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21 May 2013

Beautiful (2011)

2011
Directed by: VK Prakash
Music: Ratheesh Vega
Starring: Jayasurya, Anoop Menon, Meghna Raj, 
Tiny Tom, Thesni Khan, Unni Menon, Nandu 

Malayalam cinema has been seeing a resurgence these past few years, with young directors/script writers pushing the envelope as far as plot ideas are concerned. Bio pics rub shoulders with period films, suspense thrillers walk abreast with slice-of-life films, relationships are viewed differently and while traditional structures are still in place, modern values are not looked down upon. The language of cinema is changing, and even though mindless entertainment is there for the asking, a lot more choices are suddenly available to the cinéaste who demands more from his movie-viewing experience. It helps that the young Turks coming in are not afraid to take chances, or roles that are not very 'heroic' on the face of it. [All this seems true for the leading men; for some reason, scripts with a strong feminist presence are still lacking, even though we have actresses who are not only competent enough, but are as willing to take on different (and often, controversial) roles as their male counterparts.]

I must say that I had had this DVD for some time, and only got around to watching it a couple of months ago. For some reason, the synopsis did not attract me; it seemed, as they would say here, the same old, same old - a tired script about a joyous quadriplegic and a morose, encumbered-by-the-cares-of-the-world 'friend' whose life changes because of his association with the man who has lost so much more. So it was with trepidation that I slipped this in on a depressing Sunday afternoon. [I was sure I was going to end up even more depressed after the film.]

Since I'm writing about it, you can rest assured that my worst fears were not  realised. Au contraire. This really is a film with a difference. It is made with sincerity and humour, is quite simple in what it sets out to achieve, and is drawn inside clear lines, even though some of the morality espoused is definitely non-traditional. Subtlety is a lost art, in my opinion, so it is refreshing to watch a film which does not insult your intelligence.
Stephen Louis (Jayasurya) is a quadriplegic, and has been one from birth. His doting father, a rich estate owner, insists on educating the boy and takes him wherever he thinks he can find a cure for his son. Nothing helps, and the father passes away, leaving his son bound to the wheelchair, and heir to his vast estates and immense wealth.
 
Stephen is stoic; in fact, he is quite cheerful about his circumstances. Surrounded by family members who cannot fathom what a man in his condition needs with all this wealth, and are quite willing to relieve him of some of the burden, Stephen is cynical about human relationships. Since there is nothing wrong with his intelligence, he takes care to keep all of them at bay, much to their chagrin, and indeed, anger. His only constant companions are his driver, Karunan (Unni Menon) and his manager, Kamalu (Nandu). They are intensely loyal to their employer, and are the only people, with the exception of his cousin, Alex (Tiny Tom), who actually care about Stephen and not his wealth.
John (Anoop Menon) makes his living by singing at a hotel; in another life, he headlines a band that is trying to make it big. John needs money, not just to realise his own dreams, but also for his sister's education. A chance encounter brings him in touch with Stephen, who wants him to come sing for him. John is initially reluctant, not wanting to be a rich man's hanger-on, but his straitened circumstances (and his friends' exhortations) make him change his mind. It is a quid-pro-quo situation; Stephen needs someone he can trust and with whom he can share his love of music; John needs the extremely generous salary that Stephen offers.

It's a strange friendship, but from the beginning, it's a friendship between equals.  John treats Stephen as a man like himself. Not even in his conversations does he underline Stephen's inability to do anything for himself. In a way, this does Stephen good. For the first time, he feels like an individual, a whole individual, not 'disabled'. 
Stephen is generous to a fault. Without a word to John, he reclaims his mortgaged motorbike; when the maidservant leaves, having stolen the contents of their safe, his initial reaction is not about the money, but the reason why she left - did she have any problems, he asks. 

It is Stephen's cousin, Alex who suggests a home nurse. After all, how long are they going to go through a revolving door of maid servants?  And so enters Anjali (Meghna Raj) into their lives, a young girl who has the responsibility of her family on her shoulders. 
The dynamic of the group changes, and events begin to move rather quickly from here onwards. John is central to these changes, and soon he is approached with a rather sinister offer. Does he take it? 
  
The climax is a revelation, the script taking a sudden turn into suspense, with red herrings merrily sprinkled across our path. What intrigued me is the way the characters are shown to have their own motivations, including the 'good guys' for doing what they did, or set out to do. Nothing is black and white here, and there are no apologies for the various shades of grey. What is more, the characters, like Stephen himself, are not asking for sympathy either. They are what they are, and consequences be damned. 

Stephen is not a very 'heroic' character, one who is soldiering on under a cruel fate. For one, while he is cheerful about his life, he is well aware that it is his wealth that allows him the freedom to be cheerful. In fact, he says as much to the TV interviewer who asks him the secret to his optimism. He does not seek any sympathy, but goes through life enjoying the things he can enjoy. He is also cynical about the sympathy that is showered on him - it lasts for only ten minutes, he says without rancour.

He is not beyond using his wealth to get what he wants - in this case, the best of medical care, the undying loyalty of his staff, even John. He, like other 'normal' beings, is also rather sexist at times. He is certainly voyeuristic, and, at least mentally, is not above feeling normal physical desire. One never quite forgets that he is a man. 
Stephen has a puckish sense of humour and the script and dialogues give him ample scope to actually be a character instead of a stereotype. This is definitely one of Jayasurya's triumphs as an actor. He has forever been cast as the young, clueless male in inane comedies, and he plumbs unexpected depths to turn in a fantastic performance here. 

Anoop Menon is a man of many talents. He writes scripts and lyrics, acts (very well), and at a pinch, can sing decently. What is more, he has a sense of cinema, and the intelligence to write scripts that are, to overuse the tired phrase, 'different'. I must admit to liking him a lot as an actor. [I first saw him in a full-fledged role in Thirakkatha (Screenplay) and found him amazing.] Now, when I know the script is by Anoop Menon, or even that he is acting in a film, there is a certain sense of anticipation, simply because he delights in writing scripts and choosing roles that are a definite challenge to what one might call 'middle-class morality' (with due apologies to Alfred Doolittle). In this film too, his characters mouth controversial lines about fidelity in marriage and about relationships in general. 
As John, the struggling singer who finds himself drawn in a curious friendship with a man who is his social and economic superior, Anoop offers a very restrained performance. He has his own past to overcome, and is unable, and in the end, unwilling to presume upon his friendship with Stephen. It is a fine line to walk, that of a friend who genuinely likes a wealthy man, and who gives no quarter where his affections are concerned, and a man who is unwilling to presume upon his friendship.
Meghna comes in as Anjali, the third angle to the triangle. John falls in love with her, while Stephen is definitely attracted to her. Who does she care for, if at all? She is attractive, sensuous, and very much a pragmatist. This is not a regular 'heroine's' role and Meghna plays her very well indeed. 

What prevented the film from degenerating into a melodrama about a love triangle, or becoming an Anand clone is the director's vision. Helped as he was by the script, it is still VK Prakash's competent hand at the helm that gave us a quirky film that cloaks its moral ambiguity in the persistent rain, probably the fourth character in the film. Yet the incessant rain is rather cheerful, and the whole palette of the movie is refreshed by its presence. 
 
It is seen lashing Stephen's mansion in the night, it is felt (Stephen enjoying the rains for the first time), it is lusted after (Anjali's rain-drenched form when she makes her first appearance on screen)... the camera follows the rain lovingly, chronicling the actions and reactions of the characters on screen.
There is a rich sensuousness about the film; in fact, one of the scenes which highlights this facet is one without any dialogue. The maid is cleaning his room, and Stephen's expressions reflect his desire; the director juxtaposes his face with a shot of the film he is watching on his television. There are no words spoken; indeed, there is no need.
 
The eroticism continues, in the camera lingering slowly over Anjali's form as she appears in front of them for the first time, in the sound of the shower as Anjali takes a bath - the sexual tension is heightened as both men react to the sound of the falling water and their own (suddenly vivid) imaginations. And this is where the film scores - there is not a single vulgar dialogue, there are no 'intimate' scenes, and yet, the actors' reactions reflect the mood. Much is implied, the dialogues being sparse, and gestures and actions convey feelings that do not need words. 

This was a film that used music, both background and songs, to highlight the emotions that were being played out on screen. Throw in much cross-referencing to other films, both classic and contemporary, to underscore what is happening on screen and you have a film that is eminently watchable. Finally, where Beautiful scores is in its ability to pull you into itself, and keep you hooked. [The last scene is a killer - the unexpected (black) humour in keeping with the rest of the film.]

21 comments:

  1. Like more for Jayasurya than for Anoop Menon.

    It still is difficult terrain for Malayalam directors when trying to bring characters to the present age. The composition of John's motley music crew, their avatars as musicians and the female lead singer who lusts after him seemed quite laboured. Grey areas all these, are still tackled, at some level, moralistically; and that to me is always a niggle in the experience.

    I found it hard to visualize a successful 'young' rock band fronted by this dude with the thick Mo and a 'well fed' physique

    Quite like the average young man in GoK, who yearns to be all that is 2013, but is shackled by what the past had held right: that struggle shows up very well on the screen, maybe a true reflection of how the society is grappling with the changing dynamics of life in the 21st century.

    Those bits apart, I agree that the movie is a good watch. But, I wish for the day one would get a 'Wake up Sid' equivalent in Malayalam that doesn't squeak like chalk on a blackboard

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  2. My first thought when I began reading your review was
    "Anand in Malayalam?" But, of course, I soon realised
    that was a mistaken impression. This one sounds as if it's very aptly
    named. I just wish the subtitling on regional language films were
    better. It can be such a frustrating exercise to watch a film where it's
    obvious that the story is interesting, the acting and direction good -
    but the subtitling so horrendous, you need to strain to figure out what
    is being said (or who is saying it). The only decently subbed films I've
    seen are Bengali ones. :-(

    PS. On my recent trip to Kochi, I saw
    hoardings of a new film called Hotel California all
    over the place, and couldn't help but be reminded of this delightful
    version of the song:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BHxEO28s8Mg

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  3. Boby, Wake Up Sid was by no means perfect; and for those of us who lived in Bombay, it grated. Oh believe me, it grated. Loud and clear. It was a good movie, nevertheless, but apart from the relationship angle (between Konkana and Ranbir, between Ranbir and his parents) the background was vintage Karan Johar. Those guys have no clue what it means to struggle in Bombay.

    What I liked about Beautiful was that the others - the musicians, the female lead, etc only provided the background; they were really not important. Besides, I didn't think there was any moralising involved - there usually isn't, not in Anoop Menon's scripts.

    Curiously, why did the female lead singer lusting after AM grate on you? Because he had a 'thick Mo and a well-fed physique'? :) I thought it was well done myself.

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  4. God in heaven, Madhu, there was an 'adaptat.ion' of Anand in Malayalam! It was horrible! Even with two basically competent actors, I wanted to kill myself. Talk about torture!



    I agree about the sub-titling. Though it is getting a little better these days. I think part of the reason why the sub-titles are so horrible is that the people doing the sub-titling tend to think in their own languages (or in English) which basically defeats the purpose. It is very hard to translate colloquialisms from one language to another. That is no excuse these days, however; I wonder how hard it is to find someone who is truly bi-lingual - as comfortable in one language as the other that they can think in both.



    I would recommend this highly, though, if you can get your hands on a sub-titled copy. Dialogues are sparsely sprinkled, so a middlin' fine sub-titling should make it eminently watchable.

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  5. So, finally you watched VKP's 'Beautiful'. Glad that you enjoyed it and many in the audience also shared these sentiments, making it a success when it hit the theaters.

    Beautiful has a quality of mixing the eroticism with a beauty that inhabits its frames. And as you say, a lot of what is sensed is not said, it is merely perceived. Anjali's kuli scene or his desire as the maid sweeps - all well constructed, without even a suggestion of vulgarity. I think the ending did take everyone by surprise - it came out of absolutely nowhere but it suits the feel of the movie. Yes, the script is great but technically, it is very well crafted and the look of the movie also goes a long way in wooing you.

    And ofcourse, the captivating 'Mazhaneer Thullikal' - Ratheesh Vega had said in an interview that it was an impromptu song that Anoop had composed one day in the sets which VKP liked immensely and incorporated in the movie.

    Morality - that's a word that Anoop Menon's been toying with for quite some time in Malayalam now, with mixed results with Trivandrum Lodge and now Hotel California, also carrying along in a similar vein. There is a perception of he getting a bit repetitive and so unless he experiments a bit more, he will get stereotyped. As a scriptwriter, all his movies have been interesting (except a 'David and Goliath') but his choice of movies as an actor have not been fairly lukewarm.

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  6. My reference to 'Wake up Sid' was for how it tackled relationships that blurred definition and not for the movie being a winner or a true reflection of the 'Bombay struggle' ;) - And Oh! the female is welcome to lust all she wants after the man, I have no problems. The characterizations came across as labored and out of sync to me - zatsall.

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  7. Oh, the younger man- older woman, and living together thing? Been handled before, and better. In Hindi itself. :) Forgive me for not being impressed.



    But let's agree to disagree on Beautiful's characterisations. :) I liked them.

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  8. Watch Bombay Talkies, and post a review. Aa dekhein zara, kissme kitna hain dum!

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  9. Challenge? :) I don't review new films on my blog, you know that. Not Hindi films, I mean. The movie didn't even release here. :( I have to first find the movie before I can watch it.

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  10. "That is no excuse these days, however; I wonder how hard it is to find
    someone who is truly bi-lingual - as comfortable in one language as the
    other that they can think in both
    "


    True. And I feel that there's no real need to translate colloquialisms as is - as long as one gets across the essence of what is being said, that's what matters. I get irritated with things so basic as horrendous grammar and spelling.

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  11. That is the point - people try to translate literally every word instead of the essence of what is being said. Oh, don't get me started on spelling and grammar - while the latter gives rise to unintentional hilarity, it is beyond irritating to see that, especially when you are depending on it to understand the dialogue.

    I recently got an email forwarded to me where Ulta chor kotwal ko daante was literally translated into Have you heard? The raider blaming the cop. (That was apart from various other gems that was funny at first, but made me want to hurl something at someone soon.

    One of the best cases of sub-titling that I have seen was the official version of Lagaan and Taare Zameen Par. Say what you will about Aamir Khan, the chap takes a lot of effort to see that everything is done right. Even if the official DVD is released only ages after its copies flood the market. I wish others cared as much.

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  12. Ayya, I seem to have missed your comment. I know I read it via email, and I thought I had responded. Oh, yes, it is not just the script; it is the whole package that made this film what it was.

    I must confess that I found Trivandrum Lodge rather pretentious, and its sexuality was so in your face that it was almost gratuitous. I have not seen Hotel California though Madhu mentioned seeing its posters while she was in Cochin.Yes, if he continues only in this vein, it will soon begin to pall. There is only so much 'cock-a-snook-at-morality' that I can take in one dose. :)

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  13. Oh, for heavens' sake! I forgot to add that the video was hilarious! I had not seen that before. :)

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  14. Hotel California looks to be more Guy Ritchie type of a movie and less of a morality tale and is doing well but Anoop needs to re-invent himself in another genre so that he doesn't get strait-jacketed in this genre - even the actors find themselves being repeated. Nevertheless, he is leading one of the new schools in Malayalam cinema and will hopefully manage to keep going...


    ***Facing some issues in posting the comments with the new sign-in options in Disqus; not sure if this will get posted.

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  15. :-D I have adored Hotel Keralafonia ever since I heard it.

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  16. The parody certainly was good. And I loved the accent. :)

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  17. We watched this one and 'Cocktail' one night. On a side note, what is it with Malayalam film directors and English named movies? Indian Rupee, Cocktail, Passenger, Beautiful, Traffic... the list goes on. An attempt to differentiate oneself from the typically "naadan" films of yore? Not that I am complaining... However, I am partial to the older movies set in rural/small town settings. That's the Malayalam cinema my heart adores... :)



    This one pulled a surprising punch in the last five minutes, quite like 'Cocktail' did. Jayasuriya is a cool dude and deserves a lot better than the usual kind of slapstick comedy roles he is saddled with. Meghna is gorgeous... and the camera played up her good looks pretty well.

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  18. Add Mumbai Police, Chapters, Butterfly... the list goes on. :) I don't think the sort of rural villages/towns exist any more for them to make movies like that. Our villages are fast disappearing under rapid urbanisation, and that form of life is restricted to nostalgia nowadays.



    I agree that Jayasurya did a fantastic job in this film. He is typecast, though - he will always be the chullan.

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  19. "I don't think the sort of rural villages/towns exist any more for them to make movies like that. Our villages are fast disappearing under rapid urbanisation, and that form of life is restricted to nostalgia nowadays."

    True indeed. I guess it says a lot about my romantic tendencies that those are the films I enjoy watching and re-watching. Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, Pradeshika Vaarthakal, Sandesham, Naadodikattu series, Dr. Pasupati and like...

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  20. I must be one of the few Mallus who didn't like the Nadodikattu series. :)

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  21. It was a pain right from the beginning - for me, at least.

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