to know Malayalam too? Of course there is the other possibility - a perfectly acceptable one - that a director/writer would pick a tongue alien to his story's setting because it is the language most understood by his target audience, like Richard Attenborough making Gandhi in English although we know that the characters in that film would mostly not have been speaking English in real life, and Milan Luthria making The Dirty Picture in Hindi although it is set in Chennai where, in real life, most of the characters would have been speaking Tamil with perhaps a spot of English. If you take that route as a filmmaker, you may opt for actors who speak in local accents but you cannot have a writer who writes dialogues in a way that no one speaks.
Not only do many of the English dialogues in Who sound pretentious (a woman called Arunima is crushed under this burden), but some are downright hollow to the point of being hilarious. Like this solo line delivered by John, who grandly tells one of the cops: Sometimes life is more than just a dream, isn't it? He then walks away, as if he is leaving us to think deeply about a gem that just tripped off his lips.
Or sample this exchange between the two policemen discussing the fact that Isabella's body has not been found although another woman who disappeared was later found murdered:
Cop1: I suspect a foul play.
Cop2: Yes I think so too.
Oh, you do?!
Thankfully, these are the very worst of Who, and the rest is better. But the language also appears to affect the performances of some of the artistes since John's little daughter and John himself sound more natural when they are speaking in Malayalam, but stiff and strained while dealing with their English lines. The kid, in fact, struggles with English to embarrassing effect.
John comes off worse on the whole though because English dominates his lines and, sadly, actor Shine Tom Chacko comes across as though he has been instructed to be intentionally mannered in his speech. Shruthy Menon who plays Arunima must have got the same memo. Menon is very likely at ease with both languages off screen, but is better with her Malayalam dialogues in this film, not because her acting changes for them but because those portions are better written.
One can only assume that with their theatrical performances she and Chacko are playing along with director Devaloka's vision here since this is not how they have been in their previous films.
The actor who comes away from this film with her reputation unsullied is Pearle Maaney playing Dolores. To be fair to the others, hers is the best-written part. Still, there are places where she could have gone all melodramatic and lofty on us but does not. Whether she was given the freedom to decide for herself or that was Devaloka's call for her we do not know, but either way she manages to keep Dolores unpretentious till the very end.
The first half of Who evokes curiosity despite its obvious flaws, because Maaney, the camerawork, and the theme keep it going. It becomes increasingly laboured as the second half progresses though. This is a theme worth exploring, it just needed to be handled in a less self-conscious and self-important manner epitomised by that laughable spoonfeeding session in the closing voice-over that may as well have been preceded by the words, "Dear viewers, I just showed you my very very intelligent film that I think perhaps you may have been too dumb to understand, so let me spell it out for you..." Uff.
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