You sometimes buy a ticket to watch characters you relate to unlike the caricatures that crowd the screen you are used to paying and watching. They are people you wish you could meet and know better which in a nutshell describes most Malayalam films. You don’t have a so-called hero who’s a vagabond, hangs out with a good for nothing gang stalks a girl who’s giggling like someone’s constantly tickling her, confronts crooked cops, power drunk politicians and beats up a band of baddies who keep bouncing off the ground even though they’re built like boxers. Well a distributor friend in Kerala always sniggers and tells me they churn out tripe too and we are lucky the films we get to watch are filtered and sent. But then even their mainstream fare like ‘Lucifer’ are comparatively well written and tautly told. Anyway, if people travel to expensive retreats in Kerala to cool their body and cleanse their colon, I just walk into the nearest hall showing a Malayalam film to calm my senses assaulted by the last blockbuster.
Many a filmmaker from Mrinal Sen to Mani Ratnam has been inspired by tiny news items tucked in the corner of a newspaper. It’s the seed about human endurance in the face of adversity and apathy. The onerous task of writing credible characters and creating sensible situations depends entirely on the cinematic sensibilities of the director. Mrinalda told me his ‘Ek Din Pratidin’ about the wild theories when a working girl doesn’t return from work and ‘Kharij’ where a young servant dies of carbon monoxide poisoning were expanded from news reports. Debutante director Mathukutty seems to have chanced upon a report on the internet about a woman trapped in an industrial meat freezer after her shift ends. Now that’s not enough but what’s caught his eye and how she’s eventually saved by a seemingly innocuous gesture and by whom. That’s the crux and to his credit he along with his writers has written a script with relatable characters, credible situations and an ending that ironically warms the heart as you walk out after watching ‘Helen’.
A ‘survival’ drama can get boring because we know the ending. It’s not only about the survival instincts of the victim but the anxiety of the kin. The director knows this and spends the first half establishing relationships especially between father and daughter. Women in cinema from other states mostly emigrate abroad after marriage, but in Malayalam they yearn to go only to improve their family’s finances despite having to temporarily sever emotional bonds. Helen working part time and studying to improve her English for nursing prospects in Canada reminded me of Parvathy in ‘Takeoff’, but the similarity ends there. In ‘Takeoff’ too, the first half is full of family bonds while the second turns into a thriller. It’s the closeness in the relationships that seem to sharpen the survival instincts. Some of the characters in ‘Helen’ appear briefly, intermittently, but play a key role in crucial situations.
There is an informal atmosphere created in most Malayalam films that remind you of the best in Iranian cinema. The restraint in situations that can easily degenerate into melodrama is remarkable. Watch the warming up in the relationship between Helen’s boyfriend, initially a suspect and her father. There’s a key scene where the couple are caught initially for driving without a helmet which turns crucial to her predicament that’s handled with so much restraint. We’re conditioned to stock situations a pattern in the behaviour of the protagonist and the reaction of the rest in certain scenes. The reactions of key characters in ‘Helen’ are refreshing which you later realise you’re not used to. You feel the father stops talking to his doting daughter because he’s humiliated in the police station but it’s more disappointment that she’s kept a crucial aspect of her life from him. The seemingly impossible efforts by the victim to escape from freezing to death are as engaging as the efforts by her worried friends and family.
In fact, I desisted from telling the multiplex staff to reduce the air conditioning in the sparsely populated hall just to experience a fraction of the protagonist’s predicament. The make-up as hypothermia sets in and the skin reddens is very convincing as is the receding hope in Helen’s eyes. A lot of attention has gone into convincingly answering questions about probabilities and possibilities pertaining to logic. The atmosphere in her workplace or a police station as well as the characters like a supervisor who’s forced into celibacy or a cop with convoluted convictions makes the proceedings plausible. The editing is razor sharp as is the intercutting between the freezer and the confusion outside. The rest of the characters are worried about where the protagonist is while we’re worried about whether she will be saved and will survive.
Anna Ben after showing promise in ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ proves she’s no flash in the pan in the titular role. For Lal it’s a cakewalk as the father. Everybody else right down to Jayaraj in the crucial role of the mall security personnel shine in sharply etched characters. A smile can sometimes save a life and ‘Helen’ proves that because it really happened somewhere.