The long-awaited collaboration between Malayalam cinema’s icons Lijo Jose Pellissery and Mammooty is finally here and it is everything film lovers could have asked for. Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (A mid-day stupor) is an utterly unique, quirky and whimsical experience. Making films that are unique is nothing new to Lijo Jose Pellissery. But to see him weave his signature wizardry with a legend like Mammootty in front of the camera takes this dreamy and magical film to new heights.
Beginning with a series of shots of everyday men and women on the streets, marketplaces and places of worship, Nanpakal finds and accentuates the beauty of the mundane side of life. There is a certain simplicity in the tone of the film that comes across as very endearing and sincere. A simple story with ‘ordinary’ human beings as characters, it becomes all the more beautiful, special and unbelievable due to its minimalist presentation and natural performances. This blending of the mundane with the mystical qualifies Nanpakal as a story in the genre of magical realism. The story follows a bus full of people who are forced to take an unexpected detour on their trip back from a pilgrimage when the protagonist James suddenly turns into a completely different person. “What is he doing? Where is he going? Has he gone mad?”, the audience wonders with amused anticipation along with the rest of the fellow travellers of the protagonist. This absurd turn of events progresses beautifully and seamlessly while slowly building suspense.
Accompanying this anticipation is wonderful situational humour that comes in waves. Seeing megastar Mammooty play such an honest simple commonman is truly refreshing and perhaps nothing adds gravity to the film’s humour and minimalism as Mammooty’s screen presence does. The juxtaposition of the two characters _ John and Sundaram _ he plays is stuff of cinematic brilliance. Mammootty’s performances Sundaram, a Tamil, and James will go down as one of the most memorable by the veteran in recent years. With the switch in characters, the film also explores the relationship between Tamils and Malayalees _ neighbours, fellow Dravidians, countrymen, sometimes friends, sometimes foes. This multilayered relationship is explored with a certain emphasis given to the Malayalee prejudice against Tamils for many reasons. It’s quite fascinating that the film starts off by displaying the textbook definitions of the words Kerala and Tamil Nadu on the screen.
The entire film is presented in static shots. There is perhaps one shot at a critical point in the story that has minimal movement, outside of which, every other shot by the cinematographer Theni Eswar consists of static frames. Considering that Lijo himself grew up around the culture of theatre and the fact that the bus used by the group returning from the pilgrimage is that of a theatre group, one can make a calculated guess that the film is a homage to the art form of theatre and the culture of stage plays. This element of paying homage to traditional stage plays is sprinkled throughout the film in the form of frames, dialogues and certain quirky moments in the performances of the characters, and so on. The film has an overall retro feeling to it. The yellow tinge in the visuals adds to this mood perfectly. And the film’s soundtrack heightens the retro feel more than anything else. Interestingly, it has no original soundtrack. Throughout the film we are greeted by dialogues and songs from old Tamil films. The words we hear add a new layer of philosophical commentary to the events that are happening on the screen. This really enriches the overall experience and elevates Nanpakal’s uniqueness. One can’t help but lap up the beauty of those old songs and enjoy the retro aesthetics Lijo has served up.
Although it is Lijo’s story, the screenplay is by his familiar collaborator S. Hareesh. The duo had previously created the masterpiece that was Jallikettu as well as the mindboggling vision of Churuli. No other aspect of this film borders on genius like the structure of its screenplay. How does one manage to take a simple story that does not in theory have a climax and transform it into a masterfully balanced, slow cooked entertaining film that leaves us satisfied by giving us the impact of a climax? Hareesh’s exhibits an extraordinary craftsmanship. The way he uses the frustration of the people in the bus desperately looking to find a solution to their predicament and keeps building that up to a point of no return and then surprisies the audience with a simple solution is magical storytelling.
Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam is a film that will be remembered and savoured for many years to come and the filmmakers and artists who created this wonderful film have done us all a favour by boldly attempting something fresh and heartwarming. Lijo Jose Pellissery has done the impossible again, making genuine meritorious art that is also doing well at the cinemas.