Sunday, May 6, 2018

REVIEW 597: ARAVINDANTE ATHIDHIKAL


Release date:
Kerala: April 27, Delhi: May 4, 2018
Director:
M. Mohanan
Cast:


Language:
Vineeth Sreenivasan, Sreenivasan, Nikhila Vimal, Urvashi, Aju Varghese, Shanthi Krishna   
Malayalam


A woman abandons her child in a famous temple town during Navarathri festivities in the 1990s. As the little boy desperately searches for her, he is found by Madhavan (played by Sreenivasan). The mother is nowhere to be seen, and Madhavan takes him under his roof where the child grows up to be the happy, sociable Aravindan (Vineeth Sreenivasan), popular among locals and an asset in the small hotel run by his foster father.

He never stops waiting for the beloved parent who left him without a word though. And every year during Navarathri, he mourns her disappearance by refusing to enter the temple despite joining the community in the rest of their celebrations.

Since parent-child separations have been dealt with ad nauseum in Indian cinema down the decades, any film revisiting the theme would have to work doubly hard to make itself worthwhile. The initial appeal of Aravindante Athidhikal (Aravindan’s Guests) lies in its slice-of-life texture and tone (notwithstanding some forced humour), and the close-up it offers of the goings-on around Mookambika Devi Temple in Kollur, Karnataka. The hustle and bustle of the pilgrimage centre alone should have been enough to keep it running, but the film soon strays from its USP in favour of clich├ęs.

Once director M. Mohanan is done with establishing the atmosphere of the town and introducing us to a motley crew of potentially charming characters, it becomes clear that he has only two pre-occupations: one, to introduce a romance between a good-looking young woman and Aravindan, to establish his hero-worthiness in a stereotypical sense; and two, to re-unite Aravindan with his mother.

Mohanan does both in such a lackadaisical, unimaginative fashion, with an extended and silly smokescreen involving a renowned dancer thrown in, that Aravindante Athidhikal is reduced to a pile of very average, sentimental mush.

Malayalam filmmakers really need to get over this self-imposed mandatoriness of a romance in every male protagonist’s life and the trite manner in which such romances are portrayed. The second the actor Urvashi emerges from a bus and the camera pauses, you know a pretty youngster will follow – she does. The moment this youngster called Varada (Nikhila Vimal) appears, you know she and Aravindan will fall in love – they do.

Vineeth and Ms Vimal have zero sparks between them but they are soon smitten. She is shown noticing his innate goodness, possibly to justify those feelings on her part, but frankly, there is an inevitability to their emotions since she is clearly marked out as the designated heroine to his designated hero in this formula.

And the usual track follows: you know, boy meets girl, boy likes girl, boy bugs girl, etc?

As if the derivative writing by Rajesh Raghavan is not bad enough, there is the fact that Vineeth Sreenivasan has neither the charisma nor the acting depth to carry an entire film on his shoulders. His singing is a separate matter altogether. So it is that Vineeth himself saves Aravindante Athidhikal with his distinctive voice dominating the all-pervasive soundtrack by Shaan Rahman. While these numbers are not the best that Rahman has produced in his career, they are melodic enough and the singing (especially of Rasathi by Vineeth) haunting enough to lend an air of sadness to the film where the writing fails.

The ordinariness of the screenplay is particularly painful because Mohanan has assembled gifted artistes in his supporting cast. Veterans Sreenivasan and Urvashi are largely wasted, as is Aju Varghese in the role of Aravindan’s friend. Varghese is one of Mollywood’s finest comedians when he is not trying to lend coolth and cuteness to lecherous behaviour. He and Urvashi have their moments here, but not enough.

Nikhila Vimal’s screen presence lends more substance to her character than the writing affords. Shanthi Krishna makes a mark in a cameo that might have been unbearably melodramatic if it were not for the control she exercises over her histrionics.

Think of what might have been if Aravindante Athidhikal had used the mythology of Mookambika Devi as a metaphor against which Aravindan’s story played out. Or if the writing had thoughtfully referenced Madhavan’s Communist ideals in this profoundly Hindu setting. Or if it had dwelt at length on the bond between a fond old man and an orphan masking his heartbreak at the memory of his mother. Or what fun could have been had in full-length face-offs between Varghese and Urvashi who, when at her best, has the ability to tickle the funny bone like few others can. Wishful thinking, as it turns out.

Even the cinematography by Swaroop Philip does not fully capture the magnificence of Kollur or the Souparnika river that runs through it or the temple. Barring a few interesting frames here and there, the camerawork appears constrained for the most part.

Philip’s best shots are reserved for a scene at a tiny temple on a mountaintop where Adi Shankara is said to have prayed, but there the direction and writing let him down. I could not help but wonder how that scene would have turned out in the hands of director Venu in the mood he was in when he made Carbon last year, or Mohanan himself back when he made his directorial debut with the heartwarming Katha Parayumbol (2007).

No doubt Mohanan means well here too, but Aravindante Athidhikal’s lack of inventiveness gives it a dated feel that is redeemed somewhat by the music. To be fair, the film is not unpleasant. It is simply plain.

Rating (out of five stars): *1/2

CBFC Rating (India):
Running time:
122 minutes

This review has also been published on Firstpost:


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