Earlier this month, my Twitter stream suddenly broke the news that Malayalam actor Jagathy Skreekumar had been involved in an accident on the way to a shoot, news that sent the industry and fans reeling. He survived the accident, and is slowly recovering in hospital.
One tribute to him that caught my attention was from director Anjali Menon, who wrote a blog entry describing her first meeting with the veteran actor, when she asked him to be part of her first (as yet unreleased) film Manjadikuru. Her assessment: “Very quick to understand the kind of film it was and sensitive to the kind of treatment we were creating, he fit right into the ensemble cast – not a mannerism was out of place. And within that scope he enriched and accentuated his character. A thorough professional.”
When she was approached to be part of the Ranjith-produced anthology film Kerala Cafe, she decided she wanted to work with Jagathy Sreekumar once more, and, in fact, as she tells it, “If he had said ‘no’, I wouldn’t have made that film.”
Thankfully, he did not say no, and the result is a gem of a short film called Happy Journey, a look at male/female power relationships, and what happens when we don’t play the roles assigned to us.
JK (Jagathy Sreekumar) is a middle-aged insurance surveyor, married but with a bit of a roving eye, and sure of what men's and women's roles are. “Women are meant to attract men,” he says, “so we have to do our part well.” He’s someone we’ve all met at one time or another, talkative and invasive, and set to flirt with any pretty young thing that comes along.
And as fate would have it, she does. When JK boards the bus for the trip to Kozhikode, he ends up seated to, as he puts it “a bomb” (Nithya Menon), a pretty, young, Ayn Rand-reading woman on her way home.
Anjali Menon has said that Happy Journey is not a feminist film; but it is a deft sketching of male/female power relationships and shows how the young woman in this story turns the tables of power. JK’s attentions are obviously unwelcome to the young woman – he invades her personal space by leaning over onto her seat, he indulges in flirtatious and banal small talk (“You ask too many questions,” the young woman tells him), he makes fun of her phone (because it’s not the latest model like his), and he is completely oblivious to her discomfort about it all.
But Anjali Menon shows us that there’s more to this young woman than meets the eye. We cannot help but root for her as she does what many of us who have found ourselves in a similar situation only wish we could do, turning the tables on him and making him the one being put in a most uncomfortable and rather fearful situation. The performances from Nithya Menon and Jagathy Skreekumar are impeccable. He slips from cocky assurance to fear and sadness – the range of emotions he runs through in such a short time is breathtaking. She shows that under her appearance of a briefly helpless young women is a kind of steely determination to gain control of the situation.
“Liberation,” she tells JK, “that’s the aim.”
And a small moment of liberation she manages to achieve.
With one small film, director Anjali Menon proves she’s a force to watch in Malayalam cinema. She won a Best Debutant Director award at the International Film Festival of Kerala for her 2008 film Manjadikuru (Little Red Seeds) which is, apparently, slated for a release sometime this summer. I can hardly wait to see it. The cast includes some of my favorite actors (Prithviraj, Thilakan, Kaviyoor Ponamma, Murali, Rahman, Bindu Panickar, Urvasi, Praveena, Sindhu Menon, Sreedevika, Jagathi Sreekumar, Sagar Shiyaz, Harisanth, Poojapura Ravi, Trissur Chandran), and the film has won a slew of awards at festivals, most particularly in New York at the South Asian International Film Festival. My only disappointments? I’ll have to wait for a DVD, and pray it comes with subtitles. Oh, and that I can’t see it in a cinema on a proper screen.
In the meantime, I highly recommend you check out not only Happy Ending, but the entire Kerale Cafe anthology. It’s a great taste of the talent at work in the Malayalam industry.