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Kappela Review: Anna Ben Delivers A Fine Performance Again, But The Film Doesn’t Try Enough

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Cast: Anna Ben, Sreenath Bhasi, Roshan Mathew

Director: Muhammad Mustafa

Actor Mustafa’s Kappela begins as a remarkable account of girlhood in a mountain hamlet. Jessy’s (Anna Ben) house is on a slope, a little away from the village center where a textile shop is coming up. She and her friend (Nijila), who lives next door, are excited. They hope the village will soon turn into a bustling town where they have things to do and people to meet, as against their dreary present life led under the watchful and strict eyes of parents and the close-knit village community. 

There is little condescension or an attempt to draw pity in Mustafa’s depiction of Jessy’s life. She isn’t particularly bright ﹣she quit her studies after failing to clear plus-two. Her lower-middle-class parents have nothing left to contribute to her future other than finding a groom and marrying her off. But she is a cheerful person, the kind of character Anna Ben can liberally project her off-screen persona onto. 

Mustafa bases the rest of the film on this well-staged, well-shot and well-acted portion which establishes that women like Jessy have no place to run away to. Later, when she is drawn to a stranger — a young man who came into her life through a misdialled phone call — we understand her. Her curiosity stems from her naivety, but it is also her way of rebelling against her colourless routine. The visuals (Jimshy Khalid) and Sushin Shyam’s score give the viewers that delicate and atmospheric sense of the first flush of love. The discreet phone calls and text messages at night, the playfulness in their conversations and the excitement on telling her friend about his gorgeous voice. Instead of a typical romantic song, Mustafa uses an adorably childish song, Kaduku Mani. Nature — the hills and the lush green forests that surround her village — is used as a stand-in for her innocence.

Mustafa uses similar tropes to introduce Vishnu (Roshan Mathews), the stranger on the phone. He is an autorickshaw driver who is known among his fellow drivers as a model hardworking youth, who is kind towards those suffering. Just about when the plot comes to the edge of being an inter-religious love story or the tragic tale of star-crossed lovers, with a touch of Lohithadas’Sallapam which was set in a similar milieu, Mustafa shifts gear, brings another character into the picture and turns the narrative into an impersonal cautionary tale that lacks the charm and honesty of the opening scenes. 

Roy (Sreenath Bhasi) belongs to 80s’ cinema where unemployed young men, enraged by the injustice and hopelessness spread around them, chose to operate outside of the law. In the age of under-employment, Roy’s predicament looks so made-up, as though he was airdropped from another era. 

The film sets up an elaborate ploy to convince the audience that the two young men are foils to each other, and then poses a question to the viewers — whom do you trust more? 

Cinema and literature have always taken interest in drawing a contrast between two such men. Vishnu has a sunshiny exterior, coated with a million-dollar smile. Roy has a roughness that he’s built to shield himself from a nagging society and growing despair. The easily desirable vs the easily despicable/ignorable. In Sai Paranjpye’s Katha, an official adaptation of SG Sathye’s Marathi play, a town community learns the hard way that an honest and shy man is better than a charming liar. In Sallapam, the lone and desperate Radha is abandoned by her lover, a likable singer, and is rescued by another man whom everyone had passed for a rogue. 

Mustafa’s use of this story-telling device is flat, without room for further interpretation of the characters. The film, in the latter half, is as predictable as a Public Service Announcement video directed at young women who want to break their shackles and embrace the big world. Jessy loses the individuality she possessed in the early sequences and the men take charge of the proceedings; how it might happen in actuality when a girl falls into a big city trap and becomes absolutely powerless. 

But shouldn’t a good movie go beyond the objectives of a government-sponsored PSA video, and find new ways to narrate a story like this? Mustafa, in the latter part of the film, deals with the subject in a high-handed fashion, devoid of the curiosity and fervour of an artist to find new meanings and possibilities to the reality. 

The audience’s perception of the two male characters transform towards the end, but it is done so hastily that the viewer might feel cheated. The man, who had been leading a reckless life, finds meaning to his life by redeeming a hapless woman. The woman decides to make peace with her fate and return home, in spite of the fact that it is the cage she wanted to escape. Another woman, content with her life as a provider to an irresponsible man, asks her to forget and move on without getting into legal hassles, for she’s the one who erred by trying to break the cage. A perfect material to screen to the students in a moral sciences class in convent schools. 

Anna Ben is a powerhouse performer who has great control over her facial expressions. She makes even the smallest change in emotion perceptible. Like how she let the viewers feel the deadly cold inside a freezer in Helen, she helps the audience sense the fear that Jessy undergoes upon landing in the city bus stand for the first time unaccompanied. Mathews and Bhasi do a neat job in their weakly-written roles that have a foreordained nature. 

Sometimes, films as this, which start off by showing great promise and end up on a conforming note, are more awful than a badly-made potboiler. Clearly, Mustafa has a great understanding of how to stage a scene, handle the actors and use images to tell the story. But his technical grasp is overshadowed by the narrow span of his view of the world and human beings. He looks at his characters as petty beings and uses cinema to issue parental guidance, and this, in turn, makes his film shallow and forgettable.

The Kapella review is a Silverscreen India original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen India and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.

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