There is a scene in Ariyippu (English: Declaration) where Kunchacko Boban slaps himself a few times and breaks down after doing something he shouldn’t have done. It occurs at a crucial point in the film when he is overwhelmed by a palpable degree of frustration which propelled him to the above situation. It is just a minor description of what I find to be Kunchacko Boban’s boldest performance yet.
And director Mahesh Narayanan and cinematographer Sanu John Varghese frame this moment without music. It’s raw emotions, pure and simple. This is, of course, a quality that can be said of the rest of the film, too. In Ariyippu, we find Mahesh Narayanan at his most liberated, operating in a terrain he hasn’t explored before. Ariyippu is his purest film, devoid of adulteration from commercial cinema trappings. It’s a film for grown-up, serious-minded filmgoers.
Ariyippu, which just premiered at the Locarno International Film Festival, begins at a glove factory in Delhi where a husband and wife, Hareesh (Kunchacko Boban) and Reshmi (Divya Prabha), are blue-collar workers under the watch of—and at the mercy of—their superiors. Strangely enough, the stifling work atmosphere of the factory that Mahesh and Sanu depict reminded me of George Orwell’s 1984, even though Ariyippu has nothing to do with dystopia. It has a slightly dystopian bent, though, with a few characters constantly feeling a sense of oppression around potentially murky individuals who have them under their scanner. Some interactions occur inside locked doors, with all the blinds drawn.
Hareesh and Reshmi have different responsibilities at the factory, and, like any blue-collar worker, they hope for a better future. The couple’s higher aspirations come under threat after an unforeseen incident proves to be humiliating for both of them. In a place where mobile phones are strictly forbidden, technology somehow manages to be a spoilsport.
When things get beyond their control, Hareesh and Reshmi become desperate. An attempt to lodge a police complaint doesn’t do much to alleviate their troubles. It only makes matters more awkward. I find it interesting that Mahesh placed his Malayalam-speaking characters in a Hindi-speaking locality because language and geographical differences bring their own set of alienating and anxiety-inducing moments. There is always the threat of hostile behaviour from someone who is not, as they say, ‘one of our own.’ There is always a scope for discrimination-based decision-making. Who to turn to—and who to turn away from? Would someone take pity and lend a helping hand instead of making one increasingly uncomfortable? And Ariyippu puts both Hareesh and Reshmi through a fair amount of squirm-inducing moments.
I liked how the women in this film seem better equipped than the men. This is not a film where they do something rash after utterly feeling devastated. No, this is a film where they wish to move on and hope the men in their lives are reasonable enough to do the same. Reshmi, for instance, is capable of getting a grip on herself, but Hareesh finds that too challenging. Divya Prabha plays Reshmi with the right balance of vulnerability and steely resolve. We also see a little bit of daring in her female colleague (Athulya, who played Nithya Menen’s lunch companion in 19(1)(a)).
In his recent interview with us, Mahesh expressed his adoration for the films of Asghar Farhadi. If Ariyippu is Mahesh’s attempt at recreating the tone of a Farhadi mystery, I would say he has hit it out of the park. In terms of mood and themes, it comes close to Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016). Like in that film, we get a husband tormented by the seeds of mistrust planted by his own imagination and the wife burdened by her husband’s suspicious demeanour and whatever adverse side-effects it might engender. I would say the two films would make a great double feature.
Ariyippu is also a bit of an investigative procedural that endeavours to get to the bottom of malpractice pertaining to a consignment. Sanu John Varghese absorbs all this through a handheld, fly-on-the-wall approach. At times, the cold, post-pandemic Delhi exteriors assume, in my eyes, a graphic novel-like texture. While journeying with the characters, we don’t always get a peek into their emotions. Sometimes they let us in, sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they keep us at a distance and we only know as much as the other characters. I liked how some things, such as the couple’s background, are left vague. A lot of things remain unsaid—a storytelling approach that also characterised, to a certain extent, Mahesh’s last script, Malayankunju.
Okay, now let me get back to how great Kunchacko Boban is in Ariyippu. Are we going through a Kunchacko Boban renaissance? I think so. In his last film, Bheemante Vazhi, we saw him take on a character that’s diametrically opposite to everything he had played at the very start of his career. In Ariyippu, he goes one step further as a flawed, selfish character who uses his torment to do some unsettlingly objectionable things. It’s a performance that lies somewhere between Tom Cruise in Eyes Wide Shut and Richard Gere in Unfaithful. This is Kunchacko Boban at his most unglamorous and uninhibited. I can’t imagine Hareesh having a bright future with that attitude. But I can very much imagine Kunchacko Boban having a brighter one.
Director: Mahesh Narayanan
Cast: Kunchacko Boban, Divyaprabha, Loveleen Mishra, Faisal Malik, Kannan Arunachalam, Sidharth Bhardwaj