Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil [Freedom At Midnight], as the title suggests, is about breaking free – from shackles, and into life. A bunch of prisoners in Kottayam sub-jail decide to escape by following a highly risky plan chalked out by new arrival and murder convict, Jacob. The jailbreak is crucial for Jacob, for he has enemies aplenty, inside and outside the prison, vying for his blood. The film unfolds mostly inside the prison, in dingy cells where inmates are crammed in like roosters, bookended by two sequences that give clues about Jacob’s past and future.
Instances of violence are aplenty, shot elaborately like works of art. It is one of the several similarities between this film and Lijo Jose Pallissery’s 2017 knockout Angamaly Diaries in which Tinu worked as an assistant director. Both films are set in rugged male territories (prison, pork business) where adrenaline runs high. Lijo is co-producer and a supporting actor in Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil, and Chemban Vinod Jose, the writer of Angamaly Diaries, is one of the pivotal characters here.
The only glaring difference between the two films is their approach to story-telling. If Lijo, like a magician, found a method to the madness he craftily let loose on screen in Angamaly Diaries, Tinu infuses some elements of orderly chaos into the narrative. If the former had a fabric which could be compared to cotton, Tinu’s film has the texture of gleaming poly-cotton. Cinematographer Gireesh Gangadharan blends the use of natural light with plenty of slow motion shots, and some freaky camera angles to create stylized visuals, amply supported by Jakes Bejoy’s chic sound track which pumps a lot of energy into the proceedings. The characters aren’t driven by their instincts which are constantly kept in check by the prison. They are animals in a cage, dreaming about the forest.
Right after Jacob lands in the prison, he witnesses a botched jailbreak attempt. A bunch of prisoners manage to lock up a couple of policemen on duty, and reach the prison wall, all in a few seconds’ time. The sequence is shot like a choreographed dance, with the camera capturing the falling rain, splashing muddy water, and the men’s body movements in slow-motion. The incident is consequential to the plot; it turns several inmates against Jacob. Thanks to the way it is presented, the fight sequence becomes a showpiece in the film, rather than being a part of the story-telling. The focus is on the coolness of this territory where men vie for power and survival. More often, it is apparent that the film’s thrust is on this oomph factor, making it less of a brilliant film, and more of an example of stylish filmmaking.
Simon (Vinaayakan), is one of the several men who share Jacob’s cell. He is a murder convict who commands a certain level of power inside the prison. We know he isn’t a bad man because he reads the Bible at night. We know some men in the prison are untrustworthy because Simon wards them off. He becomes a yardstick the film uses to tell us whom to trust. He is a token we expect to see in every prison drama – a rugged convict who speaks little, but possesses a moral side the audience can relate to. Vinaayakan, who has the unparalleled ability to be a firecracker on screen, going about every role with sheer earnestness, ensures that Simon’s predicaments are communicated powerfully. However, the blotches and cracks in the character construct are hard to miss.
Antony Varghese, in that Jesus-like mane and gorgeous beard, is a pretty sight. He perfects Jacob’s emotional turmoil and sharp intellect like a seasoned actor. With subtle body-language and facial expressions, he is an actor who effortlessly belongs to the vintage and new-age Malayalam cinema.
The last leg of the film, where the inmates work out their escape plan, is marvelously executed, and almost makes up for the shortcomings in the first half. The night visuals are great, and the men are at their candid best, internalizing the characters’ thirst for freedom and life. Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil, if nothing else, makes you envision a life where your emotional and physical instincts are constantly reined in by people. The prologue of the film, with glimpses of saffron-clad men, burning streets, and state’s law-enforcement system run by men with money and power, makes one realise that the ‘cage’ that the men try to run from extends into the outside world too. It also makes you wonder where they will escape to.
The Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie.