Watching terrible movies is a passion I take very seriously. I call my friends, we order food and drinks, set up a nice ambience in the room and start the film, mainly to laugh at our own comments on the film and also to see who sleeps off first. When I saw memes roasting Jack N Jill, I first thought it was a smear campaign by haters of the cast members – Manju Warrier, Soubin Shahir et al. But then I came across scathing reviews from all quarters – leading reviewers, media channels and friends on social media.
What? Jack N Jill, Santosh Sivan’s magnum opus that has been in the works since 2018, is a dud?
I couldn’t believe it, primarily because of the belief I have in its creator – Mr Santosh Sivan, who is nothing short of a trailblazer in the Indian cinematography space. There are many stories about how he, along with his directors, often ventured into the unknown in pursuit of something unprecedented and incredible. The extensive logistics planning behind the scenes of “Chaiyya Chaiyya” as well as the making of the coordinated crowd chaos in Iruvar are two such tales that come to mind.
While I personally believe that it is his collaborations with Mani Ratnam (Roja, Thalapathi, Iruvar, Raavanan, Chekka Chivantha Vaanam) that stand out, he also has a formidable body of work in Malayalam cinema. For the few-and-far-between Malayalam films that warranted scale and grandeur, Sivan was always there at the forefront, wielding the camera – be it Yodha, Kalapani or Vanaprastham. His use of colors and lighting makes even shit films (Anjaan, Rangrezz..lol) look like masterpieces. Here’s a good compilation of some of his most aesthetic shots.
What went wrong?
Anyway, before this turns into a fanboying article, let’s get back to where we started. Jack N Jill. I ended up watching the film one night. I have to confess that even for bad film standards, it was a really exhausting one and I wasn’t able to successfully finish the film, having slept off 16 minutes before the end credits rolled. But my friends who survived, tell me I didn’t miss much in terms of plot. I just read up the plot for the remaining story from the internet, just for this article. As expected, nothing great – after all, it was too late into the screenplay to salvage the film. A hugely disappointing affair from all fronts – the horrendous acting by pretty much the entire cast, the convoluted script, the lazy exposition and dialogues, and most surprisingly, a strictly average visual experience. I had so many questions.
I kept wondering – what was the target audience this film was trying to cater to? Was it children, considering the sci-fi setup and Soubin’s character (perhaps an attempt at a modern-day Kuttichaathan)? Was it the Manju Warrier Fans Club, because she gets some action scenes towards the end and the plot revolves around her? Was it science freaks, considering the importance of AI in the script? I still can’t find an answer to this question.
A primary aspect in every product development story (and this includes films too) is segmentation, targeting and positioning – in simple terms, cluster the population into segments based on demographic and psychological factors, decide which segments are your target audience, and position the product such that it appeals to this target audience. Jack N Jill seems to have failed right at the targeting step because its execution is all over the place – it is not humorous or wacky enough to keep kids interested, it is not mass enough to keep fans interested, and it is not sophisticated enough to keep sci-fi freaks interested.
The other question I had was – Did Santosh Sivan really do this? I mean, it’s Santhosh-freaking-Sivan. I have closely followed his directorial work, and I think there has always been an extra genuineness in the way he presents his frames – taking clear inspirations from his Kerala upbringings (eg, paintings of Raja Ravi Varma in various films) while also infusing his cinematic influences (taking inspiration from Subatra Mitra’s work in Before the Rains). But more than the aesthetics, one thing that I’ve realized is that all the stories that he helms have one central emotion – and he structures the film around this emotion. While in Asoka and Urumi, it is Valor; in Before the Rains it is Love (also lust); in Anandabhadram, it is Fear; and so on.
From Santhosh Sivan’s promotional interview with Vishal Menon on Film Companion, it seems that the core emotion he was going for was Wonder. On paper, the elements in Jack n Jill’s plot make for a lot of scope to induce wonder in the viewers: a miniature humanoid who talks in Kochi slang, the superpower effect of Kesh’s advances in AI, the flip in Manju Warrier’s character post acquiring the powers etc. Again, there probably was scope to translate these (exciting?) ideas onto a vibrant visual palette.
Even if we give the benefit of the doubt to the team that thought these elements would create a sense of wonder, they clearly failed at executing this into a coherent, effective story. However large the film’s scale is, if there isn’t a central thread that connects with the masses, the experience falls flat (Note the difference between a Bahubali and a Saaho?). Here, we just didn’t feel for Parvathy (Manju Warrier)’s past, and so when she gets redemption, there isn’t a sense of jubilation. Similarly, the relationship between Kesh (Kalidas Jayaram) and his father isn’t defined enough for us to understand how much this project means to him. The weak writing makes for a really weak foundation, and that’s a battle half lost already.
The performances in Jack N Jill were flawed?
Coming to the performances, I’m sure there were specific instructions for each of the leads: Kalidas Jayaram to play the sober one (the outsider, if you will) to increase contrast with the remaining characters, Manju Warrier to be the emotional rollercoaster who takes the audience through the script’s highs and lows, Soubin Shahir to be the playful, hilarious one, and Aju Varghese, Basil Joseph to try and spice up the film with some actual humor. The result? A really jarring mix of tonalities and pitches in performances that just don’t fit together.
Why am I digging into a film that the industry has already forgotten, and one that the cast and crew are probably trying hard to forget? No, I’m not getting any sort of sadistic pleasure from doing this. I’m not a hater of any of the folks involved either (in fact, I’m an ardent well-wisher of Santhosh Sivan, Basil Joseph and Kalidas Jayaram). It’s just a post-mortem exercise that I think should be done on all films, good or bad. Decoding the success and failure of films would give us data points that can then be used in a regression analysis to maximize chances of success and more importantly, minimise chances of failure, thereby helping producers secure their profits. Damn, am I reviving the economy?