2023 started with the release of three high budget commercial films from Tamil cinema - their sights set on the pan-Indian audience and its potential revenue. Meanwhile, Malayalam cinema continues its trend of perfecting the bare essentials of film. Lijo Jose Pellissery has seen critical success with his films since his directorial debut in 2010: ‘Nayakan.’ This year’s contribution from Pellissery is ‘Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam’, a bilingual Malayalam/Tamil film starring a titan of Malayalam cinema, Mammooty.
The film opens on a group of family and neighbours on their return journey visiting Velankanni in Tamil Nadu, organised by James played by Mammooty. James is a sensible man, who takes care of his family and has been designated with the responsibility of ensuring the trip runs smoothly. He is not a fan of Tamil food or culture - as seen through his distaste for the “sugar syrup”-like tea and requesting for the music on the bus to be changed. Following lunch, the travellers take a siesta, from which James is the first to arise. James asks for the driver to stop the bus and walks off into a field in a daze, seemingly aimlessly. He arrives at a Tamil village and enters a household, greeting the occupants in fluent Tamil with familiarity. The rest of the film follows a series of strange events shrouded in ambiguity and mystery, told in a dreamlike way.
Mammooty delivers a pitch perfect performance as James, a man who seems to adopt the life of a Tamil man named Sundharam. He never slips into histrionics or eccentricities to demarcate the two personalities, adding to the mystery of his onscreen antics. The supporting cast also turn in great and understated performances. Ashokan, as the grocery store keeper urgently looking to return to open his store, plays his annoyance and grievances well.
The filmmaking is exceptional. Theni Eswar’s camera is often static or slow moving, but always captivating: beams of light shoot through dark rooms, with wisps of dust rising ethereally up them. One shot captures two distraught pairs of mother and child, taking up a corner of the screen each. In one scene, the screen is split by red and green lighting, and we watch Mammooty reenact a scene from Sivaji Ganesan’s dual role 1973 film ‘Gouravam,’ switching between the characters as he steps in and out of the two hues. This is metafiction executed well. Eswar’s work in ‘Taramani’, ‘Merku Thodarchi Malai’ and ‘Peranbu’ are equally impressive, and I hope he continues this streak of expert cinematography.
The film has no music composer or background scorer, instead using snippets of old Tamil cinema songs and scenes heard from televisions sets from within numerous homes or booming out of the speakers at a cinema. The lyrics to the songs and the dialogue heard in the films often subtly mirror what we see from James as he goes about his day. This mirroring between film and reality is a key component of ‘Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam,’ with the travellers fearing for their lives in the “shady” Tamil village, perhaps an image built from the violent Tamil cinema that takes place in such rural settings. In reality, the peaceful and cosy village seems to be half awake too, with its habitants sauntering leisurely under the midday sun.
Overall, ‘Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam’ is a film about duality: both a wonderful slice of life film and a philosophical work of magical realism. Equally importantly, it is a masterful display of fantastic filmmaking, both simple and brilliant. Mammooty’s script choices have been excellent of late, especially 2018’s ‘Peranbu’ directed by Ram, which was my favourite Tamil film of the 2010s.
Available to stream on Netflix.
Krishna's rating: 4.5 stars
Official trailer for the film below.