I couldn’t help thinking, as I watched Martin Prakkat’s latest directorial venture, that his titular character, Charlie (Dulquer Salmaan), was not unlike Winston Churchill’s description of Russia: “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.” In the case of Charlie, the key is a type of graphic novel, called “First Night”, that Tessa (Parvathy) finds when she’s cleaning up the room she’s rented from Usman Ikka (writer/director and occasional actor P. Balachandran). Tessa has already had some inkling that the room’s previous resident was someone important in the lives of those living nearby, some of whom show up at her door clearly expecting to find him, and occasionally disappointed when it turns out he’s not there. But “First Night” gives Tessa her first glimpse of the elusive Charlie, and when the story stops abruptly, Tessa goes in search first of the ending to a story she finds compelling, and then of its creator, who she finds even more compelling as she hears the stories of the people whose lives he’s touched.
There’s Sunikuttan (Soubin Shahir), the thief who holds the key to the night he spent with Charlie, which eventually leads Tessa to Kani (Aparna Gopinath), a doctor working in a remote community consisting mostly of older men whose families don’t want anything to do with them, but who are visited by Charlie. Most notably, there’s Kunjappan (Nedumudi Venu) with his stories of Treesa, the woman he loved but never married because of a twist of fate and weather. But there’s also Mathai (Chembun Venod Jose), a fisherman who tells Tessa the story of Charlie and Queen Mary (Kalpana), a prostitute whose daughter Charlie later saves.
Tessa is drawn to Charlie partly because of the mystery surrounding him, but also partly because she recognizes in him a kind of kindred spirit, exemplified by their boho clothing and their shared artistry – Charlie’s is in evidence everywhere in the room Tessa rents; Tessa’s is only mentioned by her mother in passing, though we also know one of the reasons Tessa rents the room is because she plans on taking a course of some sort. Both, we discover, are kind of free spirits as well – Tessa arrives home for her brother’s engagement only to find that her mother has taken the opportunity to arrange her marriage as well, to someone that both Tessa, and we, recognize immediately as an unsuitable match. Tessa takes the first opportunity to bolt, and how glad we are that she does, and that she takes up the quest to find the enigmatic Charlie.
One person leads to another; one story leads to another. Tessa and Charlie cross paths but never meet, perhaps because, even though Charlie is told Tessa is searching for him, he purposely, as Kani puts it, plays a cat and mouse game with her; despite his open and caring personality, Charlie might just be a little bit afraid of love of the romantic sort.
Charlie is an absolutely fascinating film loaded with dollops of magical realism and graphic novel style; but also, with references that I think are placed there deliberately, that are so subtle and so well integrated into the story (written by Unni R.) and direction, that I’m convinced they are there to give us the same sense of what Tessa is searching for: something familiar yet ineffable. I dearly would love to have a conversation with director Martin Prakkat and writer Unni R. about this feeling that I had watching the film, of things that seemed so familiar, and yet things I just couldn’t place as references.
And it’s certainly the first time watching Dulquer Salmaan that I could feel the connection to his father: something in his voice, something in Charlie’s style, reminded me so much, at times, of Mammootty. Mere coincidence, or purposeful? I’d very much like to know if I was right in thinking it was the latter.
Charlie as a character is a bit of a risky proposition: because Tessa only knows Charlie from what she learns about him from others, our early introduction to Charlie leaves him kind of a mystery for us, and doesn’t give the actor much room to breathe life into him. Thankfully, Dulquer Salmaan has the ability to make both us, and Tessa, curious about this man of mystery, and willing to go along for the journey to find him. As Tessa learns more about Charlie, the Charlie we see finally gains more layers and more depth.
And although the film is called “Charlie”, this film belongs, clearly, to Tessa and to Parvathy. It’s hard not to fall in love with a character like Tessa, who we recognize immediately as someone free-spirited, yet responsible enough to know she has a duty on some level to her mother and her family, even as she tries to escape it.
Jomon T. John has had quite a 2015, serving as cinematographer on Picket 43, Oru Vaddakan Selfie, Nee-Na, Ennu Ninte Moideen, and now Charlie – all of these films are beautifully shot, and Charlie gives John and art director Jayashree Lakshmi Narayanan (who worked together on Lal Jose’s Nee-Na) full scope to create Charlie’s magical and mysterious universe. Music director Gopi Sunder has delivered what is probably his best soundtrack after that of Ennu Ninte Moideen, with my particular favourites being Puthumazhayai (beautifully sung by Shreya Ghoshal) and Pularikalo (sung by Shakthisree Gopalan & Muhammed Maqbool Mansoor, with its lacings of Arabic musical style), not to mention Oru Karimukilinu, which so beautifully represents Tessa’s search for the magical Charlie who always seems to be beyond her reach.
I’m absolutely delighted that Charlie is my first entry in the #100MoviePact – it represents what I love about Malayalam cinema: excellent writing and direction, beautiful music, talented cinematography and art direction, solid acting by its leads, and a marvellous supporting cast (I’ve mentioned many, but Charlie’s supporting cast is extensive and impressive, including small appearances by K.P.A.C Lalitha as Tessa’s grandmother, as well as Renji Panicker, Joy Mathew, Tovino Thomas, and even Tamil film veteran Nassar as a mysterious magician). It also represents the kind of risks that the Malayalam industry is willing to take in creating thoughtful, magical, innovative films. Charlie comes from the same kind of filmmaking tradition that made me fall in love with the films of Kerala, and makes me so happy that I can share them with others.