M Mohanan’s Aravindante Athidhikal (Aravindan’s Guests) begins like one of those great stories. A stranger comes to a town. Draped in a faded cotton saree, a woman alights at the bus depot of Kollur temple town, with a five-year-old boy in tow. A while later, she returns alone, leaving the child at a Boy’s Home. The sequence culminates with the boy, alone and lost outside the Kollur temple at night, weeping and frantically looking for the mother. A good Samaritan reaches out to him before anything bad could happen. This part could have been sappy, but the film manages to strike a beautiful balance. There are no dialogues, just some mellow music. The child artiste is incredibly good; the camera movements and the colours are flashy, yet seamlessly atmospheric. This opening sequence – restrained and affecting – instantly draws you in.
Unlike the recent heartwarming dramas such as Sudani From Nigeria or Maheshinte Prathikaaram, this isn’t a film set in a real time or space. The story isn’t anything new or brilliantly complicated, but that hardly becomes an issue because the characters are worth paying attention to. The film lacks the stern cynicism of Sreenivasan films and the corniness of Vineeth Sreenivasan’s dramas that often reek of unreasonable goodness. It lies somewhere in between. Everything – the music, the lighting, and writing – are aimed at making the audience feel good, while being careful not to fall into the trap of overt sentimentality. This retelling of an exhaustively old tale is, surprisingly, delectable.
The credit lies, largely, with the fantastic ensemble cast. Veteran actors such as Urvashi, Prem Kumar and Baiju deliver exquisite performances that the younger generation of actors could use as lessons on comic timing. Every supporting character has a personality of their own, and the actors are in perfect sync with the mood of the film.
The setting is interesting. The story unfolds in an archaic lodge in the Kollur temple town, run by a bookish Communist man who goes by the name of Madhavan (Sreenivasan) and a young man, Aravindan (Vineeth Sreenivasan) whom Madhavan found on the streets on a crowded festival day, and adopted him. The lodge, based in a charming heritage building, is a vision. It is more like an ideal commune where a motley bunch of people live in harmony, doing their bit to keep the business running. The temple is just an excuse for the lodge to exist, the emphasis is on the basic human values – love, kindness and trust – that hold people together. The story proceeds through the guests who land up at the lodge, and develop a friendship with the people there.
Aravindan is an easily likable character, and Vineeth Sreenivasan pulls it off well. He is a pleasant man, neither religious nor one of those agents who swindle tourists. He earnestly plays the perfect host to everyone who arrives in the temple town. Particularly interesting is his introduction scene that sets him like a metaphor. A bunch of tourists travelling to Mukambika temple find themselves lost in a forest road inside a nearby Tiger Zone in the wee hours. One of them gets in touch with an acquaintance who lives in the town, and you see the dim light of a scooter approaching the tourists like a ray of hope in the dark. The man on the bike – Aravindan – guides them through the giant gateway of the town. The choice of long-shot in this sequence establishes a profound bond between Aravindan and this town which has come to be his mother. The film slowly tells us more about him, through the eyes of Varada (Nikhila Vimal), a danseuse who arrives in Kollur to perform at the temple.
But Aravindan isn’t the best character in the film. It is Varada’s mother Girija (Urvashi), a nondescript Malayali homemaker, the wife of a rich businessman. She comes to Kollur with the pretense of accompanying Varada, but in reality, it’s her breakaway trip. She had been desperately looking for some me-time, away from the husband who, in her mother-in-law’s words, is a ‘pain in the ass’. Hers is not a sober tale. She grouses about the husband, makes fun of the daughter’s dedication towards classical dance – an art form she doesn’t care about, and chides and fights with her younger brother, Venu (Prem Kumar) as though they aren’t over the sibling rivalry phase. She has a curious sense of humour that comes handy. She is the kind of woman films use as a comic tool, as the caricature of a clumsy mother.
In Aravindante Athithikal, she is a well-delineated character with a firm identity, who would remind one of people from real life, who share with their family a complex love that isn’t really obvious or theatrical. Girija’s tale isn’t central to the film’s plot, but her presence in the backdrop is powerful.
The comic sequences works great. The writing, for the most part, possess the Sreenivasan-kind of wit, and the staging of the comic scenes is effective too. What appears lazy is the progress of friendship between Aravindan and Varada that borders on romance. It’s highly cliched. He constantly works on impressing her, and she is impressed. Yet, this part of the film is not completely unwatchable, thanks to the actors’ performances.
Nikhila oozes charm. She has a great screen presence, and quite an interesting on-screen attitude. Shaan Rahman’s romantic track – Raasathi – that falls in this portion is sublime. The film has a soundscape that is marvelously consistent and eloquent. The same could be told about Swaroop Philip’s cinematography which is the right kind of glossy.
Aravindante Athithikal isn’t about the ‘what’ part of the plot, but ‘how’. It isn’t about if the mother who abandoned her child in an unfamiliar town would return eventually to him, but about how the time passes between them. The protagonist, we come to understand, isn’t Aravindan or Madhavan, but the lodge itself. The focus is on how it transforms people, gently and subtly. There are gorgeous little moments that you could miss in the blink of an eye. Like how Girija, in her second coming to the lodge, walks into the kitchen as though it’s her home, and watches happily as her daughter holds Aravindan’s hand. For all the cliches and unreasonableness that the film generously uses, there are moments as this, the filmy sweetness of which is worth succumbing to.