Over the past few days, Kerala has been split between two Kerala Stories: one about the forced trafficking of women from the state to join terrorist groups and the second one about a group of extremely ordinary people who came together to rise from the aftermath of an unexpected deluge that left them amid loss and distress.
2018: Everyone Is A Hero, directed by Jude Anthony Joseph, is a disjointed narrative attempt at documenting the pralayam or flood that occurred in Kerala in 2018 during a very normal, mundane monsoon season, its dire consequences, the unity of the people, the selfless actions of everyone involved and a state’s attempt at recuperating from the unspeakable damage that occurred. This story is about struggle, courage, survival, and humanity at its finest.
Initial Thoughts (Round One): The Technicalities
2018 is a Hollywood-style disaster flick; however, as most Malayalam films in recent years do, it managed to find footing without falling into the tropes and stereotypes of usual disaster movies and narratives. As the reviews suggest, this film is worth the watch. The visuals, sound design, writing, and the humanization of the characters all contribute to the cinematic experience without overshadowing the main spectacle. It’s both visually stunning and emotionally stirring, but it manages to convey empathy and kindness, leaving you with a sense of pride and a feeling of belonging.
I watched the film in theatres on the second day of its release, right after I returned from a long and tiring trip. I fully expected myself to sleep off to the lull of the dark theatre room, but I don’t remember a lot of the feelings I experienced at the end of the movie other than the feeling of tears that were dry on my cheeks. The film speaks to you, and trust me; you will engage with it as well (either in the form of claps and whistles as we see our favourite actors and actresses taking the big screen or through tears that will open like floodgates, excuse the pun).
Something that struck me, and probably everybody else in the theatre with me, was the emotional impact this 150-minute film delivered. And, as usual, I had to ask myself, why was I so affected?
Initial Thoughts (Round Two): Engaging With the Audience’s Emotions
One of the most obvious reasons for the emotional impact is the reality we are confronted with. The incident that 2018: Everyone Is A Hero recreates is still a fresh wound we are recovering from as people and as a state. Visually witnessing what we repeatedly saw on news channels, but with an element of humanism, is a fail-safe way to evoke a few tears from even the most stoic theatre-goers.
Secondly and the less obvious reason, in my opinion, was Joseph’s brave attempt at deviating from the established, tried and tested narrative structure. We are all seasoned film watchers, and going in for a disaster-based film; we have a few expectations from it: a spectacle, a saviour, one or two major deaths and a few casualties in the form of unnamed characters and last but not the least, closure. The catharsis of watching people whose lives were turned upside down rebuild it from the ground up is the satisfaction that glues us to our seats. However, without access to a multi-million dollar budget or VFX accessories, our humble director and his crew were left with their own devices to tell the story of a natural disaster and let me assure you, they did well. They did so much better than just “well”.
Let’s dive into a brief analysis of how 2018: Everyone Is A Hero deviates from the usual disaster flicks and does so with so much finesse and humanity that we often forget over the course of those 150 minutes that we are watching a movie and not reliving the flood for a second time.
Joseph Campbell’s ‘Hero’s Journey’
Stories are the lifeblood of human civilisation. They were once upon a time, the primary form of communication, and even today, we turn to stories to vent, narrate, deliver a message, evoke emotions and satisfy curiosity. Stories seem so comfortably familiar to us because of their specific narrative pattern. We all recognise some common patterns, and even when we hear a story for the first time, we unconsciously look for these tropes and themes.
In literary theory, this narrative structure is called the ‘Hero’s Journey’ as given by Joseph Campbell or the ‘Monomyth’. The easiest definition of this concept is that it signifies the evolution of a story or a character. Essentially, a hero is called to do something they are reluctant to do or does not know how to do, unforeseen circumstances force them to go on the journey, and the person who comes back is no longer the same person who embarked on the journey initially. Take any story, your favourite Marvel movie, your Disney classics, an Oscar-winning story, or your favourite book, and if you sit with it for a few minutes, you’ll see that the fundamental structure of all of these stories is built using the concept of the ‘Hero’s Journey’.
Jude Anthany Joseph borrowed the concept and manipulated it to offer us an unexpected narrative, and to a large extent, the extreme emotions the film evokes are a result of the disruption of the familiar, comfortable expectations we have for the story. Unconsciously, we are disturbed by the discomfort of the progression of a story, whose ending, quite ironically, we already know of. One of the biggest subversions to the famous, fail-safe formula that 2018: Everyone Is A Hero does is to remove the concept of a singular “Hero”.
How does 22018: Everyone Is A Hero avoid falling into the trap of a ‘human superhero’?
One of the most effective strategies for combating the same old formula of disaster films is to bring it closer to the audience. When you have a singular protagonist, however ordinary, incapable or flawed they are, we go into the story expecting them to become a hero or a villain (depending on the kind of film you are watching). However, in a disaster flick, the magnanimity of the event is so catastrophic that we cannot believably limit its impact on one person or their family. Here, we need to think bigger, and Joseph definitely did!
- Everyone Is A Hero
As the subtitle of the film suggests, the flood, in reality, brought out the human kindness and empathy of thousands of people, making them all an important part of the overall picture. If we are going by screen time, it is possible to argue that Annop, the earnest, boy-next-door military dropout played by Tovino, is the story’s protagonist. However, as the film tells us from the very beginning, this is not the story of a military dropout proving to the villagers that he is capable. It is the story of the fishermen who came forward, the story of many young people who worked tirelessly to help survivors; it is the story of the media and the governmental agencies, the story of everyday people with few choices; it is a tale of sacrifice and selfishness and arrogance and stubbornness. Above all, it is a story of potential, and within this grand picture, Anoop, a young man, becomes the lens through which we connect with the film.
- The Intertwining of Narratives
Hollywood disaster films’ biggest advantage over other small industries is its enormous budget. With a huge budget, creating a spectacle, a technical nightmare and a tested formula to guarantee success is possible. However, without the said budget, Joseph had to get creative, and he did so by intertwining the lives and stories of several people in the narrative. For those who have already watched the movie, think about the characters and how mingled all of their lives are. The disjointed narrative shifts between a village in Arvikulam, Kochi, Tamil Nadu and Alleppey. However, we are not looking at random people experiencing the same event; instead, each character walks in and out of each other’s lives, sometimes consciously and sometimes completely unaware of their impact.
As an observer of the story, this creates the big picture for us. We know there is a flood coming, and we are also prepared to see its aftermath play out, but the intertwined narrative makes us feel like we are part of something much bigger, an illusion cleverly crafted through masterful storytelling. It cannot be left unsaid that water becomes a passive character in the narrative. The sound design attempts to give water a personality in the story. The trickling joy of water at the beginning of the film, followed by the uncertainty of the water flowing into houses and villages, the water that causes landslides and destroys houses with its fury and finally, the deafening silence of the last few seconds of the film as the rains stop adds cohesiveness to the story. It is safe to say that water is the all-knowing narrator here, and our characters are dancing to its rhythm.
- Flawed, Human Characters
The stories we feel the closest to, often have characters we can identify with. Their flaws speak to us, and we find ways to justify their actions as though they are our own (because sometimes, they are). Adding to the argument earlier, the lack of big-budget meant negotiations of the visual explanations of the disaster.
However, Joseph does not let us feel this negotiation through his brilliantly written characters and character arcs. The shorter first half of the movie establishes their space in the film. We witness their petty quarrels, their struggles, how they behave, and the values they stand for. Since there are so many varied, human-like characters to choose from, everybody watching the film has a large selection of people to pick from to root for. Let us consider the example of Anoop. By introducing him as a meek, scared, ex-army officer who is mocked for his actions, his selflessness takes on a different meaning later. Similarly, another example is Nixon, the family-disowning younger son of the fisherman Mattachan played by Asif Ali. He is an idealist and sometimes a pain to deal with, but is he wrong to want to do something different from his family?
The flawed humanity of the characters extends throughout the narrative, where this huge selection of talented actors push and pull their way through larger relationships, giving us a full and vibrant picture of not just the disaster and survival but their smaller, less-important personal lives and by god, we connect with all them so much. Additionally, each character on screen and their actions have a purpose.
It is wrong to say that 2018: Everyone Is A Hero does not have flaws. It is sometimes too obsessed with presenting the picture of a united State that it comes across as some utopian propaganda. It entirely negates women’s actions and services, turning them either into damsels in distress or side-lined characters. While brilliant, the background score is overdramatic to the point of excess when the drama is not necessary.
Regardless of these minor flaws, one cannot but admit that what we have in front of us is a visual ode and memorial to one of the biggest disasters in Kerala through the lens of humanity, empathy and love. 2018: Everyone Is A Hero speaks of normality and the natural human urge to be selfless and step up in a time of need.