Note: This review is dedicated to all my friends from in & around Thrissur, a city with a lot of warmth and character. Ranjith Sankar is a new generation Malayalam writer-director who has so far shown a lot of care in ensuring that he gets to work on films that are always different from each other. Though his films are contemporary they are still rooted to the Kerala context and that’s why his films have been accepted largely (his debut film Passenger was a critical and commercial success and though his next film Arjunan Saakshi failed, he did bounce back with Molly Aunty Rocks last year). Ranjith has also been noticed for working with popular actors and managing to get them to work on interesting characters, often different from what they’ve done earlier. Getting a big star like Dileep to work in Passenger where the focus was more on Sreenivasan showed his competence and his equation with his actors. This was again seen in Molly Aunty Rocks where in a rare case of a film focusing on a middle aged female character (played by Revathy) he managed to get a popular actor like Prithviraj to play second fiddle, albeit with an interesting character.
After the success of Molly Aunty Rocks it was expected that Ranjith’s next venture would probably be either Sudhi Valmeekam or Mayflower, the former being a film with Prithviraj again and the latter being a romantic film against the I.T background. But surprisingly in June this year, Ranjith announced that he would be doing pushing these 2 films a little ahead and instead come up with a totally different project, Punyalan Agarbathis. Born out of his love for Thrissur, a city with a lot of warmth and character, it was interesting to learn that Jayasurya would not just be playing the main lead in the film but also co-producing the film along with Ranjith himself. Considering that it was the first time that the two of them were working together it was quite commendable to see the alliance, something that told me this was a film to look forward to. The film went on the floors on August 17th and with the first look poster and the trailer coming out in October I was more than hooked to the project. Not only did I get the feel that the city of Thrissur would not just be a background but also play a character by itself in the film, it was also good to see some innovation in the film’s promotions which included setting up a stall in Thrissur where actual sale of Punyalan Agarbathis (the brand being seen in the film and the title of the film) took place.
Punyalan Agarbathis is centred on Joy Thakkolkaran (Jayasurya), a typical Thrissur chap with dreams in his eyes and with an ambition to make it successful. He keeps trying out various business ventures, none of which have worked so far for various reasons. He then sets up a small scale factory to manufacture incense sticks (agarbathis) from elephant dung under the brand name of “Punyalan Agarbathis”. Once again he realizes that despite what he believes to be a killer concept the going is never easy for him. He not only has the bank officials breathing behind his back to repay the loan taken to start the factory, he also has to fight a legal case against the Thrissur Devasom board for their failure to honour their earlier commitment to provide him with elephant dung, without which he cannot manufacture the end product. To make matters worse he ends up being on the receiving end of a political party’s ire during a harthal day. And now he once again takes the legal route to sort out his problems. All through the days of struggle he is well supported by his wife Anu (Nyla Usha), a working woman who ensures that they have a steady income and his friend as well as employee Greenu Sharma (Aju Varghese). The rest of the film is a close look at how Joy goes about trying to handle his problems in his own characteristic way.
Though the film addresses some serious issues and leaves you with some food for thought, care has been taken to ensure that there is no overdose of moral preaching over here. There is an element of satire clearly visible and the humour is of the light hearted every day variety. Getting manpower to work in Kerala is not an easy task especially in industries and we all know that the state has perennially been bogged down by the numerous strikes and harthals called out every year for almost any reason that catches the people’s fancy. Hence while we relate to these topics easily it is also important to handle them in an entertaining way as well and Ranjith Sankar has managed to maintain the balance fairly well. The city of Thrissur as I had expected more than emerges as a character by itself in the film. The last notable Thrissur based film being Pranchiyettan and the Saint, this is a welcome addition to the list of films based in this wonderful city.
Bijibal’s music does justice to the film and both the prominent songs (written by Santhosh Varma) – “Poorangalude Pooram” (sung by P.Jayachandran) and “Aashichavan” (sung remarkably well by Jayasurya) do justice to the film. Sujith Vaassudev’s camera captures Thrissur in all its glory and the film’s pace remains consistent; Lijo Paul’s editing ensuring the momentum never slacks. The film also needs to be appreciated as we see that the women in the film are not just props and relegated to the background. Nyla Usha as Anu lends perfect support to her husband Joy both financially and emotionally. Check out the scene where she literally coaxes a tensed Joy to come along for a drive at night with her on her scooter for example. Rachana Narayanankutty as the advocate representing Joy also has a good presence in the film. Though reluctant to work with him as her fees are due, she continues to make sure that he has adequate legal support.
The film has a host of interesting characters, all of whom enrich the film in their own ways. Sunil Sukhada as Magistrate Baby is superb and his sense of humour is evident from his very first scene. It is always a pleasure to watch Innocent on the screen and though here he does not have much screen presence, he does lend a lot of grace with his presence as John Thakkolkaran, Joy’s grandfather. T.G.Ravi as the social activist, Mala Aravindan as Ayyappan, the head of the elephant mahout’s association, Idavela Babu as K.C.Mathews the politician who becomes the thorn in the flesh for Joy Thakkolkaran are all apt for their roles. A special word of mention is rightly reserved for Sreejith Ravi as the mini lorry driver Abhayakumar. A native of Thrissur himself, Sreejith has totally sunk into the character and brings it out to perfection on screen. This is easily one of the best characters of the film.
Rachana Narayanankutty is very good as Advocate Sai and her constant love-hate relationship with Joy is carried out pretty well. Nyla Usha looks completely different from her role in that of her previous film, Kunjananthante Kada. She plays ideal foil to Joy and it’s good to see the contrast in their characters. While Joy is a simple guy who is more rooted ad more at peace with his simple shirt and dhoti avatar, Anu is certainly trendier and is fashionable. The scene where we get to see Joy and Anu meeting for the first time (flash back) is wonderful and Joy telling her in his characteristic style that he wants to get into business and promises that thus she will either be the wife of someone like an Ambani or that of a madman is hilarious. Aju Varghese as Greenu is very effective and when you hear him tell Joy after he gets beaten up by political goons that though his parents have asked him to stay away from Joy he’ll continue to be with him, makes you warm up to him. He is the kind of friend and supporter one would always wish for in life.
Eventually it is a Jayasurya show and the actor seems to have worked hard on getting the typical Thrissur accent and playing the simple entrepreneur with global ambition. I have always felt that he is a good actor with a lot of potential but somehow he hasn’t found the right space for himself. But with back to back out of the box films like Philips and the Monkey Pen and now Punyalan Agarbathis, it looks like a new chapter in his career has now opened up. It’s a pleasure watching him play Joy Thakkolkaran and he brings out small nuances in the character very well, like the way he refers to two of his employees as “Angry Birds” because he sees them playing the game on their mobiles when they have nothing else to do 🙂 .
Ranjith Sankar eventually makes the audience feel a little nostalgic as well as the film is in the feel good satire space that was once used effectively by filmmakers like Sathyan Anthikkad and Priyadarshan in the 80’s and early 90’s (think of films like Sandesham, Varavelpu, Mithunam, Vellanakulade Nadu etc). Though the film isn’t’t exactly in the league of those films which by now have attained legendary status, it is still a step in the right direction. But despite all this it’s a little surprising to see that the way Joy manages to clear his issues and emerge on top comes across as way too simple. Though the film ends on a good note, I wish the way to reach there was shown in a slightly more convincing fashion.
Go watch Punyalan Agarbathis, it’s a film which is light and easy to assimilate and yet touches a space that’s way too relevant as well.