Ranam review: A flawed but technically astounding film
Director: Nirmal Sahadev
Cast: Prithviraj, Rahman, Isha Talwar, Mathew Arun
Debutant Nirmal Sahadev's Ranam is essentially a dysfunctional family drama and a crime saga rolled into one, with the latter merely serving as a backdrop for the former. There are fathers and sons; mothers and daughters; and cops and informers -- and they all know each other. You get the feeling that all these characters belong to one family. The film has a lot in common with another self-assured debut made three decades ago in Hollywood, Michael Mann's Thief (1981), which featured a similarly orphaned protagonist who grew up on the wrong side of the law; a devious older gangster who has mastered the art of manipulating those working under him; and nearly all the principal characters have experienced some form of physical or emotional abuse.
The older gangster in Ranam is Damodar Ratnam, a Sri Lankan Tamil immigrant who shifted his base from Toronto, Canada to Detroit, United States. A voice-over narration by Prithviraj's character in the film's opening takes us through Detroit's history, and along with that, Damodar's. Everyone from Damodar's family perished in a war except for his younger brother Selvan (Ashwin Kumar). The menacing and power-hungry Damodar has left a crimson trail wherever he set foot on, and it becomes evident that he is going to leave another one in Detroit soon.
Aadhi (Prithviraj), who works for Damodar, doesn't want to be anywhere near Damodar or Selvan; but the only way to repay his unpaid debts is by doing all the ugly jobs that Damodar asks him to do. Damodar likes to think that he is Aadhi's mentor but it's the benevolent Bhaskaran (Nandhu) whom Aadhi has accepted as his true mentor. It was Bhaskaran who took him under his wing and treated him like his own son. Bhaskaran's own son Aju (Mathew Arun), is a naive and insecure teenager who wants to be like Aadhi.
Entering Aadhi's life is Seema (Isha Talwar), a woman married to a shady businessman (Shivajith Padmanabhan) and mother to a rebellious teenage daughter Deepika (Celine Joseph) who can't stand the sight of her. Both mom and daughter look like sisters -- Deepika, we learn, is the result of a teen pregnancy. Aadhi, being the product of a broken marriage himself, decides to complicate his life further by getting involved in their lives. And the far-sighted Damodar sees in this a golden opportunity: they all turn into pawns in his master plan. This, needless to say, creates an unwelcome friction between him and Aadhi.
Though Prithviraj is quite convincing as the psychologically traumatised loner -- he played a similar character in this year's Koode -- I couldn't shake the feeling that the actor was struggling to sustain his tough countenance in some sequences. Also, Aadhi's relationship with Seema doesn't make the desired impact. However, when she tells him that she doesn't care about his past, you can't help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside. And given Aadhi's haunting past and the guilt he experiences as a result of an unforseen tragic event in the present, his eagerness to sacrifice everything for Seema makes a lot of sense.
The film's influences run the gamut from vintage French gangster cinema to contemporary American gangster cinema. Aadhi and Seema are like a couple straight out of a '40s American noir film. It's the classic story of a young hood falling for the wife of a gangster but with a small twist.
As Damodar, Rahman radiates menace in every scene but I found his motivations a bit murky. There are times when Damodar's actions seem so impulsive and random, like that scene where he reveals his plans to eliminate his rivals (a Polish gang) with a time bomb. Sometimes he behaves like a spoiled rotten kid and you begin to wonder how he got this far with that attitude.
And for an underworld don of his stature, it's strange to see that aside from Aadhi and Bhaskaran, Damodar doesn't seem to have much of a gang. He is usually seen with his brother, and these two men don't look mighty enough to wipe out an entire mafia family all by themselves -- with or without a bomb. It would have been cool to see a visual chronicle of Damodar's backstory instead of a voice-over version. Sure, he commands everyone's attention when he walks into a room, but he is nothing more than a one (or two) dimensional villain. A third dimension would've made things much more interesting. The terrific Ashwin Kumar is his usual fiery self as Damodar's brother. They look and act like brothers. But I wish I got to see them in more scenes.
Surprisingly, the one actor who manages to stand out is newcomer Mathew Arun, as the only character in the film with a sense of humour while everyone else is busy brooding (not in a bad way). Also very effective is Giju John as the intelligent cop relentlessly trying to put an end to the criminal activity in his city. We have seen his breed of cops in the films of French auteur Jean-Pierre Melville, most notably, Le Samourai (1967). In fact, an interrogation scene in Ranam is reminiscent of a similar scene in Le Samourai.
The best part of the film is, undoubtedly, the work of Bhutanese cinematographer Jigme Tenzing, whose masterful interplay of light and shadow combined with the use of cold and muted colours bring out unseen layers and emotions in a scene. Like Hollywood's Roger Deakins, Jigme can do a lot with very little. While Sreejith Sarang's editing works to an extent, it looks awkward in a few places, like when the film's title track -- which looked and sounded so good outside the film -- is interrupted several times by individual conversations. And the tinkering of frame rates in a crucial scene felt jarring.
In spite of its flaws, Ranam is one of those rare films that's best appreciated on the big screen. Anyone expecting to see in the film the same rhythm they got from the trailers might get a little disappointed. But I can't imagine watching this film on a small screen, without Jakes Bejoy's electrifying background score setting off vibrations in your body. How often do we get something like this in Malayalam cinema? It is filmmakers like Nirmal who need to be encouraged more. I'm certain we can expect much better things from him in the future.