This might seem a strange thing to say about a film that has nothing to do with science fiction, but Sayanna Varthakal, Arun Chandu’s long-delayed debut feature—his second, Saajan Bakery, was fortunate enough to be released first —recalled some of the low-budget sci-fi movies that Hollywood made in the 80s. Why? Firstly, because it has so much to say. Second, it’s also trying to be more than one thing. However, there is a problem: whatever it wants to express isn’t fully realised because it seems to have been curtailed by severe budget starvation.
I bring up low-budget 80s sci-fi films because films like The Terminator and They Live had so much to say within a B-movie budget. Not only did they have thought-provoking genre-specific ideas but potent commentaries about our society, too. So my point is, there are parts of Sayanna Varthakal that really work, and it’s mostly the bits where it wants to be a serious-minded whistleblower thriller that also attempts to inform. The parts that don’t work are the bits where it not only wants to be a Sandesham-type satire about unscrupulous politicians but also an absurdist comedy involving an attention-craving actor embarking on an ‘experimental’, ‘single-actor’ project helmed by a pretentious filmmaker.
Gokul Suresh and Dhyan Sreenivasan get top billing as the leads in Sayanna Varthakal, but this film belongs more to Gokul’s Ravi than Dhyan’s Dennis. Though the film opens with Dennis, he is merely a facilitator for Ravi’s catalyst. Dennis gets an economically narrated backstory. He is an embittered journalist who goes independent after a disillusioning experience with a top media firm that previously employed him. He now operates out of a makeshift garage that serves as his studio-cum-residence, with a Bengali cameraman named Satyajit (get it?).
I found it interesting that Dennis’ way of functioning reflects on Sayanna Varthakal as a whole—that quality of trying to do big things with whatever limited resources you have. In some places, the film’s deficiencies are glaring, while in others, we don’t notice them as much. But its shortcomings notwithstanding, we get a sense that some of the film’s writers and technicians were serious about what they were doing. And this is evident, for instance, in how Gokul’s character arc moves. His transformation from a good-for-nothing slacker to someone who takes responsibility for his life is convincing.
Ravi is not a likeable character, partly due to being part of a disreputable profession, but he isn’t without redeeming qualities. He has a past. When he was in the 10th grade, he managed to get hold of a leaked SSLC question paper, leading to his debarment. It’s an incident that his mother brings up every day, and Gokul conveys the frustration of an unemployed youngster so well. One funny situation has Gokul ‘dealing’ with a grocer’s malpractice, set to the tune of a Jassie Gift track from 4 The People. How appropriate!
Gokul is at his best when he switches on Ravi’s serious side, and there are few places where his intensity recalled some of his father’s earlier films. And he also manages to be quite funny in some scenes, like the malpractice situation mentioned earlier. But there are also places where his attempts to be funny and intense look awkward. And this applies to not just Gokul but also some of the other principal actors like Vishnu Govindan. It’s not that they are not talented actors; it’s just that the film’s occasional switch between serious and comedy creates a jarring tonal inconsistency, which is reflected in the actors, too.
Sayanna Varthakal is at its best when it seriously pursues the whistleblower and his backstory, wherein we get a behind-the-scenes look into the corrupt practices pertaining to a government educational scheme. The events depicted closely resemble those we saw in the headlines a few years ago. But when the film goes off on other tangents, such as that of an actor named Jeethu Joseph (Aju Varghese), who gets into a bizarre experimental movie owing to his desire for a—wait for it—national award, things get really awkward. I generally don’t mind subversiveness, but the whole segment would’ve felt more at home in a different movie, even though there is an attempt to bridge a connection between his story and Ravi’s.
There are also a couple of other areas where the film suffers from creative inadequacy. The bland treatment of Dhyan’s character arc and a human trafficking incident connected to the central scam. (Interesting trivia: Arun Chandu had worked as a still photographer on another trafficking-based thriller, Thira, also starring Dhyan.) The intention is admirable, but not how the makers went about it. Parts of it have an amateurish quality. There is a plus side here, though. It gives an opportunity for two female characters (played by Saranya Sharma and Radha Devi) to be in the spotlight, albeit briefly.
That said, Sayanna Varthakal is not one of those films that, I think, deserve to be disregarded outright. Its ability to generate curiosity with regard to the central topic of discussion (undoubtedly pertinent) and the remarkably competent attempts to disguise its various shortcomings with decent location photography (Sarath Shaji), editing (Aravind Manmadhan), and music (Prashanth Pillai and Sankar Sharma) is commendable indeed. It’s ultimately a cautionary tale, and if it makes at least one person think, isn’t that a good thing?
Film: Sayanna Varthakal
Director: Arun Chandu
Cast: Gokul Suresh, Dhyan Sreenivasan, Saranya Sharma