They live in a poramboke area called Jackson Bazaar. They wear yellow shirts and maroon pants. They play brass and percussion instruments. They are all men, both old and young. And they are really popular with the locals, as is evident from the reception they get after playing at a church festival. They are the ‘Jackson Bazaar Youth’ – and within the band, the most popular member is the trumpet player named Jackson Velayyan. From his very first scene, where he washes his trumpet with water, we know we are going to love this character, played by the superb Jaffer Idukki. He comes across like a gruff teddy-bear, but he does not overdo the cuteness. He plays Jackson Velayyan like a mentor, a leader, and above all, a musician who loves his music more than anything else in the world.
The flow of the screenplay, Usman Marath, is a little strange – and I don't mean this in a necessarily bad way. The inciting incident is the announcement that the National Highway Authority is going to build a road through Jackson Bazaar. Velayyan is determined that he and his people will not be evicted from the land their fathers and forefathers lived in. He plans a protest, but the police get wind of it and he is arrested. This scene is a beauty, and Jaffer Idukki plays it beautifully. It's as though he knows he may never play the instrument again, so he picks up the trumpet and fills the air with soulful music. Govind Vasantha's brass-filled songs are terrific, but the mournful theme music is an absolute standout.
What do you think will happen next? You may think Velayyan's arrest will unify and mobilise the rest of the band and the rest of the poramboke-area residents. You may think that the film is going to become a grim David versus Goliath story, with people without deeds and documents fighting against the powerful System. Yes, there are acts of retaliation, but this is a commercial film that understands that the System is too powerful to be overcome by a few angry young men. The most subversive thought in Jackson Bazaar Youth is that, if you want revenge, you have to get it from inside the System. I cannot reveal more – but this subversive thought transforms the story into a series of events that take place within a powerful embodiment of the System: the police station. The writing is not consistently strong, but once this design comes together in your head, you may appreciate this movie a lot more, right down to its twist ending.
We have heard of the Butterfly Effect. We could call this The Ricochet Effect. Someone tries to escape, but instead gets involved with a bunch of drunk men partying in a rented car, which leads to the owner of the car being arrested… And so on. Through the police, we see how oppressive the System is. There's custodial (i.e. physical) torture. There's the psychological torture of a young couple: the young man's name is Naseer and the young woman is Sheela. (It gets labelled "the kissing case") Even if everything is not completely convincing, there’s some suspense about what the hell is happening now, and how the hell we are going to return to the events of Jackson Bazaar – especially with the arrival of Indrans at the interval point. In an entertaining, masala-flavoured performance, the actor plays Inspector Sadasivam. His stick-figure frame may not suggest a super-cop, but his brain and his determination are his real weapons. The way he connects all three cases in the police station is a brilliant bit of mainstream-film writing.
All the actors are good, especially Lukman Avaran as a young member of the band and Chinnu Chandni as a cop who is unable to attend her sister's engagement. Even when the script gets into the inevitable over-the-top zone, the direction is beautifully understated. Things I'd have protested against in another movie left me quite moved here. There's a long stretch – some five to six minutes – of a funeral. But it's not cynically melodramatic. It does not pander to the audience. It tugs at our hearts with honesty. The gorgeous cinematography by Deepak D Menon opts for unusually bright colours – fantasy-style neon lighting instead of going all gritty and grungy. It may be another indicator of the elusive nature of the film, and its Shankar-influenced narrative roots. Jackson Bazaar Youth is not perfect, but it's a solid example of how to dust off clichés and make them fun again.