when we first meet shirley (parvathy thiruvothu) and roy (sharafudheen) in their flat in mumbai, they are preparing for a trip to their father’s house in kerala. these are the early days of covid-19, and masks and sanitizers are already the norm.
the steady rhythm in the couple’s routine belies their tension over roy’s financial dealings with a close friend (saiju kurup, credited here as saiju govinda kurup).
In their modest but comfortable home in Kerala built on extensive grounds, Sophie’s septuagenarian father and widower, Ittyavira Abraham (Biju Menon), manages their land and home. Ittyavira is a retired math teacher and devout Christian. She is testy with the house help (arya salim), but she operates at a pace that mirrors the lives of sophie and roy. however, compared to the youngsters, she doesn’t seem to be dealing with any specific stress. or so we think.
aarkkariyam marks the directorial debut of noted cinematographer sanu john varughese. In the first half, the deliberate languor gives the director time and space to establish Shirley, Roy, and Ittyavira as normal people with regular problems who have faced the regular heartaches inevitable in the existence of any normal human being.
It doesn’t happen much before the interval, but it does get broadcast quite a bit. We feel deep love in this family. the atmosphere in the ittyavira kutumbam is calm and relatively liberal. An indicator of this is the level of comfort between Shirley and Roy when they talk about their past relationships; Another is Roy’s engagement to Ella’s daughter Sophie (Thejaswi Praveen). Away from most Indian homes, work and leisure activities here are shared equally between men and women, cooking and cleaning are not supposed to be Shirley’s domain and no one attaches much importance to this or the fact that Shirley and Roy take turns driving on the road trip from Maharashtra to Kerala. think about how rarely we see the woman driving when a man and a woman are in a vehicle in an Indian movie, and you’ll know why this is significant.
Further hints of ittyavira’s politics come from a scene where he becomes enraged at an individual throwing a thaali as instructed in real life last year by prime minister narendra modi just before the lockdown was declared all over india: it’s fun to notice how much is said without saying a word at the time.
and then, just when the idleness in the narrative is becoming too much, a giant-sized reveal builds a huge amount of anticipation, bigger than it could have been in a movie that had been eventful until then. the reassurance of what follows, even though it just doesn’t work.
aarkkariyam’s writers, sanu himself, rajesh ravi, and arun janardhanan, get a main character to drop the bombshell at the midpoint so quietly that it ends up being more shocking than if it had been done melodramatically. that, however, is the highlight of the film. With the resolution of this mega-issue and the reveal that follows, the script’s philosophical claims are never fully realized.
Throughout the film, ittyavira speaks of an avan (him) to which we must submit. This is an extremely religious man who is convinced that God has a plan and can see a macro image that we humans cannot. Shirley and Roy are also devoted to his faith. and the expression “aarkkariyam” (who knows?) is uttered more than once in confusing situations with the unspoken appendix, “god knows”. belief in god and religion, when handled deftly, can make for a rewarding movie even for atheists and agnostics (not unlike how rationalists might enjoy paranormal thrillers), but aarkkariyam can’t lend credence or substance to the reasoning behind your focal point. and it lacks dynamism.
Shirley’s writing is also a disappointment. The casting of such a major star as Parvathy for the role and the opening scenes create the impression that Shirley, Roy and Ittyavira will have equal prominence in the plot. However, after the interval, it becomes clear that Shirley is important only to the extent that she is important to men. until then too, while she spends as much screen time as they do, the men are the ones with an inner life. she is present throughout, but aarkkariyam is ultimately about the relationship that develops unexpectedly between ittyavira and roy because of a burden they bear together.
This places Sanu in a club of well-intentioned male directors in Malayalam cinema who seem unable to relate to their female leads, and thus unable to write them.
parvathy makes all women better than most stars and she really brings that quality to shirley. That’s why she feels particularly bad that her character slowly recedes into the background while the men take center stage.
as with the casting of then 43 year old suraj venjaramoodu as an old man in kunjappan android version 5.25, here too the question arises why was 50 year old biju menon cast as a man in his 70s when he was a man? actors of ittyavira’s age are active in the industry? A debate on the matter is complicated due to the complexity of the issues involved. Firstly, older men in Malayalam cinema are not denied opportunities in the same way as female actresses; secondly, male lead actors in malayalam like to act as boyfriends, husbands and brothers of young female stars, so the decision to play parvathy’s father could, from a certain angle, be considered adventurous and/or progressive on the part of De Menon: Himself, while in his late 40s, he played the then-22-year-old Nimisha Sajayan’s boyfriend in Nalpathiyonnu (2019). (Unsurprisingly, Biju Menon told the media that when he approached him with Aarkkariyam, he initially thought he was being offered the role of Roy. Well, there you have it.)
This discussion of principle aside, Menon captures the gait, gestures, body language, and demeanor of an elderly man with remarkable accuracy. the makeup team also does a terrific job on his face. his acting is not limited to ‘getting old’ either; he captures the essence of the doting but largely deadpan father that ittyavira is.
The character who experiences the widest range of emotions in the film is Roy, and Sharafudheen, aka Sharafu, is up to the challenge, though he does have a mixture of languages in his dialogue that he doesn’t quite pull off. this is as much a flaw in the writing as it is in the acting. For one thing, the dialogue writing is authentic in its persistent use of Hindi in conversations between Roy and his friend Vyshak because neo-migrants from Kerala to parts of India outside the South often inexplicably abandon Malayalam in favor of Hindi. as a means of communication even with fellow Malayalis and even when they do not speak Hindi well. However, Roy’s insistence on including single English sentences in exchanges with Shirley does not work because the language does not flow fluently in Sharafudheen’s language and it is a fact that, unlike Hindi, Malayalis who are not fluent in English they tend to avoid talking about it. English in these conversations seems especially strange because Shirley responds every time in Malayalam, so clearly this isn’t a case of Roy being forced to speak English to someone who only speaks Malayalam.
the variety of languages in roy’s lines is perhaps meant to convey that he is a long-time resident of mumbai. it turns out that the writing of the dialogue ends up being an unintentional metaphor for aarkkariyam: he tries to make a point but it just doesn’t click.
In addition to actors with an excellent track record, aarkkariyam has a lot going for it: superlative production design (by ratheesh balakrishnan poduval, who previously directed android kunjappan version 5.25), art direction (jothish shankar), and cinematography (g srinivas reddy ) – the only thing i love more than ittyavira’s house is the shoot of his huge property with its pond and thick vegetation. this is a lovely team let down by ineffective writing.
Score: 2.5 (out of 5 stars)
After a brief theatrical run during the pandemic, aarkkariyam is streaming on multiple platforms including neestream, amazon prime video, cave, roots, and first shows.