This review was written for the news portal The News Minute and was published on 21st Oct, 2022. It can be read here:
Directed by Sangeeth P Rajan, Malayalam film Palthu Janwar does not have a ‘star’ at its heart but animals, that too livestock. It is only in Malayalam cinema that we can expect such an audacious idea to be bankrolled into a mainstream film. For Sangeeth to attempt this in his debut film is itself commendable. The film hit theatres on September 2 sans the promotional fanfare by today’s standards. Ever since it started streaming on OTT last week, there has been positive chatter around the film that prompted this writer to watch it and write about it.
The film’s protagonist is a young man named Prasoon Krishnakumar (Basil Joseph), who is pushed to take up the job of a livestock inspector, that too in a small panchayat in Kerala called Kudiyanmala, due to family circumstances. For one who dreamt of owning an animation company to join the animal husbandry department is of course frustrating and it shows. Living all alone far away from his family and friends, Prasoon’s irritation only increases when people expect him to solve any medical problem related to their domestic animals, despite knowing that he is not a qualified veterinarian. He is solely dependent on his girlfriend, who is a vet living in her hometown, to provide solutions over the phone.
For a person who is initially shown as not so fond of animals, Prasoon starts liking Kudiyanmala, which is idyllic and where almost every household rears a domestic animal. Just when his own condescension over his job begins to wane, bad luck strikes and Prasoon is suspended from his job. He almost packs his bags and prepares to call it quits. How he redeems himself not just in the eyes of the public but even his own forms the rest of the film.
With such a simple and clean storyline, what makes the film engaging is its depiction of the characters around the protagonist. There are all kinds of people who at the outset seem to have only their self-interest in mind. In his workplace, there is this loud and over-the-top veterinary doctor (played by a fine Shammi Thilakan), who as Prasoon’s superior only adds to his day-to-day misery. Then there is the Indrans character, who is a grama sabha member in the panchayat. He shirks his responsibilities most of the time and yet tries to be in everyone’s good books. He is concerned all the time about the loss of even one vote.
But the pick of the characters is Davis, a less privileged common man who has to depend on the largesse of the state for his living but yet is vocal about his rights as a citizen. Johny Antony, who portrays Davis, is simply brilliant in the way he morphs himself from a cynical man initially to a genuinely concerned caretaker of his cow in the second half. We also have Prasoon’s girlfriend Stephy (Sruthy Suresh), who is the only one truly caring for Prasoon even when she has to stay awake at odd hours to help him. The way the interplay of these characters with Prasoon is depicted in the film is very real and that’s what makes the film endearing.
Apart from the characterisation, what holds the film together is the writing by Vinay Thomas and Aneesh Anjali, which is rooted in realism. Talking about realism, whether it is the location in which the story is set or the different characters or the dialogues, or some of the scenes, they are all relatable if you are familiar with small-town Kerala. For Malayalam filmmakers now, placing the film in a remote Kerala town and weaving the story around real-like characters and events is the new playbook. We saw this in recent films like Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam, Bheemante Vazhi, Nna Thaan Case Kodu, and so on. Palthu Janwar follows the same template.
The other aspect of the writing that stands out is the subtle comedy, which makes you think and laugh out loud at the same time. The grama sabha meeting scene is an example. It gives a sneak peek for city dwellers as to how these meetings happen – where people attend with great enthusiasm and are vocal about their issues, where the panchayat officials try their best to resolve issues but when things get out of hand, how they activate their established SOP (Standard Operating Procedure), which is to serve snacks to the participants to divert their attention.
The film also showcases brilliantly how in a small town everyone comes together to help an individual any time of day or night, leaving all their self-interest aside. There are some touching moments in the film that leave you feeling good. Palthu Janwar is a slice-of-life film that doesn’t have big moments coming at timely intervals to build up to a major climax. Yet it manages to keep you invested in the happenings on the screen.
Here is where the director is ably supported by a fantastic cast. Basil Joseph is fantastic as Prasoon. For one who is a director himself, that too of a native superhero film like Minnal Murali, Basil doesn’t show any heroism, and rightly so. He just lives the character of an aspiring young man who is good at heart but is stuck in a day-to-day rut. Dileesh Pothan and Unnimaya Prasad also play their roles competently. But the standout among the cast is Johny Antony, who hits it out of the park as Davis with his poker-faced expressions and natural dialogue delivery.
With a run time of under two hours, the film is short and sweet. The camera work by Renadive is pleasing. The only unreal thing in the film comes at the end in the form of a Bollywood style song that feels out of place. The idiom ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’ suits this film aptly because even as its Hindi title does sound odd, the film is delectably sweet.
Palthu Janwar is currently streaming on Disney+ Hotstar.
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