Will there be war? That is the question the civilians have in Adrishya Jalakangal, directed by Dr. Biju. These civilians converse in Malayalam, but they could be from anywhere and this film could be set in any part of India. The announcer on the radio seems convinced that war can break out any moment, and that’s why new atomic energy plants have started functioning in various parts of the country. A recurring image in the film is that of a helicopter, whose sound suggests that something is indeed up. Beggars and vagrants – namely, those without ID papers – are rounded up by the police and shoved into an overflowing prison. The frustrated person in charge asks a cop, “If you keep bringing so many people, how can we accommodate them?” But what’s the alternative?
We see the goings-on through the eyes of a young man, a young woman, and an older man with two grandchildren. Taken together, they can be seen as a joint family: a husband, a wife, a father or father-in-law, and two children. But each of these units lives separately. Or do they? Perhaps they are surrounded and united by the spirits of the dead, the common men and women suspected of insurgency and shot down by the police or army in order to maintain law and order. It’s a great concept, and three of these dead people are “brought to life” – so to speak – in order to let us know how they died. One of them is a political writer for a reputed English periodical. He says how nice it would be if people were given books instead of guns. These explicitly worded lines are where the film slips up, wearing its messages on its sleeve.
Adrishya Jalakangal is structured like a Kafka-esque stage play – and that is okay. But when the rhythms of a film begin to mimic those of a stage play, it becomes too in-your-face. Following this political writer’s wish, the young woman reads out a moral-science story to the kids. At the end, she says that for those in power, there is always a reason to oppress poor and powerless. A little bit of this messaging goes a long way. Take another instance. On a wall, advertising a concert, we see the painting of a gun whose nozzle turns into the fingerboard of a guitar. And we get a music show, where the audience holds anti-war placards. A payoff involving a symphony concert in front of a helicopter is a lovely idea, but the way it is staged leaves a lot to be desired.
What works – what keeps us watching – is the lovely cast. Tovino Thomas paints his skin dark and gets prosthetic teeth. He plays the young man, who was kept in custody because he was a “mental patient”. The character is also a symbol. Who is mad? A man who’s a socially reserved whiz with gadgets, or the System that is out to wage war? Tovino nails both the innocent character and the symbolism with endearingly fussy gestures. Nimisha Sajayan plays the young woman, a sex worker. The actor has garnered an impressive resume of roles, but she has never been as free with her body language – and she’s wonderful. The friction between the two characters – man and woman, withdrawn and loud, but both with their own painful pasts – is the best part of the film. Her “my body, my right” is one of the pieces of messaging that feels utterly organic, because it becomes part of a bigger scene whose foundations have been laid from the beginning.
I loved the idea that all the dead people are somehow related to the war – and they give us a sense of war without us being shown any actual war footage. The political writer writes anti-Establishment pieces. Hence he is a danger. The musician plays in an anti-war concert. Hence he is a danger. The men who work in the factory are directly part of the war machinery. They have a secret, and thus they are a danger. But the weaving of these episodes into the Tovino-Nimisha portions could have used more finesse. Where the film succeeds is in painting a timeless dystopia. This could be the past, the present, or the future. The System is all-powerful, and the common man is powerless. Some things, clearly, never change.