Sometimes, the most impressive thing in cinema is not a piece of visual effects marvel, but the conversation between two people captured by a stationary camera in a 90-min-long single-take.
Don Palathara’s new film Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam (a.k.a. Joyful Mystery) is such a marvel that’s seemingly more difficult to accomplish than an action sequence or a CGI creation.
Because when filmmakers think about making conversation-driven films, there is, usually, a tendency to get caught up in the beauty of what they assume is brilliant language.
But what looks flawless to the creator may not seem so to the spectator. And when there is the added risk of demanding the attention of the audience for 90 mins straight, without interruptions, it requires meticulous planning and 100% commitment from the actors.
Thankfully, Don Palathara’s film knows what to say and when. It also knows when to stop. It is devoid of unnecessary flab. In its crisp runtime, it manages to say a lot about male-female dynamics, among other things, without testing our patience.
You know how they say 99% of the things we worry about actually don’t happen? When the film begins in medias res, a couple is pondering the occurrence of that 1%. Maria (Rima Kallingal), a film journalist, tells her boyfriend Jithu (Jitin Puthanchery) about a pregnancy concern. Both are uncertain.
They have no backup plans in a worst-case scenario. It’s a tense situation, and she can’t stand the fact that he is seemingly indifferent. Jithu is worried too, but he doesn’t overtly express it. She doesn’t see it, but we can. He is called a man-child, but this can be said of many men, regardless of age.
He complains about her “blame game” making matters worse. They hadn’t used contraceptives because both are under the notion that they slept together during a biologically appropriate time and that nature wouldn’t mess with them later. At the moment, the couple cannot imagine having a baby and taking care of it.
Of course, there’s also the matter of their relationship being still discreet. The prospect of telling their parents and getting married seems so far away. Besides, he is an aspiring actor currently unemployed. Would he find a job? And what happens later? Would she be able to do her post-graduation after becoming a mother? Lots of questions.
Everything—the timing of pauses between dialogues, their overlapping, the long pause after a fight, the resumption of a conversation—sounds authentic and resemble real-life conversations.
We come close to the feeling of being inside the car with them. Perhaps we would find the atmosphere anxiety-inducing if we were in the car with them.
But as a viewer, I found the experience oddly calming. Because how often do we get a film that isn’t trying to distract us with rapid editing and weird camera angles? The static camera approach here makes complete sense because the shift in position could diffuse the tension. It’s not every day that we see a film that follows this approach and still hold our attention.
When a third character enters their car briefly, we sense the discomfort that naturally comes with the intrusion of what was until then a private space for the couple.
The other admirable aspect of the film is that it doesn’t take any sides when exploring the nature of male-female relationships. When Jithu says something that sounds like he is repeating something he saw in a ‘progressive’ post on social media, she calls out his bull.
You don’t have to be in a relationship to get this film. I’m sure everyone has come across such a couple at least once in their lives. It also becomes a lesson on the importance of patience and transparent communication.
It’s not trying to pander to a particular viewpoint. It is simply presenting the characters’ perspectives. One can interpret these things in any way they want. There is humour, too. At one point, Maria has to interview a filmmaker while Jithu is driving, and the man at the other end of the line is assumed to be an “art movie director” (voiced by Don himself).
When he makes a ‘serious’ response to a criticism about one of his ‘drying paint’ films, it takes on a self-deprecatory tone.
As an experiment, Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam may not seem new to foreign film connoisseurs exposed to a wide range of single-take films across languages, but let’s not use comparisons to discuss a film that, at least to this viewer, is not trying to emulate something that came before it. It comes with genuine intentions; not once does the single-take approach feel like a gimmick.
I was told the fluidity of the interactions was achieved through multiple rehearsals with improvised inputs from both actors.
What we see in the film is, if I recall correctly, achieved in the fifth take. As of now, I have watched it thrice, and it still makes me wonder how they pulled it off.
Film: Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam
Director: Don Palathara
Cast: Jitin Puthanchery, Rima Kallingal
Streaming on: Neestream, Saina Play, Roots, Cave, Mainstream TV