Amal Neerad entered the Malayalam film industry with some amount of promise. After being a cinematographer in a few Hindi films, he turned to direction with the Malayalam film, Big B (2007). Big B had its share of supporters and critics alike and Amal hasn’t shied away from the fact that it wasn’t an original film. The film went on to redefine style as seen in Malayalam Cinema and appealed especially to fans of Mammootty. But with similar attempts in Sagar Alias Jacky Reloaded (2009-Mohanlal), Anwar (2010-Prithviraj) and an outlandish Bachelor Party (2012), it became an overkill and a lot of people including yours truly started getting disappointed. What was even worse was seeing more and more filmmakers adopting a similar approach and failing even more miserably (take for example Aashiq Abu with Gangster earlier this year).
The silver lining in the cloud if I may call that was in the form of the anthology film Anchu Sundarikal (2012), where Amal’s short film, Kullande Bharya was unlike his usual works and was one of the better segments in the anthology. Amal Neerad’s latest film Iyobinte Pusthakam sounded interesting because it was a period film, something that he had not attempted before. Also the fact that Fahadh Faasil was not just toplining the star cast but also producing the film along with Amal made me feel a little more confident about the project. Fahadh has been on a roll of late and chosen some interesting films, so if he was excited enough to produce the film then I felt the film should have to be worth something. Needless to add it was also a film that was crucial for Amal in many ways; it was a chance to please a lot of his detractors and also show that the short film in Anchu Sundarikal was not just a one off case.
Unfortunately the first time around when I saw the film I missed the initial few minutes and hence revisited the film. After all like any cinephile even I hate to miss the beginning of a film, and when I’m reviewing the film the urge is even stronger. Iyobinte Pusthakam (Iyob’s book) or IP from hereon is a tale set in the hills of Munnar, overlooking the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. As the film begins we see the tale being narrated by a veteran communist leader Varkey (Sreejith Ravi portrays the younger version while the older version is played by T.G.Ravi. In the early 20th century we have a Britisher, Harrison (Sal Yusuf) settling down in Munnar and getting into the business of cultivating and trading in tea. A young native working in his plantation catches the attention of Harrison and he soon becomes Harrison’s shadow of sorts. Harrison gets the boy baptized and he becomes Iyob (Lal), who then goes on to marry Annamma (Reenu Mathews) and they in turn have 3 sons. Harrison names the kids as Dimitri, Ivan and Aloshy in reference to characters from his favourite novel, a clear nod to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.
Harrison’s wife gets tired of him and Munnar and goes back to England and that’s when he falls in love with a dusky tribal, Kazhali (Lena) who has relocated to Munnar from the Nilgiris, having been accused of indulging in sorcery over there. Kazhali soon becomes Harrison’s wife and falls pregnant. During the 1st World War with his business going through a tough phase, Harrison decides to go to England and set right some business deals. Unfortunately he passes away in Cochin and that’s when Iyob seizes the opportunity to take over the house and estate of Harrison. He drives away Kazhali, who is in her advanced state of pregnancy. Kazhali on the other hand curses Iyob and his family and everybody around think she has gone mad. Annamma however doesn’t approve of her husband’s action and continues her friendship with Kazhali. While Dimitri and Ivan go on to become tyrants like their father, Aloshy is like his mother and he is content to spend his time with Martha, daughter of Kazhali and Chemban, a tribal friend.
One night after seeing his brothers commit a gruesome murder, Aloshy escapes away into the darkness and reaches Cochin. He goes on to join the British Indian Navy later, takes part in World War II and eventually is dismissed by the Navy for taking part in the Naval Mutiny against the Queen. Thus Aloshy (Fahadh Faasil) returns back home, unsure of his future. But he sees that his father and brothers Dimitri (Chemban Vinod) and Ivan (Jinu Joseph) have not changed for the better. As his friend Chemban (Vinayakan) points out, his brothers are now wolves and need to be kept at bay. What does Aloshy do from thereon? What happens to Iyob, Dimitri and Ivan? How do their lives and the resultant story inspire comrade Punnoose to write a book on the same etc is what we get to see as the film unfolds further.
Gopan Chidambaran’s basic plot and the screenplay allow Amal Neerad to finally break free from his shackles and enter a horizon that he’s never explored earlier. IP is a true blue ensemble film where the actors not just do justice to the characters, but in a way the characters hold their own irrespective of the screen time available. One thing that strikes you very clearly is that Amal Neerad and editor Praveen Prabhakar have understood the requirements of the film very well, and their partnership has borne fruit in fantastic fashion. At a run time of around 160 minutes Amal Neerad gets the freedom to establish the plot and the characters in the right fashion, but at the same time the film has a fairly good grip on the pace and there’s no feeling of the film looking stretched at any point of time. This by itself is no mean achievement and it gives the film great impetus.
Amal Neerad doubles up as the cinematographer as well and it would be an understatement to call IP as a visually stunning film. The lush green valleys & the vibrant joys of nature are captured brilliantly in the film by Amal Neerad and the film also does justice to the period being covered in the film (the narrative spreads from 1900-1976). The music by Neha S.Nair and Yakzan Gary Pereira is fantastic, especially the BGM. The opening titles which by itself are funky with its World War II theme are made even more special with the eclectic background score. As for the songs (lyrics by Rafeeq Ahmed for the 3 songs in the film), “Raave” (sung by Haricharan and Neha S.Nair) and “Maane” (sung by Anil Ram and Neha S.Nair) are aesthetically shot and soothing as well. But “Theeyattam” (sung by Amala.C and Walid Bensalim) which even has Amala Paul grooving to it actually is a misfit of sorts in the film. Rather than surprising us with her presence, Amala Paul’s presence actually distracts, what with her bright red lipstick and choice of costumes which by no chance make her look like a tribal, which was probably the original intention.
Another area that the film scores is in terms of the production design, be it the tribal dwellings, Harrison’s bungalow, the various props used ranging from vintage cars, the weapons used etc all lend an authentic touch to the period depicted in the film. Sameera Saneesh’s costumes are in sync not just with the period setting but also with the character sketches. Tapas Nayak’s sound design is of top class quality and considering that he has even done the Dolby Atmos mix for the film watching it in a Dolby Atmos screen would be an even better prospect I guess. The film has one of the best interval blocks seen in Malayalam Cinema in the recent past but it comes in with a risk of course. It is not a surprise to hear people say that the film falls under the trap of a revenge saga in the 2nd half, but then it is no regular tale of revenge over here.
Amal Neerad has also shown great restraint by not going in for mandatory slow motion shots of the hero etc as seen in his earlier films. Actually the film is hardly gimmicky and that adds to the seriousness of the theme. Syam Pushkaran’s dialogues are good and it’s a tough assignment considering the period factor and the various dialects involved-regular Malayalam, as spoken by the tribals, usage of Tamil etc. For a film which has got most of its fundas right it is a little surprising to spot the odd error or deviation. Take for example the character of Iyer the Tamilian cop portrayed by John Vijay. Anyone can clearly notice that he sports the characteristics of an Iyengar and not an Iyer (the traditional vermilion mark on the forehead) :). But thankfully these are minor blemishes in an otherwise remarkable attempt at portraying a period tale in a convincing fashion.
The best thing about the characters involved in IP is the fact that all of them are flawed in their own way and that brings in an element of credibility. There are a host of women in the film and thankfully they are not one-dimensional or relegated to the background. Lena as Kazhali and Reenu Mathews as Annamma may not have much screen time but they lend a certain charm of their own, especially Lena. Martha (Isha Sharwani) is a fiercely independent lady, who is able to take care of herself and her mother. The scene where she bravely carries her mother’s dead body on a bullock cart for the funeral shows the grit that she carries. This is easily one of the better roles in Isha’s career and here’s hoping that IP brings in more good work for her. Saritha Kukku as Cheeru, the wife of Chemban is very effective, and the scene in which she has a standoff with Ivan is really amzing. That brings me to Padmapriya who portrays Rahel, easily the most mysterious character in the film. Seductive, self-reassured and with a smile on her face, she is like a predator waiting silently for her prey. If the women are impressive then the men are not way behind too.
Sreejith Ravi and T.G.Ravi are competent as comrade Varkey, while Vinayakan is a delight as Chemban, the true friend of Aloshy. John Vijay fits the bill but it’s not way different from what he’s played in some Tamil films. Jinu Joseph as Ivan is simply smashing and he embodies hatred and rage so well that it’s easily his best work till date. Chemban Vinod continues his good work of late and as Dimitri, the pervert, the impotent who gets a high out of physically abusing his wife he is just charming. Jayasurya plays Angoor Rawther, the Tamil Muslim timber trader from Madurai with great aplomb. Be it his costumes or his dialogue delivery, there is a great spark that he carries with his presence in the film. The way he casually tells Iyob that he and his uncle killed his father who stood in his path, shows his hold over the character. Lal is one of the most dependent actors around in Malayalam Cinema and can shine in any role provided the director handles him well. As Iyob he is simply fantastic and his character moves from that of a cunning, selfish brown sahib to a father who despairs to see his sons fighting among themselves in a very credible fashion.
And then there’s Fahadh Faasil who shines very well as Aloshy, he doesn’t resort to use of fancy dialogues or mannerisms but still ends up coming across as a powerful character. The scenes which he shares with Iyob are wonderfully written and Amal executes them in great fashion. Fahadh Faasil has shown great maturity as the producer too by not hogging the limelight at all, and staying well in character right throughout the film. Ultimately IP is a wonderful triumph for Amal Neerad who finally manages to merge style with substance over here. Here’s hoping that this sees a change in terms of his filmmaking from hereon.
Note: Iyobinte Pusthakam is playing with English subtitles in select screens across India.