I’ll admit that I am often on the fence when it comes to Lal Jose’s films: on the one hand, there are films like Spanish Masala, which I only tolerated for the presence of Casa Totally Filmi fave actor Biju Menon (a fixture in Lal Jose films from the very beginning); on the other hand, there are films like Diamond Necklace, which I’m sure I’m supposed to like, and in which the director has some interesting ideas to explore, but which leave me a bit cold; and on yet another hand, there are the films like Vikramadithyan, which I enjoyed immensely. But I could hardly contain my excitement when I read that Lal Jose’s directorial debut, Oru Maravathoor Kanavu (“A Maravathoor Dream”) was, in fact, a remake of one of my all time favourite French films, Claude Berri’s Jean de Florette. With the writing in the hands of the immensely talented Sreenivasan, I was sure that the Malayalam remake would be just my cup of tea.
I have to say, though, that Oru Maravathoor Kanavu is more “memories of Jean de Florette”, rather than a full-on remake. It’s a film that has its roots in the French original, but only in a few key details that serve as inspiration, and Sreenivasan adapts it to suit the Kerala setting, retaining the merest bones on which he hangs new characters, particularly that of Chandy (Mammootty) and his potential love-interest, Annie (Divya Unni).
The movie opens with a funeral – the death of Michael (Biju Menon) also sees the arrival of his brother, Chandy (Mammootty), and the wrath of his nephew Sonu who blames his uncle for his father’s death. What we learn in the film’s opening is that Michael, Chandy’s brother, drank himself to death, and Annie was cheated, too. Who was Annie, though? Chandy questions Kunjukutty, the tea stall owner – he wants to know what happened to Annie – obviously, there is more to this complex story than meets the eye.
Annie, Chandy is told, travels as a volunteer with a prayer group, and that someone has seen her at a prayer meeting near Thattamala Church – and Chandy sets out to find her. Annie spies him in the church and hurries to avoid him. Later, she reflects back to the arrival of some newcomers in the village – Michael (Biju Menon)and his family -- and her seeking out Maruthu (Sreenivasan) to ask him to help them. At first, Maruthu refuses, saying he has enough work as it is from his uncle. Curious, he asks Annie where they’re going to cultivate – she tells him they’ve bought the six acres of unused land from Mathukutty. Maruthu is taken aback to hear this news, but covers it up when Annie wonders why he’s so surprised. Maruthu rushes to tell his uncle, the ruthless rich landowner Palinisami, also called Sami (Nedumudi Venu). Sami – who owns three acres adjacent to the land in question -- has been waiting for the price on the land to drop further, and vows to do anything to get the land. When Sami hears that there is a spring on the six acres now owned by Michael and his wife Mary (Mohini), he and his nephew set out to find it and block it so that Michael is unable to have water on his land.
Michael’s plans are to grow plantains – his excitement at the prospect is palpable, at least until he his told by Maruthu that the spring he was told existed has dried up. Michael decides that they will have to have a well dug in order to be able to have water for cultivation, but it will cost them at least 10,000 rupees, a sum they might have to raise by selling Mary’s gold jewellery. While digging the well, Michael hits rocks, and decides to blast them out, but when the blasting goes a bit sideways, Michael ends up with a broken leg. Unable to work, his brother, Chandy (Mammootty) arrives in the village to help with the farm. Though Mary tells Annie and her grandmother that Chandy is a party secretary for the Travancore Congress political party (headed by a Mr. K.C. Kora), everyone else knows that he’s party muscle. His presence puts a serious spanner into the machinations of Sami and his nephew.
Chandy is brawny, frank, takes what he wants, but is also fair – he takes one of Annie’s chickens simply because he wants to eat chicken, but he makes sure to pay her grandmother for it. And although comedy Mammootty is not my fave version of Mammootty, I actually enjoy the plain-speaking, fast-talking, confident Chandy. He’s not shy asking the leader of his political party for support, either, requesting some money and several of his friends, including Atappan (Kalabhavan Mani) to come help at the farm.
A run-in with the boorish Devasikutty (Baburaj) softens Annie’s opinions about Chandy – she offers him ointment for the injury to his wrist (which she, in essence, caused because she cut the rope on the rings he uses every morning for his work-out), and makes a curry with three of her chickens for the men working on the farm. When Chandy suggests he knew Mary couldn’t have made the curry, since it tasted too good, he jokes that perhaps he should just marry Annie so she can cook for him. His friends encourage him, teasing that it would mean they’d get to eat tasty chicken as well.
The locals at the tea stall, sharing stories of Chandy’s prowess and bravado (and most certainly embellishing them a little bit), suggest that, perhaps, Chandy and his friends should stay in Maravathoor – which Chandy pooh-poohs at first, saying that K.C. Kora and his Travancore Congress party surely must miss and still need them. But the locals suggest he ask Kora to let them start up a local wing of the party, which Chandy agrees to do.
Michael and Chandy’s friends wonder why Maruthu is always trying to help them, without being paid – it’s one thing for them to help, since they’re friends, but they find it odd that Maruthu would do so. When Maruthu suggests that neighbours should help each other, Michael notes that he’s been saying that since he met Maruthu – almost, notes Michael, as if Maruthu has been taught to say that to them, which is pretty much on the nose. Things are going well until one morning when Antappan discovers that half the plantain plants have been uprooted. Maruthu suggests it’s the result of boars, though it’s eventually discovered that Maruthu was the one to uproot the plants, sent by his uncle to sabotage the farm, and that the uncle and nephew had blocked up the spring.
The joy of finding the spring water is short lived, however, as Sami decides to start spreading a rumour that Chandy is carrying on an illicit relationship with his sister-in-law, Mary. Added to this that Michael, despite the growing success on the farm, has continued his bad habits of drinking and gambling, much to Mary’s dismay and displeasure. Sami uses this as an excuse to further spread the rumours, suggesting that Michael’s drinking is the result of Mary and Chandy’s carrying on.
During the temple festival, Annie spies Chandy pull Mary aside to speak with her. Everyone leaves the festival, and the next morning, Chandy and Mary are missing – Sami takes yet another opportunity to reinforce the rumours he has been spreading about them. But the fact remains: both Chandy and Mary have disappeared, and no one really knows what happened to them – at least, until Chandy turns up at his brother’s funeral.
Chandy tells his nephew that his mother was a good person, innocent, truthful, and sincere, contrary to what the false rumours about her led everyone to believe. He gives his nephew the letters Michael wrote to him, which reveal the truth of the situation, and begs everyone for forgiveness. And to Annie, he tells her that he never knew that she loved him, and that she shouldn’t have, but asks her forgiveness anyway if she feels he cheated her in any way. He is about to leave when his nephew calls him and runs to hug him. In the end, Chandy stays, and his friends return to the farm.
Indeed, all of the cast is stellar, but as is so often the case, Biju Menon stands out as Michael – his excitement, his joy, his frustration and worry are palpable. He’s a complex character, too: as much as he wants to make the farm work, he’s haunted by his own demons – and only an actor of the caliber of Biju Menon can make you feel sympathy for this highly unsympathetic character. Despite the help he has received, and the burgeoning growth of the plantain farm, Michael is unable to resist the urge to drink, coming home drunk late at night, chided by his wife for his behaviour; eventually, he gambles away the money Mary’s brother gives them to build a house.
If there’s a problem with the ending, it’s that Sami and Muruthu virtually disappear from the film – I wanted Sami, in particular, to be held accountable for his odious behaviour, and for spreading the false rumours about Chandy and Mary, and although I was pleased there was a happy ending of sorts, or at least a more hopeful ending, I was annoyed that Sami was not punished for his behaviours. But other than that, Oru Maravathoor Kanavu is an excellent debut film from Lal Jose – and definitely falls into the category of his films that I enjoy immensely.