When you hear ‘sports drama’, you usually conjure up in your mind the image of a film built on a tried-and-tested template and following a predictable path. It usually goes like this: Somebody discovers a sports prodigy, trains them, and finally helps them win. Films like the Rocky series or our own Chak De and Dangal have narrowed our imagination and conditioned us to think in a certain way. I almost expected Finals to go the same route but at the back of my mind, I knew I would get something I never saw.
Imagine my surprise when I saw something that went completely against the grain. In terms of its daring, it reminded me of Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby. But Finals is not as dark and it’s not the same story. You’ll know it when you see it. When Finals begins, the sports prodigy has already been discovered. That is Alice (Rajisha Vijayan), a cycling champion who is about to embark on a training ritual which would take up to a year-and-a-half before the major event that is the 2020 Olympics, scheduled to take place in Tokyo.
Alice is backed by the two most important men in her life: her father and mentor, Varghese (Suraj Venjaramood), and her boyfriend, Manuel (Niranj Maniyanpilla Raju). In terms of their financial backgrounds, both Alice and Manuel are almost on the same level. The fact that Manuel is a newspaper delivery boy is not made an issue here even though Varghese has minor reservations about him initially.
Manuel is the ideal man whose love is pure and unconditional. I’m pretty sure every woman in the theatre wished they had a man like him by their side. Manuel has decided to stand with Alice no matter what.Though Alice, Varghese and Manuel are the three main characters, the film doesn’t confine its reach to just their families. It’s concerned about an entire community and beyond. It speaks for sportspeople all over the world.
Through these few characters, the film looks at the bigger picture, delving into issues that affect everyone regardless of their vocation. It’s admirable how the film manages to do all that despite its limited budget. Though the budgetary limitations are felt at times, you don’t feel like dwelling on it much considering the filmmaking finesse on display.
The film touches upon a multitude of issues, from the dismal facilities at a women’s hostel to sexual harassment to ugly internal politics. Varghese carries around the burden of a painful past and the makers couldn’t have picked a better actor than Suraj to play him. Varghese is not only the father of a daughter who grew up without a mother but a man who had to bear the brunt of a corrupt system.
In a flashback, we learn that Varghese was a coach whose training facility was shut down after he was falsely accused of giving performance-enhancing drugs to kids. This explains his determination to get his daughter a medal. If not for her, he wouldn’t have been alive today. Varghese and Manuel are constantly present to motivate Alice but it’s beautiful how she turns their motivator indirectly in the film’s second half.
As I mentioned earlier, Finals bends some rules with regard to how a sports story should be told. Just when you think you have everything figured out, the film pulls the rug from under you just minutes before a brilliantly staged interval block which has almost the effect of a wrecking ball. You never see it coming and you wonder how the rest of the film is going to be. This is where the film works its magic. It uses this unexpected plot development to ponder not only about Alice’s future but also Varghese’s and Manuel’s. The film spends equal time with all three characters, trying to gauge their emotional state.
All the actors are in fine form. After appearing in a bunch of unremarkable films over the last six years, Finals proves to be Niranj’s big break. As the headstrong, confident and rebellious Manuel, Niranj is a motivating presence on screen. Manuel is as much an important character in the film as Alice is. And Rajisha’s Alice is different from the characters she’s played before. Alice is not as confident or hyperactive as her characters in June or Anuraga Karikkin Vellam. If Alice were put in the same room as June or Eli, she would probably get an anxiety attack and tell them to calm down.
The writing in the film is such that a lot is conveyed through the characters’ eyes. Sometimes a simple glance tells a lot without needlessly stretching the moment with words. Without spoiling anything, there is a particular portion of the film where eyes are the only way for the characters to communicate. The shots I remember the most from the film are the close-ups of the actors’ faces. It goes without saying that Suraj has by now mastered the art of acting with his eyes. There is one standout scene where his face exhibits emotions that run the gamut of fear, anger, frustration, helplessness and embarrassment. There is not a single word. It makes you really feel for Varghese.
Cinematographer Sudeep Elamon captures the Idukki high ranges as if it were a foreign location. The overhead shots make us feel not only the isolation of the characters but also the larger forces they are up against. Every frame is throbbing with life. In the cycling sequences, the camera sometimes moves at the same speed as that of the cyclists, either tracking them from behind or going in the opposite direction. A few first-person pov shots put us in the shoes of the cyclists. And Kailas Menon’s score in the film is almost on par with some of the best composers in international cinema. There were multiple moments in the film where I got nearly the same feeling as listening to Hans Zimmer’s score in Days of Thunder or Rush.
Finals is, without a doubt, the best of all the four Onam releases. After being underwhelmed by the other three, I wanted an experience that’s the equivalent of finding water in the middle of a scorching desert. Finals gave me exactly that. If you want to see a film which gives off positive vibes without overdoing it, then don’t think twice about taking a ticket to this one. This is a sports drama with a difference and a cause.
Rating: 4 stars