You can mistake this for a Tamil film from the title. But it is a Malayalam film directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery whose reputation as a filmmaker of powerful cinema precedes him. Why is the title in Tamil or why most of the film is in Tamil is interesting to understand. How many of you remember this gem of an ad for Greenply featuring a Sikh child suddenly talking in Tamil while crossing a Chettinad village? If you don’t, please check this ad first before proceeding further. As per the director himself, the germ of the idea for this full-length film came from this 40-second TV Commercial. Now the question is, has the director been able to stretch this small but powerful idea into a 2-hour film with an engaging screenplay? The answer is Yes and No.
Nanpagal Nerathu Mayakkam (NNM) (Afternoon sleep in Tamil) starts with a group of Malayali Christians from Kerala visiting the Velankanni Shrine in Tamil Nadu and then getting back home on their bus. We infer from conversations in the beginning that the group is a drama troupe in Kerala. When the bus passes through a village in the afternoon while all the passengers are deep in their afternoon siesta, something like what happens in that ad happens to the lead character James played by Mammootty. What happens next is the rest of the story.
What worked for me is the explicit craft of the director Lijo in frame after frame throughout the film. Whether it is the static picture-perfect postcard shots of the Tamil Nadu village/Velankanni temple or wide-angle shots when the bus stops on the road or the frame within a frame shots to convey two happenings at the same time or the different accompanying sounds throughout the film like a 24*7 switched on TV and songs in a Tea shop or the long steady cam shots when characters are in motion to talk about a few, this is a film where the director shouts from the rooftop that it is “his” film. At times I did feel that it was an overkill. The director uses different old songs playing on TV or radio as the background score for situations which beyond a point feels repetitive. Director Lijo is a self proclaimed superfan of Director Mani Ratnam and that shows in the way he does framing of the scenes one that reminded me of Mani’s Kannathil Muthamittal.
Lijo being Lijo limits the drama in the film to just one scene in a local liquor shop where Mammootty play-acts the role of Sivaji from the film Gauravam. But I wished there was more drama, though generally, I am a sucker for realistic cinema which Malayalam films are known for. Sans any drama, the film ends up being flat with the director visibly struggling to stretch the film for two hours. The script provides a lot of scope for comedy which the writer and director choose not to include. Same for drama as well. It is human nature to search for what is not there!
In terms of performances, Mammootty gives a very nuanced performance both as James and later as Sundaram speaking in Tamil. But is this Mammootty’s best or even among the best? I don’t think so. The accompanying cast as members of the troupe and village members seem to be from real life in the film with their very natural acting.
As I mentioned, Cinematography plays a huge part in the proceedings of the film. The camera work by Theni Eashwar in the film is outstanding. Even some of the mundane village shots are done very aesthetically and leave a long impression. More than the background score, the sound design plays a major role in the film. In this aspect, the film has a lot of similarities with Super Deluxe, the other film with a superior display of craft.
The Director leaves it to the imagination of the audience to decipher what exactly happened that afternoon. Whether it was some dream or a temporary exchange of souls and bodies or was it a play enacted by the troupe members or was it like a thirukural says in the film itself – To sleep is to die, to wake up is birth?? Hallucination?
Nanpagal Nerathu Mayakkam is not a regular film. It is more like a “Festival” film where the Director goes out of the way to impress the jury and critics and in the bargain ends up impressing a few regular viewers also. I was impressed by the premise but felt let down in the middle for its treatment which could have been more engaging. Nevertheless, it is a one-time watch for the craft. It is streaming now on Netflix.
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