Every Malayalee has a few things on his/her agenda during the annual Onam festival season. Along with shopping, new clothes, pookalam (flower arrangement like rangoli) and of course the Onam Sadhya (the traditional Onam feast, usually had on Thiruvonam day for lunch) there is the need to catch up on the Onam movie releases as well. Of course of the number of people flocking the theatres during the festive season has dropped drastically over the years and the reasons are twofold. First of all the quality of films that have been releasing during this period has gone down considerably of late and to add to this we have all the satellite channels (multiple channels these days compared to just the few earlier) all vying for our attention by premiering multiple recent films, making people all the more reluctant to leave the comfort of their homes. Last year’s Onam saw 5 films releasing and the winner turned out to be debutant filmmaker Anil Radhakrishnan Menon’s North 24 Kaatham, a film which received both commercial and critical attention, even winning a National Award (Best Malayalam Film).
This year too Onam saw 5 films making it for the final cut, with Arun Vaidyanathan’s Peruchazhi releasing first a week before the festival itself. And curiously enough Arun Radhakrishnan Menon’s Sapthamashree Thaskaraha (seven gentleman thieves) or ST from hereon was among the Onam attractions as well. Call it a case of trying to repeat the success of the last festival season, or as just a mere co-incidence but the timing was indeed looking interesting. Produced by August Cinema (run by Prithviraj, Santosh Sivan and Shaji Nadesan) and featuring an ensemble star cast toplined by Prithviraj, what was surprising was that unlike the earlier films produced by August Cinema (Urumi, Indian Rupee, Kadal Kadannu Oru Mathukutty) there was hardly any news about ST till it was completed and the first look posters and stills were shared. Interestingly apart from releasing the trailer a couple of weeks before the release there was hardly any other publicity done for the film in the run up leading to its release.
Needless to say I was more than curious to know if this was a deliberate strategy on behalf of the producers considering their confidence in the film, or was I missing out on something. Hence I was eagerly looking forward to the film, all the more since I was in Kerala for Onam this time and could watch it with the best ambience possible. Accordingly I ended up watching ST on the very 1st day of release and it was also the last of the Onam releases that I was catching up on. Not having had much luck with the festival season’s other 4 releases in the form of looking up as a true blue festival winner, I was hoping that ST would fill in that need and thankfully the result wasn’t all that different from what I expected. ST is a tale set in and around Thrissur and talks about 7 people who find themselves together in jail for various reasons. Krishnanunni (Prithviraj) and Nobilettan (Nedumudi Venu) have a bitter past which landed them in jail and both of them have been wronged by Pious Mathew (Joy Mathew), a dishonest politician and businessman. The other 5 jail inmates are the angry young Shabab (Asif Ali), the hardworking but dim witted thief Martin (Chemban Vinod), a notorious goonda now gone cuckoo, “Leaf” Vasu (Sudheer Karamana), the electronics and surveillance expert Narayanakutty (Neeraj Madhav) and the magician Salaam (Salaam Bukhari).
Finding that Nobilettan and Krishnanunni have a common axe to grind, they decide to wipe out the illegal wealth accumulated and hoarded by Pious Mathew and his people and the other 5 people also join in for the mission. How do they go about their mission? Do they succeed in their endeavour? Does the wily Pious Mathew get wind of their plans etc are all addressed in the rest of the film. At the very outset let’s be clear that there aren’t too many different ways of ending a heist film. There is also the danger of having the film compared with heist films like Ocean’s Eleven, considering the ensemble cast involved. That’s where Anil Radhakrishnan Menon shines both as the writer and director. He has very clearly been aware of both the problems and tackled them with great finesse. On watching the film one tends to move with the plot and the characters as you are almost literally transported right into the middle of the proceedings. Also in his own way Anil Radhakrishnan Menon has kept the proceedings simple yet effective. This is no high tech heist that we witness, what we see is a fun filled con job, with the narrative keeping the nativity factor clearly in mind.
What ST lacks in terms of grandeur has been well compensated by the humour in the dialogues, some wonderful moments and spot on casting choices. The use of Thrissur baasha or style of speaking works very well and adds to the overall fun quotient. Manoj Kannoth’s editing is first rate and at no point in the entire 148 minute duration do you feel the film losing steam or making the audience feel uneasy. Jayesh Nair’s cinematography does justice to the film especially the interior shots and the various night portions. As for the songs by Rex Vijayan, they do not act as speed breakers and instead flow with the narrative very smoothly. The pick of the lot is “Thaane Pookum” (lyrics by Engandiyoor Chandrasekharan, sung by Job Kurien and Saptaparna Chakraborty) which is used effectively to showcase the romance between Prithviraj and Reenu Mathews.
In terms of moments from the film that hold a lot of appeal, there are quite a few that stay in mind long after watching the film. Martin’s “kumbasaram” (confession) scenes with the priest (played by director Lijo John Pellisserry) are hilarious and so are the back stories of Leaf Vasu and Naryanakutty. Nedumudi Venu who had a stellar role in Anil Radhakrsihna Menon’s North 24 Kaatham this time around has a role that doesn’t demand much out of him. Salaam Bukhari and Flower Battsetseg (who plays his Mongolian girlfriend) are functional and fit their parts. Joy Mathew doesn’t get much scope here as the film is more about the 7 thieves, nevertheless he is a good choice for the antagonist’s role. Sanusha does well to hold her own against actors who are a lot more senior to her, including Nedumudi Venu. Reenu Mathews has more of a cameo over here but she shares good chemistry with Prithviraj. Lijo Jose Pellissery has a blast playing the priest and is the surprise package here. Neeraj Madhav impresses quite a bit as Narayanakutty and his smile and impish charm would surely get him noticed. Sudheer Karamana as Leaf Vasu is hilarious and his dialogues bring the roof down. Chemban Vinod is the pick of the lot as not only he is the most natural of all but he also gets the best of the dialogues and moments in the film. Asif Ali doesn’t really have much to do apart from lending admirable support to the ensemble cast.
Prithviraj once again shines here and he looks very dignified in his portrayal of Krishnanunni. However despite being the biggest draw in the film it is remarkable to see that he does not really stand out as the central protagonist in ST. The film is indeed about 7 major characters and Prithviraj is just part of the group, a very good indicator of the fact that despite being the producer he has kept faith in the director and stayed out of the limelight willingly. In fact Chemban Vinod, Sudheer Karamana and Neeraj Madhav probably stand out a lot more with their unique portrayals, rather than Prithviraj and Asif Ali. With popular actors like them willing to be part of a good film without bothering too much about their own roles, this is a good sign of things to come for the industry. Let’s just hope that we see this happening more frequently in Malayalam Cinema.
Anil Radhakrishnan Menon made a good beginning as a filmmaker with North 24 Kaatham and while it’s never easy to do a good follow up act for a good debut, he seems to have managed to do just the same very creditably. What’s also interesting is that both the films are completely different from each other and a pleasure to watch in their own ways. ST may not be exceptional fare but it is a smart heist film that is engaging all the way. While North 24 Kaatham showed that the director did have a flair for comedy, it comes into the forefront very clearly with ST. And what helps is that the comedy is situational and very convincing, not looking forced at all. It is not surprising that ST has emerged as the best of this year’s Onam releases; this is a film which should go on to do well in the days to come as seen by the positive word of mouth factor that is emerging.