Chaos is what one associates with filmmaker Lijo Jose Pellisserry, whether talking about the visual style or sound design or the narrative. In Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam, screened in the International Competition category at the ongoing 27th International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK) in Thiruvananthapuram, chaos is the one element that is conspicuous by its absence.
In the rather peaceful landscape the film inhabits, there is no buffalo running amok or any foul-mouthed men roaming about as if caught in a spiral without an end. Rather, one gets the feel of the late afternoon breeze and the slanting sun, but the nap that results from it is anything but peaceful.
A line from Thirukkural – ‘Death is sinking into slumbers deep, birth again is waking out of sleep’ – sets off the narrative. A group of Malayalis returning from a pilgrimage falls asleep as their bus winds its way back through rural Tamil Nadu in the afternoon. James (Mammootty) wakes up and asks the driver to stop the bus near a village in the middle of nowhere and walks off. Soon, he is inside a house in the village, behaving like Sundaram, a man who disappeared from there a while ago. All the chaos that is absent from the screen seems to have been bottled up inside the mind of James who makes a quick, seamless transition from James to Sundaram, both in gait and in language.
S. Hareesh’s writing rests on this single trick that, at times, one wonders whether the script has enough in it to sustain till the end. The fact is that it does, with minor slip-ups. This has to do with the authenticity of the world that Lijo and his visual and sound design team create. All through, the soundtrack is provided by yesteryear Tamil cinema, with snatches of dialogues and songs playing out of the television screens in the village households and from the shops.
Some of the lines from these songs, of course, have a direct relationship to what is happening on the screen, while others serve the purpose of just setting the mood. Most memorable of these is the old song Mayakkamaa, kalakkamaa, manadhilae kuzhappamaa, vaazhkkaiyil nadukkamaa... (Is it a nap or turbulence, is there a confusion in your heart, is there uncertainty in your life?).
What happens to the protagonist is certainly not in the believable territory, but the writing and the treatment convince one to think that this could happen to anyone, as the characters around him tell each other often. Caught on either side are two groups, of Malayalis and Tamilians, whose suspicions and misconceptions of each other are shown to ebb away as they face the adversity together. The underlying current of ‘South bonding’ is unmissable.
Lijo seems to be aware of the star he is working with, sneaking in a few references to Mammootty’s films, most notably the scene where a bit from Samrajyam plays on the video coach. This rather uncharacteristic move on his part is one of the things that sticks out. But, the star is mostly absent at other times as we get either James or Sundaram on screen. With his recent choice of films, Mammootty has clearly laid out a path for the current phase of his career, with James/Sundaram becoming a glittering addition to his list of memorable characters.
The frills of some of Lijo’s earlier films, some of which border on the pretentious, are absent here. Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam certainly ranks among his best works.