Director: Lal Jose
Cast: Biju Menon, Nimisha Sajayan, Saranjith, Dhanya Ananya
One of the cornerstones of our mainstream cinema must be the caution the directors and writers take to not push the audience out of their comfort zone. For one, O Kadhal Kanmani (Mani Ratnam, 2015) begins as a rebellious modern love story that rejects the institution of marriage and traditional family. Rather soon, the young couple are caught in a whirl of doubts and emotional turmoil, and the film ends in a visual that resembles a high-end wedding video in vogue. Interestingly, the other couple in the film – the happily married traditionalists – never encounter the slightest hint of a doubt on if marriage is a necessary institution. The film doesn’t want to explore or discuss. It knows, and it preaches.
Director Lal Jose, like most of his contemporaries in the film industry, is very much a traditionalist. Nee-Na, his closest attempt at a non-conformist film, concludes on a note that agrees with the existing societal norms. An infidel married man is easily pardoned by his wife. The other woman writhes in pain and guilt, and goes on a self-imposed exile.
41, his latest film, isn’t different.
In a pre-release interview, Lal Jose had said that 41 dealt with a clash between theism and atheism. However, in the film, there is no conflict whatsoever. 41 clearly sides with the god-fearing majority. He repeats the popular and the safest point of view that God might exist. The believers in the film never undergo a bout with doubt, while the rationalist at the centre of the film is told repeatedly that his position might be wrong. And it is hard to decide what is more disappointing – his refusal to take a narrative risk or the overall coldness in the film’s tone.
The protagonist of the film, Ullas Kumar (Biju Menon), is a staunch communist who often borders on a caricature. The film emphasises too much on Ullas’ animosity with religion and tradition, as though it has just discovered the centrepiece of a communist’s existential conflict. His wedding is ruined when he shows up in a red t-shirt and kicks up a tussle with the bride’s (Nimisha Sajayan) relatives over a traditional lamp placed on the stage. He makes a fuss when his fellow party members decide to celebrate Onam.
This characterisation is akin to Cuba Mukundan of Lal Jose’s Arabikadha who tries to launch a labour union in the Dubai construction site where he goes to work. Both, Ullas and Mukundan, are kind and intelligent individuals who treat their ideology like an iron rod, refusing to bend it or see through it. They are an oddity in their surroundings. They are at once clowns, villains and heroes of their story. The unreasonableness in their nature is in stark contrast with the many interesting human details that turn them lifelike. It renders the characters, say, silly.
For a film that comes at a time when Sabarimala is at the centre of a burning controversy, 41 is an outright obsolete work. Ullas, at one point in the film, is forced to undertake a pilgrimage to Sabarimala with Vavachi Kannan (Saranjith), a fellow party member and an alcoholic devotee. If the Sabarimala case is essentially a feminist issue, in Lal Jose’s film women are old-fashioned enablers who take care of men like they are babies in diapers. One of the first scenes of Ullas has him relaxing on his armchair with a newspaper and crying out to his mother for a tea. Kannan comes home every night in an inebriated state, but wife Suma (Dhanya Ananya) coyly puts on her best clothes and a little make-up to welcome him.
The latter half of the film primarily focuses on the growing closeness between Ullas and Kannan. But this relationship arc doesn’t really come through because the frictions in their relationship weren’t strong on the first place. Never does Ullas come across as a villain in Kannan’s life.
During the pilgrimage that ends on a tragic note, the communist gets a first-hand experience of the sincerity and humaneness of the devotees. The visuals of the faith-induced mass hysteria at Sabarimala and other temples are repeatedly played to emphasise on the purity of believers’ emotions. In one of the scenes, a naxalite-turned-devotee explains to Ullas the culture of non-violence that Sabarimala pilgrimage propagates. To see the hollowness in this arguement, juxtapose these scenes to the final visuals in the film, of a brutal tragedy which is based on the real incident of Pullumedu Stampede of 2011 that killed over 100 pilgrims, and the press photos from the recent violent protests at Pampa led by right-wing groups.
The final part of the film works like a set-piece, not necessarily connected to the rest of the film. A massive stampede breaks out on top of a mountain, a part of a reserved forest. It is, ideally, an opportunity to raise questions about the human factors that caused it, or the impact it has on Ullas who witnesses the deaths from close quarters. But Lal Jose plays safe again. You see a shallow moment of human bonding and a shallower moment advertised as kindness. If the film’s climax, in spite of the weight of the tragedy, doesn’t register well, it is because Lal Jose fails to put it in perspective.
That said, 41 is one of Lal Jose’s better works in the recent years. It has many charming performances – Nimisha Sajayan, for one, does a fine job of making her presence felt without many dialogues. Biju Menon’s prowess to underplay comes handy here. He is relatable; someone you could easily sympathise with. The loudness in Saranjith’s mannerisms might take a while to register, but it is worth it. The actor makes impressive use of his body to portray the sensitive, alcoholic man. The film has interesting cinematography and production design. There are nice bits in the narrative that brings out the character of the Kannur village the film is set in. Many interactions between the sub-characters are organic and effortlessly witty. It is in such little parts Lal Jose retains his shine.
The 41 review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the movie. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have an advertising relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.