One always awaits a new film by Adoor Gopalakrishnan with high expectations; likewise for his latest film, Pinneyum ("Once Again", Malayalam with English subtitles), made after a gap of eight years. It is the 12th fiction feature of the master director, now in his mid-70s, and in his 50th year of filmmaking. The film will be shown at the Toronto International Film Festival as well. For long, Gopalakrishnan has been discussed as being among the prime inheritors of Satyajit Ray's mantle, not so much stylistically, as in making films with an uncompromising intellectual and aesthetic rigour, demanding active engagement of the audience, in exchange for enduring pleasures.
For half the movie Nair is portrayed as a mousy paavam... as soon as he earns well, he orders a double bed and turns killer. Hmm.
His latest film Pinneyum is based on the real-life case of Sukumara Kurup, who murdered a man to fake his own death and claim insurance, but unable to secure formal proof of his death, he remains missing since. The film is primarily about the existential dilemma of a man trapped in a body/face that is not his own (it is altered by plastic surgery), which could be explosive and poignant. The dilemma is very Adoor Gopalakrishnan; however, the thriller-love story-family weepie format when tackling existentialism is not. Gopalakrishnan also casts mainstream Malayalam stars Dileep and Kavya Madhavan.
The film is not a whodunit but a whydunit: it opens with a man who has committed suicide, and the flashback explains why. Purushothaman Nair (Dileep) is an unemployed husband, a ghar jamai living off his teacher wife Devi (Kavya Madhavan)'s salary, in her home, along with their daughter, his father-in-law Pappu Pillai (Nedumudi Venu) and sickly brother-in-law (Indrans). Taunted because he is unable to get a job for eight years, he finally secures one in the Gulf. After he earns well and his wife's respect for him returns, he decides to fake his own death to claim the insurance money: apparently overnight greed is the murder motive, but the raison de whydunit, is not at all convincing.
For half the movie Nair is portrayed as a mousy paavam, begging for jobs and sympathy from his wife Devi; as soon as he earns well, he orders a double bed and turns killer. Hmm. Nair gangs up with his gentle retired schoolteacher father-in-law Pappu and wife's uncle Kuttan, to throttle a passer-by in their car -- it is unconvincing why the mild relatives would swiftly agree to participate in a murder; they then set the car alight. After the post-mortem reveals that the body is not Nair's, the lonely Devi is left to clean up after this trio of nutters: her husband Nair goes missing, her father is jailed, her uncle dies in jail, and she becomes single parent to their daughter. The point of view shifts from the pitiful husband in the first half, to the pitiful wife in the second half. You do feel for the wife. If it were a regular Adoor film, it could have been a powerfully feminist film, and one senses in Devi echoes of Nita in Ritwik Ghatak's Meghe Dhaka Tara, a woman trapped and abused by her own family members, wittingly or otherwise. Finally, when Mr. Nair turns up 17 years later, with a new face post-plastic surgery (Subodh Bhave), cheerfully offering to marry her again (so like a man, having wrecked her life) his wife turns him away. I won't give away the climax, but you are unlikely to stay awake nights wondering. At one point, Mr. Nair confesses, "I don't know who I am," and the audience can only sympathize in agreement. Nor does it help that Malayali women call their husbands chettan (brother), as Kavya does here, but let that pass.
Mr. Gopalakrishnan, who also wrote the story and screenplay, seems unsure there's enough meat. He introduces a sub-plot, with the murdered man (Raghavan)'s son begging Devi to pay his college fees, which she does. His father has died in a burnt car stuffed with petrol-soaked hay, and the car owner is missing since, but far from being suspicious and outraged, the murdered man's son piteously begs the murderer's wife to pay his fees. The logic beats me. If the script had been more ruthless in the pity department for both leads, and instead explored Mr Nair's existential dilemma underground, the film would have been more engaging. The script is also expository, with Nair's love for Agatha Christie setting the stage for murder. The old-fashioned voiceover love letters of a married couple with a school-going daughter, when Nair goes to the Gulf, is cloying and sentimental; violins and a flute are accomplices.
If the script had been more ruthless in the pity department... and instead explored Mr Nair's existential dilemma underground, the film would have been more engaging.
Dileep and Kavya, comfortably corpulent by Bollywood's mingy standards, play one-note roles of pity, though Kavya occasionally adds scorn. Veterans Nedumudi Venu and KPAC Lalitha are wonderful in minor roles, and Indrans is quite good too. Bhave is good, but physically different from Dileep; a make-up job on Dileep may have been more convincing. MJ Radhakrishnan's cinematography is reliable and occasionally evocative. Editor B Ajithkumar allows unnecessary longueurs; Bhave appears four times at Devi's window.
In fact, with Pinneyum, Gopalakrishnan has returned to the theme of his debut feature Swayamvaram, early torchbearer of Indian new wave cinema, of how unemployment can buffet a love marriage. But the Sharada of Swayamvaram (1972) seemed to have more agency than Devi of Pinneyum (2016), despite her burdens. Mr Gopalakrishnan's previous films have usually been powerful explorations of socio-political issues, including the disintegration of the feudal system (Elippathayam, The Rat Trap), the decline of Communism (Mukhamukham, Face to Face), the nature of personal violence (Vidheyan, Servile) and state violence (Nizhalkkuthu, Shadow Kill). Even the offbeat Mathilukal (Walls) was a tender love story, written by VM Basheer, of a male prisoner in love with a woman prisoner, whom he never sees, but whose voice he hears over the walls.
In reviewing Pinneyum, one feels a little like those wanting Irom Sharmila to continue her fast: if a filmmaker wants to get off his pedestal and make a thriller-love story-family weepie with stars, who are we to deny him his fundamental right?
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin and Dubai Film Festivals, and National Award-winning film critic. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org