Here’s a film that does full justice to its title. Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam (NNM) is as soothing as that light afternoon nap you take after a meal. It reminds us of a carefree time when your thoughts—especially on cinema—were not coloured or corrupted by social media. When watching movies used to be a more pleasing experience; when you didn’t get into arguments with random strangers after sharing that experience; when you savoured it on your own without being judged for it.
Lijo Jose Pellissery’s new film is cinema at its purest, reliant more on visuals and sounds than dialogues to produce an immersive experience. In that sense, NNM evokes the quality of a silent film. There are dialogues, of course, but you can still get the gist of what’s happening without those. I love it when a filmmaker goes back to the basics. There is drama, and yet there isn’t. I’ll get to that in a while.
I’m a huge fan of Rod Serling’s original 1959 series, The Twilight Zone. I adore it so much that I still regard it as the finest series ever. What set it apart from many contemporary shows is that it was rich with extraordinary stories that fall under the science fiction, horror, fantasy or allegorical genres. On the surface, they look like simple, escapist fare, but when you start pondering the significance of it all, one or more interpretations bubble up to the surface. An unparalleled visionary, Serling was a writer who packed a lot of themes in his work—many of them original, some adaptations. I mentioned The Twilight Zone here because NNM, penned by S Hareesh from a story by Lijo, feels like one of its episodes. When an ordinary man experiences an extraordinary phenomenon and starts acting strange, everyone around him is baffled. NNM is the journey of James (Mammootty), a cantankerous Malayali with a bias towards Tamilians.
When he slips into a siesta while travelling by bus with a group comprising his family members and friends, little do his companions know that he is about to wake up and become a completely different person. Now, this is not one of those stories in which the main character wakes up in the body of another character and takes over his life. It is not about a doppelganger swapping identities (as in Daphne du Maurier’s The Scapegoat) or a living man assuming the identity of a dead man (as in Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger).
In NNM, what happened to the other man is left open. It is a simple case of James inexplicably becoming ‘Sundaram’ and walking into the latter’s home in a village detached from the chaos and noise of the rest of the world. Lijo forgoes the typical establishment shot in favour of a simple approach: following Sundaram as he takes in the sights of the village—the residents, their homes, flora and fauna—and ambient sounds, thereby creating a very tactile atmosphere. NNM does the same thing as the two Avatar films but on a minuscule scale.
NNM can mean one thing or several, but it’s one of Lijo’s most accessible films; by the time it ends, you don’t need to think too deeply to get the significance. And even if you don’t get it, you can still come away with a relaxing sojourn-like experience. Anxiety has no place here. However, those who always prefer their films to move fast might get irked by the glacial pacing of NNM. And it’s gladdening to see Lijo not resorting to distracting camera gimmicks as he did in Angamaly Diaries or Jallikattu. Some shots in NNM emulate, through props or placement of actors, the 4:3 ratio of vintage films despite the use of wide frames. Brace yourselves for many ‘frame within a frame’ posts on social media once NNM comes out on an OTT platform.
Lijo and his director of photography, Theni Eashwar (Peranbu, Karnan), opt for some entrancing classical compositions to give us a sense of the location’s atmosphere and texture. I got reminded of how Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay or Sunil Gangopadhyay described the central settings of their novels Aranyak and Aranyer Din Ratri, respectively. The last time a film delivered such a soothing experience was M Manikandan’s Kadaisi Vivasayi, another film that celebrates the beauty of simple living. And, of course, one is also reminded of Lijo’s last film Churuli, another film about characters crossing over to the ‘other side’ and exhibiting strange behaviour. That makes NNM a spiritual successor to Churuli sans the R-rated language.
As for the core emotion of NNM, I see it as a fascinating, occasionally humorous ode to the performer. When James, who expresses an aversion to anything Tamil, becomes Sundaram and starts mouthing Tamil movie dialogues, you watch with much amusement. When he narrates stories in the same language to an audience in the village, they have no clue who this man is or why he has suddenly intruded their space like an alien from a distant planet. It can be interpreted as a simple story of an actor briefly playing a part. But I think the supernatural angle also makes complete sense if that’s the direction you want to go in.
I mentioned earlier that NNM has zero drama. Yes, it doesn’t in the original sense of the word, but drama is a constant companion of the protagonist. James/Sundaram is a fussy character in the first place. And drama shows up again when he becomes forced to believe that he is actually a Malayali, to which he offers much resistance. When he breaks out an emotional monologue about being a true Tamilian, it’s a ‘dramatic’ performance. However, Lijo stages the whole thing in a way that keeps you detached from it—in a good way, of course. We are looking at drama but not affected by it.
The minimal drama approach also applies to Mammootty’s co-actors. And through the omnipresent television sets screening black-and-white movies, perhaps the idea is to remind us of the nature of cinema itself, that drama is incomplete without sounds and music; in this case, the music from other movies. There is a farewell moment towards the end of the film accompanied by a ‘dramatic’ montage of images from nature, followed by ‘dramatic’ music from a movie playing on television, as everyone gathers ‘dramatically’ to see someone go. So, one could also say that NNM is a bridge between two filmmaking styles —theatrical and subdued. Interesting, no?