Director: SP Mohan
Cast: Ma Ka Pa Anand, Nikhila Vimal, Sendrayan
Rating: 3 stars
There have been very few times during the past year or even two of watching cinema that I have sat at the interval and reflected on what I had watched so far. Usually, when I do that, it’s because I’ve suffered, but Panjumittai is a pleasant surprise.
At its heart, it’s a simple film. Appu (Ma Ka Pa) is married to Ranji (Nikhila Vimal) and during their first night, he learns that she loves food, so much that she keeps eating something or the other almost always. He also learns that she loves the colour yellow a lot, to the point that from the hairclip to the sari she wears, from the bangles to the plastic kudam in her house, everything is of that colour. Kuppu (Sendrayan), a childhood friend of Appu’s, who cannot bear to live without his best friend, comes to Chennai to live along with the newly married couple. But he turns up in the brightest of yellow shirts (reminiscent of old MGR/Ramarajan films) and that triggers a suspicion in Appu that refuses to die down.
Magical realism is something that hasn’t really been explored much in Indian cinema. Guillermo del Toro, whose body of work includes this year’s Oscar-winning Shape of Water, and the famous Japanese animation company, Studio Ghibli, are two of the greatest exponents of magical realism in world cinema. It is very tough to engage an audience with a humane story in this genre without it seeming tacky. And it is even harder to do it in a live-action setup as evidenced by Frank Durabont’s The Green Mile.
So, for director SP Mohan to attempt this genre with his debut is rather courageous, and commendable. The way he plays with the colour palette in Panjumittai shows that he is a director capable of translating his writing into visuals. Too many times, we have filmmakers who faithfully translate the written word to film without understanding how to use visual cues instead of clunky exposition through dialogue. Senrayan, in this film, is a walking embodiment of yellow. He sets up a tea stall that sells yellow tea which turns out to be a huge hit. This tea is then drunk by a dog, which starts to herald the arrival of Senrayan everywhere. The colour yellow is also shown in the autos that line Chennai, the mosquito bat that has been lovingly given by Ranji’s dad, and oh, the mighty CSK, of course.
The problem, however, with a film like Panjumittai is two-fold. The first comes when it becomes increasingly clear that the film is simply a bunch of scenes that have been written and stitched together. Where magical realism works is when it sets the scene, draws you in, and keeps you hooked throughout without you ever having a problem with believability.
The second problem is the third act of the film, which almost disrespects and dismisses the genre. The shift in the storyline drags you forcibly out of the world painstakingly created by the director up until then, and throws you into a completely different world and asks you to connect with that. This derails the entire concept and makes you wonder if the director felt making an out-and-out ‘sweet’ film was risky and decided to play it safe.
Panjumittai is a throwback to the wonderful, sweet escape a cinema hall offered in the past, but in its existing problematic form, also turns out to be a stark reminder of how artificiality can leave a bitter aftertaste.