Director: Prasobh Vijayan
Cast: Samyukta Menon, Aryan Krishna Menon
Prasobh Vijayan’s Lilli isn’t an easy watch. Not just because of all the blood spill and skull-cracking that it flaunts. The film evokes a strong sense of claustrophobia. It takes place in confined spaces in the middle of nowhere, around few characters whose life seems too nightmarish to be true. Signs of normal life is minuscule; people are let loose to betray, assault and murder. Lilli runs on a wafer-thin plot-line and has a texture that is reminiscent of a campus film, but it succeeds in building up an unsettling atmosphere.
Heavily pregnant Lilli (Samyukta Menon) lives in the staff quarters of a factory where her partner, Ajith (Aryan Krishna Menon), works. The couple has few social contacts, but their life seems to be a pleasant ride. He slogs day and night to save money for the child’s arrival while Lilli takes care of herself without any qualm. One night, when he is working over-time, she gets a phone call that informs her that he has met with an accident. She sets out in her car at 3 am, but before she can reach anywhere, she is kidnapped by three strangers who seem to know not just her name, but some of the secrets she had buried a long time ago.
Perhaps to complicate this simple story-line, there is a parallel thread where a young man, after assaulting a public figure, wanders around the town in an attempt to hide from the police. This sub-story is one of the many under-developed elements in the film.
Lilli is the latest entrant to the list of films in Malayalam that begin or take a turn on 8 November 2016, when India’s tryst with demonetization happened. The immediate effect of demonetization, in these films, is akin to that of the onset of a war. People panic and reveal their true nature. Brutality and survival become the most prime human instincts. In Lilli, when the news of demonetization breaks, Ajith is visibly perturbed. Later, we see Lilli’s abductors scramble for some petty cash. It is hard to say how the government’s economic misstep finds a manifestation in this tale. Is it just a coincidence that the grave tragedy occurs right around this fateful date, or should we read between the lines that the horror that demonetization unleashes on the society metamorphosises into the violence that falls on Lilli? The political subtext is either non-existent or poorly defined.
The film’s narrative isn’t abstract. Prasobh Vijayan just doesn’t want to amuse the audience or stir them up with an elaborate torture-porn video. Unlike movies like Hush where a physically limited protagonist is invaded by a stranger, Lilli knows what her captors are after. There are reasons to her actions. She is physically tied down by her pregnancy. Her movements are laborious. The film gives diverse attributes to the three captors, and uses it to design the gripping second half where Lilli makes her way out. One of them is sympathetic towards the pregnant woman, and this virtue becomes his Achilles heel. The second one is a psychopath who reiterates to his friends that he wants to rape Lilli. The third one, the leader of the gang, is more level-headed. He just wants the money promised by his boss, the man who planned the abduction.
The film is loud on many levels. With the excitement of a child who just got his hands on a smart phone, the director tosses in many motifs into the film. A firefly caught in a jar. A fish in a bowl. A foetus-like shadow that forms behind Lilli as she waits in the dungeon where her captors have dumped her. These imageries appear on the foreground of the film, rather than teasing the audience from the background. This ‘student film’ approach is evident in the technical departments too. The camerawork unevenly spills a variety of warm tones (tungsten light bulbs are everywhere). In one of the scenes, where a scuffle is about to happen, the camera follows a plastic bag blown away by the wind. It’s a whimsical shot that is placed like a style statement, clumsy and not contributing anything to the narration.
In the opening scene, which is one of the few instances where the film uses conversations, the couple is in their bedroom, in a casual private moment. When Lilli playfully nags Ajith of his absent mindedness, he tells her of his dream to own a plot in his hometown, and she responds as though she never really knew of it. It just doesn’t fit. They, despite being in that domestic setting and routine life for a long time, suddenly resemble a couple in the early stage of courtship. The screenplay falls into the most common trapping of storytelling here – it assumes that the film and the character’s life take off simultaneously. This lack of coherence is starkly visible, again, in Lilli’s first encounter with the captors in the dungeon.
Samyukta Menon who portrays Lilli is ardent but even in the most emotional moments, her performance isn’t evocative. As a result, Lilli’s acts of violence – stabbing people in their chest and neck, breaking their skull and rib cage – become the high-point, and not her state of mind, courage or incredible survival instincts.
It isn’t everyday that a low-budget indie film that doesn’t boast a star cast gets a wide release in Kerala. But Lilli’s greatest achievement isn’t that it made it to the theaters but that it narrates a sensitive tale of gender violence without demeaning its protagonist or objectifying her. Her white gown turns yellow as her bodily fluids start to leak, and she writhes in pain during delivery. We see her in her raw non-photogenic moments, as a human being sans a mask. In spite of all its flaws, the film deserves a pat on its back for this level of sensibility.
The Lilli 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 any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.