The opening sequence goes like this: A long static shot of a man sitting in front of his laptop. There is no background music. Just the sound of him typing.
Outside the window: lightning accompanied by thunder, not loud enough to scare us. It’s a picture of tranquillity. The scene has maybe one or two lights. (In fact, the entire film has bare minimum lighting emulating the real world.) It resembles something out of a Nuri Bilge Ceylan film or a Japanese animation film.
Then, the man, Roy (Sharafudheen), turns to look at his wife, Shirley (Parvathy Thiruvothu). In a soft voiceover, he tells us she is capable of sleeping without worries. Worry is something that he will be doing a lot of soon.
Aarkariyaam was one of the films shot and set in the post-pandemic world. Roy and Shirley are a couple living in Mumbai. We never see the exteriors, but we get enough hints from the interiors to let us know that’s where they live.
They are gearing up for a long drive from there to their hometown in Kottayam. In the midst of this, Roy is dealing with a work-related crisis induced by the pandemic. He and his colleague (Saiju Kurup) desperately need some cash to sort things out as soon as possible.
The conversation between the two Malayali men is a mix of Hindi, Malayalam and English. It may look odd to anyone who hasn’t been to Mumbai, but it’s reflective of how people talk there. You get cuss words in Hindi, Malayalam and English. I was amused.
Depiction of these mundane everyday occurrences is among the film’s most admirable moments. It’s not in a hurry. It gives a lot of breathing space for its characters. The film takes on a whole different dimension when the couple arrives at the home of the film’s most important character: Shirley's 70-something father, played by Biju Menon.
Just a short while before the interval, the father-in-law lets Roy in on a secret, adding that Shirley doesn’t know about it yet. Roy is disturbed. I won't tell you what the secret is. I can say, however, that it involves a fourth character who remains in the background.
I initially found the inclusion of this little plot development a bit odd. And when you combine that with the overall placidity, it can cause a considerable amount of confusion. Besides, there is no attempt to engage us emotionally with the characters. Perhaps this is intentional - to invite us to look at everything dispassionately. It’s the sort of thing that Stanley Kubrick did so well in most of his films.
We are told some things about the fourth character, but we don’t completely buy this thought process. At one point, we get an interaction between Sharafudheen and Biju Menon that got me thinking about the Michael-Vito Corleone scenes from The Godfather.
Aarkariyaam has nothing to do with gangsters, but I brought up the parallel because both films are, essentially, about family and certain things we do for our loved ones. Sometimes people pretend to have not heard or seen certain things out of love. It’s this emotion that Aarkariyaam explores.
If I have to point out an audience surrogate in Aarkariyaam, it is Roy. We see everything from his point-of-view. And Sharafudheen effectively conveys the naivete and occasional indecisiveness and confusion that Roy goes through.
The incident in question is discussed, between Roy and Shirley’s father, so casually that you start wondering whether the moral side of it is the film’s concern or not. You’ll get your answer to that in the climax.
And Aarkariyaam has a brilliantly thought-provoking ending that will get people talking. I have my own interpretation of it, but it would be unfair to impose it on readers who are yet to see the film or viewers who have their own take on the characters.
Cinematographer Sanu John Varghese makes an assured directorial debut with a convention-breaking film that cleverly toys with our perceptions. It reveals its genre only in the climax. It is not a film that you watch and make immediate conclusions.
It took some time for me to process what I saw. Perhaps a second viewing would be necessary to validate, or not, some of your viewpoints. That it’s a minimalist family drama whose characters sound and behave like people we may have come across in our lives, or even in our family, is only the tip of the iceberg.
Director: Sanu John Varghese
Cast: Sharafudheen, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Biju Menon