'Saudi Vellakka' movie review: Tharun Moorthy strikes gold for the second time

Saudi Vellakka is replete with effective emotions and A-grade performances.
'Saudi Vellakka'.
'Saudi Vellakka'.

There is a point in 'Saudi Vellakka' where things get a bit dull— I mean in a good way, necessary as a storytelling choice to convey a central character’s helpless situation. Tharun Moorthy is smart enough to allow only a glimpse of what this person, an aged woman, is going through. We get the idea. Had he opted to show the full extent of her ordeal, it might take 13 movies (or episodes of a series) because Saudi Vellakka condenses into its 140-minute runtime the chronicle of a small court case that gets needlessly dragged for 13 years. It’s a case that might seem small or silly to the sensible, critical thinkers amongst us—because there’s a far quicker way to resolve it—but the magnitude of it is overwhelmingly massive for every character who has had to bear the brunt of its after-effects.

Some filmmakers would’ve preferred to repeat what they did in their successful first film. But in his second feature, Tharun Moorthy isn’t interested in doing another Operation Java—a breakthrough debut film that became the first successful box office hit in Kerala theatres after they reopened following the first wave of the pandemic.

Saudi Vellakka foregoes the stylish, urban mood of the former in favour of a more grounded, performance-heavy storytelling. Not that Operation Java didn’t have terrific performances, but if you felt that film lacked strongly in the emotional department, you might find Saudi Vellakka compensating for it in spades. Tharun and cinematographer Sharan Velayudhan also do a great job of immersing us in the mood of whichever place the characters set foot on.

The film’s initial tension-heavy portions reminded me of the feeling I got from those early Anurag Kashyap films. Unpleasant circumstances in two households cause multiple pressure cook situations. When the film begins in the present, we meet the agitated members of one, which comprise a mother (Remya Suresh continuing her aggressive woman act from Padavettu) and daughter (Nilja K Baby).

When a cop lands at their doorstep with a summons for the family’s only male member, Abhilash (Lukman), panic takes over. It has to do with a case that’s complicated and not at the same time. A flashback reveals a tense incident that sets up a decades-long conflict between individuals belonging to two different generations.

Saudi Vellakka is a classic case of an implicit, deep-rooted bias causing havoc. Things get blown out of proportion, and there is no room for the other party—the aged woman, Aisha Ravuther, in this case—to make amends. Instead, she goes through hell over the span of two decades for something she did in the heat of the moment to Abhilash. She is not a terrible human being, but first impressions can sometimes cloud our perception.

But when you deeply reflect on it, you realise that you would’ve probably made the same mistake had you been in her shoes—if you have a constantly annoying bigot for a neighbour. It’s a film about doing the right thing in a world where knee-jerk reactions can severely damage someone’s life.

I believe Saudi Vellakka is, in a way, Tharun’s way of making a strong statement against toxic cancel culture that tendency of some folks to make the worst assumption about somebody without doing a thorough background check or understanding the context of something.

Saudi Vellakka ventures into a territory hitherto explored by films such as Driving Licence and Ayyappanum Koshiyum, but the only difference here is the people responsible for the chaos are not the two central characters; it’s those around them. When Aisha expresses regret, it’s not acknowledged.

As the film progresses, our respect for the woman slowly grows because we know she tried very hard. Going in and out of courtrooms slowly takes a toll on her, yet, she manages to show up every time. Devi Varma’s dignified performance conveys a lot through very little, aided by Pauly Valsan’s remarkably perceptive dubbing. (For a while, I assumed it was the latter in unrecognisable makeup.)

However, the biggest surprise for me was Sujith Sankar, playing the soft-spoken, emotionally distraught son of Aisha, who gets increasingly worse. The actor is so convincing in his expression of mental trauma that I couldn’t help but hold back tears in a couple of scenes. It took me a while to get my head around the fact that this is the same man who tormented Fahadh Faasil in Maheshinte Prathikaram or antagonised a group of women in Nerkonda Paarvai (the remake of Pink). But then later, I recalled that Sujith had played a vulnerable transgender character in Moothon. So, yes, we can confirm that this man has incredible range.

Aside from Devi Varma, Sujith Sankar, Lukman, Binu Pappu, Remya Suresh, and Nilja K Baby, Saudi Vellakka also has the finest supporting cast I’ve seen since Nna Thaan Case Kodu. It’s a feast of realistic performances! Saudi Vellakka gets a few opportunities for superbly written and staged humour embedded in the most appropriate places. One hilarious cameo has an autorickshaw driver telling a lawyer (Sidhartha Siva) to dress neatly.

I like it when a filmmaker who claims to have immense confidence in his content delivers an exceptional film. After Abhinav Sunder Nayak’s Mukundan Unni Associates, it’s Tharun Moorthy’s turn. Through Saudi Vellakka, Tharun proves that he is not a one-hit-wonder, aside from also proving, yet again, that great content doesn’t necessarily need big stars.

In a recent interview with us about Saudi Vellakka, Tharun expressed concern about the film reaching his intended target audience at a time when the “majority of audiences are drawn more towards spectacle and gimmick-driven entertainers.” There were hardly ten people for the first show in the theatre where I saw it. Here’s hoping the film picks up in the coming days and does as well—or better than—Operation Java.

Film: Saudi Vellakka
Director: Tharun Moorthy
Cast: Devi Varma, Lukman Avaran, Binu Pappu
Rating: 4/5

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