I had a feeling watching the trailer for Mosayile Kuthira Meenukal (Swordfishes of Big Tides) that it would be my cup of tea. Starting with the cinematography by Abinandhan Ramanujam – I fell in love with his work in Lijo Jose Pellissary’s 2013 film Amen, where he made me long to visit the backwaters around Kumarakom. Here he does the same for Lakshadweep and Andeman – I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting and Ramanujam makes it look ethereal. It’s probably no surprise that I also feel the same way about the film’s music – hello, Prashant Pillai, also of Amen fame (The film’s music deserves a post of its own, so beautifully does it support the film).
What I didn’t expect, however, is that Ajith Pillai’s film would totally bowl me over like the billowing ocean waves of the film’s title. I watched with some trepidation, just waiting for the moment that would spoil it all. And it never came. My heart just kept swelling with the happiness of watching the stories of Alex and Akbar Ali; of Akbar Ali and Isa; of Alex and Deena play out on the screen.
When we first meet Alex (Asif Ali), he’s making yet another attempt to escape from prison – he quickly fills us in on his history as he prays for some help to get him out of the dark tunnel he’s got himself seemingly stuck in. Alex is the 14th son of a father who comes from a large family himself – in fact, his is a family that prides itself on the number of its offspring. The irony, of course, is that despite coming from this enormous extended family (Alex’s nephew, ten years older than he is, is the warden of the prison he’s escaping from), Alex finds himself alone, leading a dissolute life, doing nothing except drinking and partying, and trusting the wrong people altogether, the latter of which lands him in the prison he keeps trying to escape from.
Did I mention that Alex is the 14th child? Irony.
Alex’s saviour comes in the form of Akbar Ali (Sunny Wayne), also trying to escape from prison at the same time. Akbar Ali is a man with a mission, and that mission is to get back to Lakshadweep to divorce Isa (Swati Reddy) before she heads out to a fisheries job in Singapore.
Alex discovers, however, that his name has ended up on the list of prisoners to be pardoned on the upcoming Indian Independence Day. In order for that to go ahead, his nephew the prison warden insists not only that Alex return to prison so that his escape can be covered up; as well, Alex must return with Akbar Ali, so as to keep the prison’s record intact (in one of the film’s fine details, a fellow prisoner tells Alex that only two people have managed to escape from this prison – a man named Jeevan and some foreigner, a reference to the Mohanlal film Season, as well as to the Shawshank Redemption). This leads Alex to follow Akbar Ali to Lakshadweep. On the boat journey there, Akbar Ali tells him the story of how he met Isa and how he married her – or, rather, how she asked him to marry her. Before Alex can learn more, Akbar Ali has literally jumped ship. Alex, in an attempt to find Akbar Ali, seeks assistance from the newly arrived post office employee, Deena (Janani Iyer) – Alex and Deena have met on the boat to Lakshadweep, where they both arrive on deck suffering from seasickness and try to help each other through it.
Alex eventually tracks down Akbar Ali, where he learns the rest of his story with Isa. Turns out Isa had been divorced from her first husband, Hashim (Nishanth Sagar), and having decided they made a mistake and want to remarry, tradition demands that she can only remarry after she has married and been divorced a second time. That she asks Akbar Ali to marry her turns out to be less romantic than it seems – she wants Akbar Ali to help her so that she can remarry Hashim. Isa’s father grudgingly agrees to this, but only if Hashim pays a mahr – and in order to do that, Hashim asks Akbar Ali to help him illegally catch and sell a whale to raise the amount. The police come to get Akbar Ali in the middle of the ceremony performing the divorce from Isa – and Akbar Ali decides that instead of letting Isa remarry a man who clearly isn’t worthy of her, that he’ll give her the divorce when he’s released from prison. In the meantime, Hashim, who proves Akbar Ali right, abandons Isa a second time; but Isa finishes her studies and gets a job in Singapore. Because of that she needs to leave before Akbar Ali is released from prison, so he escapes in order to give her her freedom as she moves on to her new job and her new life.
Mosayile Kuthira Meenukal is, I would argue, a most perfect example of New Gen Malayalam cinema at its best, with lessons that span the generations. Even its title harks back to the Golden Age of Malayalam cinema, with its poetic and metaphoric film titles, such as Padmarajan’s Thoovanathumbikal (“Dragonflies of the Spraying Rain”). And although it represents the realities of a younger generation of Malayalees, it also holds the past in high regard, referencing that Golden Age of cinema most obviously with Padmarajan’s cult film Season; in fact, clips of Mohanlal’s escape attempt from that film are intercut with those of one of Alex’s attempts to escape from prison. As well, it pulls from the best of world cinema – that Shawshank Redemption reference cannot be accidental – using the language of cinema to tell a story unique to Kerala. It’s fascinating to see how the framing, in particular, shifts as the film progresses. The first half of the film, focussing on Alex’s time in prison, and his escape, is all shot in ways that emphasize the fact that Alex is trapped, confined, that he needs to break out. This shifts dramatically at the interval – just before the interval card goes up, Alex and Akbar Ali are shown at the doorway to the ship’s stern. They step out onto the deck, and view the expanse of water as the ship leaves for Lakshadweep. Freedom awaits them, as do events that will change both their lives.
Ajith Pillai’s film is, in essence, a study of human nature, of selfishness, of self-interest, and, ultimately, of sacrifice and selflessness. It is, as well, an exercise in redemption, at least for Alex, and of the redemptive power of a place like Lakshadweep. Akbar Ali tells Isa of a foreign tourist he guided once, who told him that he was lucky to be from such a beautiful place; the two of them agree, they live in the most beautiful place on earth. Alex’s journey is like a rebirth, out of the drainage tunnel under the prison, out to Lakshadweep, on the way meeting first Akbar Ali, and then Deena. From Deena he learns that one of the secrets to life is making others happy; from Akbar Ali, he learns the importance of love and self-sacrifice. Akbar Ali’s nickname on Lakshadweep is “swordfish”, like the swordfish of the film’s title. Swordfish, Alex is told, are selfish fish, thinking only of themselves. And although it looks as if Akbar Ali is acting in his own self-interest, by making Isa wait until he’s out of prison to deliver his talaq (divorce), Alex learns that, in fact, everything Akbar Ali does is to ensure Isa’s happiness – even if that means sacrificing his own relationship with her, even if it means going to prison.
In the end, Akbar Ali’s friend Sulaiman (Jijoy) makes the most important observation about human nature: everyone, everywhere has moments when they are selfish, when they look out for their own self-interest. At some time in our lives, we are all like the mosayile kuthira meenukal, those selfish swordfish, and really, in the end, what is wrong with that? Nothing, as long as we balance it with the advice from Deena’s mother: that the most important thing we can do is to make others happy along the way.