As the end credits of Aaraattu rolled, I had only one thought: this could’ve been a brilliant film.
Okay, hear me out before you catch me by my legs and smack me to the ground. I don’t think Aaraattu came even close to being a memorable mass film that would have potentially joined the ranks of Ravanaprabhu and Aaram Thampuran. But it might as well have created its own genre of ‘unrealistic entertainment’ called Meta Mass. If you have watched Aaraattu (and even if you haven’t, you’ve probably heard of this) you’ll agree with my argument that the core motivation for writer Udayakrishna to pen this film may have been the idea to not take itself too seriously, while stringing together a bunch of references to previous Mohanlal films. Not a disastrous thought on paper, yeah?
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Right from the introduction sequence of Neyyatinkara Gopan, we are subjected to the aforementioned A10 references. While the initial few callbacks somewhat work, as time progresses, the predictability of the callbacks shoots up. As soon as Gopan enters his tharavadu, we hear sounds from the Devasuram universe. A few moments later, Gopan is walking through a corridor and he stops by the window to one of the rooms, inspecting a sound… and we know it’s going to be a Nagavalli reference. Soon enough, he takes a dip at the pond and again, we know it’s going to be a Narasimham reference. If you feel this was forced, let me remind you that a character was named Balettan just so the makers can play a modern cover of the Baletta theme song when Gopan is on his way to see Balettan. When we see Balettan whose legs are paralysed, we wonder what reference the makers have up their sleeve – Chandralekha comes to mind but the context is way too different to be a subject of parody here, and we move on – but lo and behold! Gopan begins to croon Thamarapoovil – it’s a Chandralekha reference indeed. Yawn.
“Don’t think too much. Just sit back and enjoy the callbacks. Just show your love for Lalettan and cheer at every turn”, Udayakrishna is probably saying. But how on earth are we supposed to enjoy scenes that look so contrived and add zero value to the plot? The buildup to such scenes leaves no space for guessing, resulting in what I’d call the “premature ejaculation of mass”.
Now, imagine how amazing Aaraattu would’ve been if the writer had used references as narrative tools to progress the story (of course, for that they needed to first build a story but keep that aside for now). A string of unpredictable callbacks would have kept the audience guessing at every point; it would’ve been a game that involved and entertained the masses – and would have actually resulted in Aaraattu being the unrealistic joyride that the makers promised.
I think the earliest filmmakers to have used referencing, did it as a mark of respect for any piece of art that inspired them. And when done tastefully, it can really elevate a scene or a segment of the film. I was thinking of the various cases in Malayalam cinema where creators have referenced earlier works, and I realised that the purpose and mode of referencing were often different. I’ve tried to collate a few of these types below:
A film can be used to put other films in perspective, and offer a commentary on the discussions they triggered. One of the subplots that really worked for me in Super Sharanya was the Arjun Reddy spoof, ie the Ajith Menon bit. Ajith Menon is portrayed as a temperamental final year student in Sharanya’s college – a bad boy heartthrob-cum-genius. The only difference is that in this satirical universe, the audience doesn’t take Ajith seriously. The execution of this subplot makes one think how Arjun Reddy, sans glorification (read power-packed BGMs and slow-motion shots) was actually a total creep who had zilch idea about consent.
This is when the director wants to place a cue in the backdrop of a scene. It is not explicitly shown in the scene, but is rather an element of the detailing. In Bheeshma Parvam, the camera hovers for one second over a poster of Adipapam playing at Ajanta theatre – at that moment, you either get that it’s a Big B reference, or you don’t. Either way, you don’t lose the essence of the scene.
Sometimes the makers add a familiar sound or visual element to add context to the scene. The second phase of Premam begins with a pitch-black screen, complemented by a dialogue from Rajamanikyam – “Thalle, kalippu theeranillalla!” I think this was not just a marker of the time the story is set in, but also a marker of George’s transformation from a pazham to an angry young man. In fact, Premam is filled with such explicit cues (Neram, Commissioner, Guna to name a few).
This is a relatively more sophisticated way to pay homage to a film. The editing pattern of the murders in Malik’s third act bear a strong resemblance to the murder sequence in Godfather’s climax. And it is understandable, considering how Malik draws thematic inspirations from the Francis Ford Coppola film. It’s a subtle touch that isn’t meant to evoke resounding claps from the audience, but rather a hat-tip, at best waiting to be noticed by cinephiles. Have a look at The Godfather clip and you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Celebrating Reel Legacy
There’s something special about an actor in a movie, reliving moments that they’ve been through in previous movies. And so filmmakers often turn to milking their leads’ reel legacy, by reproducing their celebrated dialogues and songs in a new context. It felt nostalgic to hear Mohanlal say “Narcotics is a dirty business” again in Lucifer after 30 years. Similarly, in Three Kings, during the opening sequence, each character (Jayasurya, Indrajith and Kunchako Boban) is introduced with a romantic song from their respective movies from their past. Suresh Gopi recreating his iconic Malaramban step in Varane Avashyamundu is yet another example. In short, this is the biggest crowd-pleaser of the lot. (This is what Aaraattu was going for, I suppose.)
Celebrating Real Legacy
This is, in my opinion, the most explicit method of referencing; where films decide to go beyond the boundaries of filmverse, and actors break the fourth wall to directly address the audience about something they already know. When Nivin Pauly says, “Ente premam Keralathile kunju pillerku polum ariyaam” in Njandukalude Naatil Oru Idavela, it is a play on the actor’s blockbuster Premam and is designed to elicit cheer from the audiences, who immediately spot the reference and feel validated in the process. The real-life personalities of actors are also often used for this: case in point, Mukesh’s sporting self-jibe in Adi Kapyare Koottamani when he says, “11 mani kazhinj ente swabhavam enganann ariyallo?” All in all, least artful but oftentimes most effective.
I’m probably missing out on many other instances and purposes that a reference is dished out to serve. But my point is that when there are so many ways to call back moments from earlier films, creators need to really sit on them and make them as seamless and unexpected as possible. I personally wish that someone reworks the idea of Aaraattu and produces a Chirakodinja Kinavukal sort of setup helmed by stars with a huge body of work to choose from – Mohanlal/Mammootty/Suresh Gopi maybe? Sambhavam pwolikkum!