Review: Sanu John Varughese’s ‘Aarkkariyam’, with Biju Menon, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Sharaf U Dheen

Posted on April 13, 2021

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Spoilers ahead…

“Aarkkariyam” stars Parvathy Thiruvothu, Biju Menon and Sharaf U Dheen, and has been directed by Sanu John
Varghese. Now, the film is a mystery, you could even call it a murder mystery, but it is actually more about the mystery that people are. Like, it’s about the mystery that makes a woman fall for a man who’s blatantly unsuitable for her. It’s about the mystery that makes this man good to some people and bad to other people. It’s the mystery about this man being described as a god-fearing person and yet doing some really bad things. It’s about the mystery that makes a woman who grew up without a mother keep her daughter in a hostel that’s far away even though she knows that her daughter is going through the exact same thing that this woman did; which was growing up without a mother. And, finally it’s about the acts of god which are the most mysterious of all.

Now, God is a big presence in this movie which begins in Mumbai, in a very posh flat occupied by the Parvathy Tiruvothu and Sharaf U Dheen characters, their names are Roy and Shirley, they are married to each other, they are each other’s second spouses. In the very first scene, we see that Roy is in trouble. He’s looking at his computer screen, he’s blank, he has got a consignment that is stuck in the dock that’s not coming out and he knows that he has to pay a bribe, so there is that tension in him. It’s late at night and he remarks, how wonderfully, how soundly his wife is sleeping and that is because of her faith in God. This wife inherits this faith from the Biju Menon character, her father, for whom everything is an act of God. Now Roy is trying to be that way, he says “You should not worry about things that are beyond your control.” But that consignment is stuck and he needs to get it out.

Now this itself could be the story about how a business guy is stuck with a really taxing problem and how that’s affecting his family, that is, his wife and his step-daughter who’s far away in that hostel. But another act of God, in the form of Covid, strikes and they find out they have to take this long car journey from Mumbai to Kerala to be with Shirley’s father — and this is where this beautiful film really takes off. Usually films accelerate, they establish character, plot points, actions, events and then use these to drive forward. What happens here, is that, the film decelerates, that’s the best thing about the film because we feel like we are locked down with these characters. We feel like we are in that big Kerala house with them, those big luscious gardens behind the house and we feel that the lack of events that these characters are feeling, where very simple things are happening every day on a routine basis. They eat, they do trivial
things and make small talk. The extremely simple things that we experienced in lockdown, we are encountering them confronting the same things.

Now apart from the director, Aarkkariyam is made by stupendous contributors. One is the editor Mahesh Narayanan, who takes his deliberate pace to define the movie. The second is the composer Sanjay Divecha who uses an acoustic guitar to define the background sound of the film. You know how the acoustic guitar is like a gentle folk instrument, so it really kind of plays down a lot of what is happening even though what’s on screen may be ultra-dramatic. The background score never explodes even when in our minds the events are quite explosive. The result of this score, direction and music is that the film feels utterly organic and completely un-cinematic, it feels like we are naturally in a lockdown state which is an unnatural state, of course, where anything can happen because it was certainly unexpected and therefore nothing is special enough to be overemphasized.

The screenplay does a lot of things very delicately and very exquisitely. I really like the fact that even though a lot of bad things happen in this movie there are no really bad people and that is part of the mystery that I was talking about earlier, because people are such mysteries because they can be bad people to some but good people to others so it’s very hard to come right down the middle and say this is who this person is, because that other part might still be a mystery to us.

The character developments are quite beautifully done. I love how Roy progressively changes into his father-in-law, a man, at first you think he has nothing in common with. It’s not like they are enemies, in fact one of my favourite scenes is when after the long drive from Mumbai. They reach Kerala at the father-in-law’s house and Shirley goes and hugs her father and before that itself Roy has gone and hugged his father-in-law as well, he calls for a group hug rather than letting go when Shirley approaches to hug her father. It’s not like they are enemies of any sort — but there are certain things about Biju Menon’s character that are very different from who Roy is, and yet there are facts that they have in common. For example, the fact that both of them are doing business and both of them either face losses, like in the case of the pig farm, or like Roy who could be staring at the big disaster that lies ahead.

And because Covid has changed everything, it has changed our perspective on everything, how we look at stuff, how suddenly a certain, sure world yesterday has been turned upside down today, Roy’s perspective has also started to change, about how he was rigid about certain things being right or wrong earlier, slowly as the film flows he also flows along with the scheme of things and begins to understand that things happen, and they cannot and need not always be categorised as right or wrong, sometimes we must just go with the flow.

Aarkkariyam is in a way an existential film and in a way an experiential film because in a way we experience a lockdown along with these characters. The events are downplayed to such an extent that when the Big Reveal comes, which is quite the reveal, it is unmasked so casually that I practically laughed although there was no trace of humour. Maybe you also call it a religious film in a way because it shows how this Roy character who’s really the protagonist, is also forced to accept things as “mysterious” and as “acts of God’ because there is no earthly way to explain these things. In a strange way, this is also a very religious film because it allows the Roy character, to accept things as the way they are as acts of God, because when he first hears about the Big Reveal, his first instinct is to recoil and investigate on his own about whether this thing happened or what really happened. But slowly he learns to let go and just go with the flow, and maybe because I am at a similar point in life, I really felt a connection with this action of Roy.

Of course the performances are brilliant by all three — but the only thing that felt off was maybe the last bit, where there is a bit too much plot happening around the Shirley character in terms of an explanation. I wondered whether a film so delicate and understated needed this small bit of a character plot — in the sense that it felt too concrete for the rest of the film that flows like a gentle river.

But the rest of this film is an understated gem.

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