Ganesh Raj made an interesting debut in 2016 with Anandam: While the film captured the imagination of many a college-going student and became a runaway box office hit, the digital release of the film triggered the exact opposite response, making it the subject of various trolls. I liked the movie; it had its heart in the right place and was well shot. However, the dialogues and the core conflicts weren’t moving enough for a cathartic Dil Chahta Hai-ish aftertaste. Yet, this lapse in writing didn’t stop me from believing that Ganesh Raj, the director holds promise. I was keen to know what this guy would make next. Another (hopefully tighter) campus-based feel-good film?
But Ganesh surprised us all with the cartoonized first-look poster of Pookkaalam a few months back – a tale centred around a married couple in their nineties, dealing with a segment miles away from the college-going cohort that had accepted him previously. The film was released this Easter weekend, and I watched it on a Monday morning at a reasonably packed cinema hall in Trivandrum. There are a few things to unpack in this family drama, and I’m wondering how much of it can be done without venturing into spoiler territory (which I’ll ensure) – but I’ll try my best.
Ittoop (Vijayaraghavan) is a man in his nineties who lives a quaint life with his wife, Kochuthresiyamma (KPAC Leela), in the house they had built 80 years ago. Their children and grandchildren are all around and making merry as the preparations for their granddaughter Elsy’s (Annu Antony) wedding are in full swing. But on the engagement day, Ittoop stumbles upon an old – (fifty-year-old) – letter. Shocked by the contents of it, he decides to take a course of action that’d shake up the family as nothing else would.
If there’s one unanimous takeaway from Pookkaalam, it’s that Vijayaraghavan, the actor, has re-arrived, and how! In what could be touted as the role of a lifetime, he shines in every frame as Ittoop – making him both likeable and despicable as the story progresses. His micro-expressions, dialogue delivery and body language do not feel like an exaggeration or imitation for one second. Ronex Xavier’s makeup department also does a neat job with the prosthetics.
KPAC Leela gets an equally prominent role, and she does a deft job of balancing energies (Vijayaraghavan is louder and more dramatic) to keep things grounded and real. The rest of the cast is good as well. Annu Antony is hilarious in a sequence where she dreads her wedding being cancelled. (I hope people utilise her comic timing more!) Arun Kurien brings the required charm and mirth to Susheel (Elsy’s hubby-to-be). Arun Ajikumar as Elsy’s younger brother Guinesss was a fun addition to the mix. Jagadeesh, Roshan Mathew and Ganga Meera do a neat job of the trim material they are given.
Apart from the above family members, three ‘outsiders’ bring the house down in their limited screentime – Basil Joseph, Vineeth Sreenivasan and Johny Antony. I don’t want to divulge much about their characters. Still, I wished there was more of this ‘comedy track’, because they effortlessly took the film to its entertaining highs without being tonally jarring.
A Tale about Empathy
My favourite aspect of stories is that they prompt you to think from different perspectives. Given their audiovisual appeal, films usually do an even better job of this than books. And so, where Pookkaalam soars is when it brings its power couple – played by Vijayaraghavan and KPAC Leela – into prime focus. Because, let’s face it, we’ve had an abysmally low number of films that have explored the psyche of a Malayali living through their nineties: Nursing an unspoken-but-understood love for their spouse while expressing with abandon, their love for their grandchildren, the disregard towards the prospect of their Death, and yet the pain of losing their loved ones to Death; love for customary practices and people, while battling the boredom that arises from too much familiarity. It’s a pretty fascinating dichotomy!
The general approach of anyone towards a person in this age category is casual and light. But does anyone in their families or society try to understand them beyond the regular small talk? Why do we assume that they do not have the cognitive abilities to rise above small talk? What if they are young at heart and take themselves seriously rather than seeing life as a passive wait for the End? The film makes you think along these lines by shedding light on Ittoop and Kochuthresiyamma’s motivations and actions.
I call Pookkaalam a film about Empathy because building empathy works on two levels here; while one is about understanding the elderly, as mentioned above, the other is about understanding people who have done things against the conventional moral code of conduct. For example, there is a morally wrong act that is committed by one of the characters at a point in the story: and instead of immediately cancelling them out, the film gives the character some breathing space to explain why, at that point in time, the said action seemed the most logical alternative to them, and by way of this, allows for a convincing apology. This is why Ganesh, the writer, has matured well above his Anandam days despite the sometimes-superficial dialogues.
Not Just another ‘Feel-Good’ Padam
As the family members get to the bottom of the fifty-year-old secret, and the shocking revelations that come forth, the viewer realises that it isn’t just a film about a marriage that has lasted 80 years. It is also about the lives of yesteryear ladies who dared to aspire despite the patriarchal ways of their households. It is also about people’s choices to find solace in dire situations. Furthermore, it is also about the power of forgiveness and second chances.
There was a time, not so long ago, when films, sans an intense conflict, movies that just exuded vibrance and positivity, just flew high among the masses (à la Sunday Holiday). However, given the increased average exposure to international content post the pandemic, I doubt if such films hold ground today – and hence I believe that the future of “feel-good films” is in packing in layers to the standard template; in effect, making the films more discussion-worthy, rather than just eye (or heart) candy.
One of the main issues that I had with Pookkaalam was its so-so first half. The film was supposed to be light and mellow in the first half, slowly picking up pace and finally getting into its heavy subject matter in the second half. The second half works as intended, but the first half could have been lighter and tighter – some of the comedy doesn’t land, while some of the sequences feel repetitive and stretched out. In addition, there needs to be more subplots to keep the viewer engaged, so the scenes that do not concern the main plot feels very contrived and flat (the only exception being the Basil-Vineeth combination scenes).
Still, I believe that its heart is in the right place (like its predecessor, Anandam) and, this time, the emotions, the conflicts and the cuteness also work better – which could make it the wholesome family watch Malayalam cinema has been missing for a bit now. So, do let me know your thoughts on Pookkaalam in the comments below!
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