Sometime around August 2015, a highly-anticipated star-studded film, Double Barrel, released during Onam. It became an instant dud, earning the flak of critics and audiences alike. Usually, in such a situation, the team plays safe on social media, with posts like “Thanks for coming to the theatres, folks!” But the director of Double Barrel, Lijo Jose Pellissery, had other plans.
This just shows the fiery grit of this man who is bent on pushing his boundaries with every film. Just look at the range in his filmography – there’s a musical romantic comedy (Amen), a crime drama (Nayakan), an absurd gangster comedy (Double Barrel), a not-so-absurd gangster flick (Angamaly Diaries), a black comedy (Ee. Ma. Yau), a hyperlink thriller (City of God) and a gritty adventure drama (Jallikattu) in there. Rather than comparisons to Tarantino and the like, I think it’s more important that we make an effort to understand his craft for what it is. Doesn’t he deserve that?
So here, I’m going to take his Ee.Ma.Yau (2018), break it down and see what were the things about it that I really loved. (Spoilers ahead. Watch the film and head back to this space.)
First things first.
Eeshi (Chemban Vinod Jose) and his father Vavachan are having a drink one night when Vavachan expresses his desire to have a grand funeral. Eeshi, intoxicated by love and alcohol, promises to arrange a lavish funeral for him. In a strange twist, his father passes away that very night, and Eeshi, who is not the most financially secure man, has few hours to figure out ways to hold the grandest funeral the parish has seen.
So, despite the thinnish plot, how does Lijo manage to keep you hooked to the proceedings for two hours?
Use Of Humour
How often in Malayalam cinema have you seen jokes around death – or around the dead body, literally?
Writer P.F Mathews pokes fun at our inherent tendency to overreact to things. And to drive home this point, he has broadly two sets of characters:
The women of the house: The moment we follow Eeshi into the house after a shriek, we see that the three women – Eeshi’s mother (Pauly Valsan), wife and sister – have already taken their positions by the dead body and have begun crying in full spirit. This crying becomes a sort of BGM for the film, and every time, the cry becomes the setup for a bigger joke.
Every time someone new enters the house, the women would either be sleeping or sitting by the wall. As soon as his mother sees new folk she’d instantly break into that song of mourning. (Look out for the mother taking potshots at people while also crying for her dead husband. Absolute gold!) Eeshi’s wife, on the other hand, is more concerned about wearing enough jewellery to show her visiting parents that she’s well-to-do in Eeshi’s household.
The villagers: We’re quite sure Vavachan has died out of a mix of old age and excessive drinking. And so, when we see several scenes of random villagers standing outside the house discussing conspiracy theories of who could have KILLED Vavachan, it’s amusing.
There are no “written jokes” in the film. As in, there are no prompts and punchlines. But there are a few conversations that make you laugh at the vanity and stupidity of your own amazeballs species. At its core, Ee Ma Yau is a satire on the idiosyncrasies of human behaviour. A lot of these “behavioural jokes” revolve around death- a situation we’ve generally been solemn about.
And then there are ample doses of dark humour. When Vavachan’s body is brought out of the house, the coffin breaks, the ladies start crying again, there’s total commotion…and in the midst of this chaos, a clarinet goes off-tune. Everyone stops and turns towards the meek clarinet player. Similarly, the man assigned to dig Vavachan’s grave is later found dead inside the very grave he dug for Vavachan. This wry brand of humour is peppered onto the gravest (pun not intended) scenes of the film.
Shyju The Man
The “Long Night” episode in Game of Thrones S8 at least had fires light up most of the scenes. Here, LJP has entrusted the job of capturing the events of the night with minimal artificial lighting, to Bossman DOP Shyju Khalid. Somewhere in the middle of the film, I caught myself straining my eyes to understand what was happening, just like one would in pitch darkness. That’s how real it gets.
And then there are, of course, the long takes. Lijo’s love affair with single-take shots is pretty well-known after he pulled off that 11-minute cracker of a climax in Angamaly Diaries. Here too, he uses it to good effect, mainly to follow characters around the house, often to expose their hypocrisies (in rooms away from the funeral hall, they behave like their true selves).
Everybody Is Crazy!
For the time he’s alive on screen, Vavachan is shown to be a delusional senile man who blabbers to himself. He dies, and the women of the house start their non-stop crying (read lunatics). At this point, we just hope Eeshi and his Member friend Ayyapan (a solid Vinayakan) see the funeral through. That’s when Eeshi starts doing extremely impractical things under the pressure of having to host a big fat funeral. This is where the Vicar (Dileesh Pothen) enters the scene, but unfortunately, this man being an avid reader of detective novels, sensationalises the death and brings the police into the mix.
And then there are gossip mongers and street-fighters and drunkards. Every escalation by natural and human forces takes Eeshi one step closer to madness. Ayyapan is the sole voice of reason throughout the film. It’s like he has been sent by the viewer. He does and says exactly what we (as rational viewers) want. And yet, he doesn’t have control over the proceedings. The shitload of insanity in this universe is too heavy for his shoulders.
That Cryptic Ending
In an almost mystical scene, we see Vavachan and the grave-digger standing at the seashore. Two boats sail towards them from two directions, and the viewer is quick to presume that they are the boats to Heaven and Hell. Now there’s an interesting criss-cross arrangement here. While the man in white robes stands next to the gravedigger and the man in black stands next to Vavachan, the direction of the boats is inverted (have a look at the following image). While one (the gravedigger) received a neat funeral officiated by the priest, the other was haphazardly buried to the ground by his own son. And yet, they stand waiting at the same shore, which leads us to think that the whole idea of Heaven and Hell is a joke in Lijo’s universe. Funerals are just another prahasanam (farce) for all we know. What if everybody, despite their differences, met the same fate after Death?
Another awesome bit of trivia is that the white-robed and black-robed men are actually the card players by the sea (recurring characters in the film). Rewatch the film, and you’ll see that their dialogues are laden with life-death metaphors.
At no point does the film feel like an acted-out piece of work. Right from the opening shot (credits roll) of the film, the camera just follows events as they occur. It’s all very abstract, so what strikes you needn’t necessarily strike me. I’m sure that there are shots, allusions and dialogues I didn’t completely understand in this film (the significance of the “tree” which Vavachan worships, for example). So if you have any kickass theories, fire away in the comments section, please?
To Sum It Up…
A meditative yet satirical take on death, Ee.Ma.Yau was an experiment. But that’s basically all of LJP’s films. The best part about being his fan is that you never know when he’s going to come out with a Triple Barrel (read, failed experiment). It’s exciting that he’s so unpredictable. There’s a lot of blood and sweat behind every launch, and every launch is a calculated experiment. Every launch takes us one notch closer to an alien territory. So in a way, can I say Lijo is the one-man ISRO of Malayalam cinema? Am I pushing it too far? Okay bye!
Recommendations For You
- Based on theme: Shavam is a lesser-known, delightful dark comedy which also has a funeral premise.
- Based on look-and-feel of the film: Ozhivudivasathe Kali and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum are social commentaries that push realism to insane heights.
- Based on humour: Amen and Angamaly Diaries (Lijo’s own films) have variations of this brand of satirical humour.