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21 May 2018

Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016)

Mahesh's Revenge
Directed by: Dileesh Pothan
Music: Bijibal
Lyrics: Shafeeq Ahammed, Santosh Varma
Starring: Fahadh Faasil, Anusree, 
Aparna Balamurali, Alencier Ley Lopez,  
Soubin Shahir, Sujith Shankar, 
KL Antony Kochi, Idukki Jaffer, 
Leena Antony, Lijomol Jose
Malayalam cinema has a well-deserved reputation for making films about commoners. It has always been the industry’s ace-in-the-hole – the slice-of-life cinema that narrates stories that we can all relate to, about characters that we all know from somewhere, for audiences that can be highly critical of content, or lack thereof. Yes, we do have our ‘star’ vehicles, but on the whole, we also have a disproportionately large number of ‘small’ films that would probably not even find financing in any other industry.

Maheshinte Prathikaram (Mahesh’s Revenge) is one such.

When we first see Mahesh Bhavana (Fahad Faasil), he’s bathing in a local stream, carefully washing his rubber slippers. (Those have a starring role to play, come interval point.) Mahesh lives with his father ((KL Antony Kochi) in a modest home in Kattappana, a hilly township in Idukki, Kerala. It’s a unfussy, uncomplicated life, and Mahesh is a gentle creature, quiet and diligent, though his photography skills (‘Chin up, shoulders down, chin down, eyes open!’) leave much to be desired.  
We follow Mahesh as he goes through his morning routine – making tea for his father and himself, cooking breakfast, going to the studio that he has taken over after his father retired. It’s a male-only household, and the script doesn’t waste any time telling us why. It just is.

Mahesh has been in love with Soumya (Anusree), ever since they were both in school. Soumya is now a nurse in the city nearby. Everybody knows about their relationship – it’s not spoken of as much as suggested by people’s glances and oblique remarks – but there’s no opposition to their getting married, either.
Mahesh is surrounded by an interesting cast of characters – villagers with their own unique personalities – who move in and out of the story with seeming ease. There is Babychaayan (Alencier Ley Lopez 'Ichaayan’ is ‘elder brother’ among the Christians), Mahesh’s father’s friend and the owner of the flex print shop next to their studio; Crispin (Soubin Shahir), Babychaayan’s brand-new assistant, who's a 'photoshop expert'; Kunjumon (Jaffer Idukki), Soumya’s father; Baby (Lijomol Jose), Babychaayan’s daughter; Thahir (Achutanandan), the village councillor… and life goes on, routinely, unhurriedly.
Until one day, Kunjumon gets a proposal for Soumya – the groom-to-be is a nurse in Canada, and Kunjumon can’t help feeling that his daughter will have a better life with him than if she were stuck with Mahesh in this little village. Soumya, with very little conflict (though she shams some), chooses the greener side, and Mahesh is left heart-broken. 
There isn’t much he can do, anyway, and indeed, life goes on.

Then, unexpectedly, there’s an argument at a funeral. It leads to a fight and one man quickly cycles away. He swerves into another cyclist who bumps into a fruit vendor walking by the side of the road. The basket he's carrying falls to the road, and the fruit spills, naturally making him angry. 
As the culprit seizes a chance to escape the fruit-seller's wrath, the latter goes home in a miff and is further incensed by his wife and her cohort sitting around watching a daily soap. Their argument leads to him slapping her, which causes one of the women to call Babychaayan – the fruit vendor’s wife is Babychaayan’s sister. He stops by at one of the little stores to refill his phone balance, which leads to an argument with a customer who’s standing there, and before he knows it, Mahesh is involved. With disastrous consequences.
The public humiliation that follows forces Mahesh into making a dire promise only, the path to his revenge is not as easy as he thinks.

Saying any more will take away from the surprises that await you as this film reveals unexpected layers. This is not a plot-driven story as much as a character-driven one (albeit with a strong story). Too many events and happenstances occur, and overlap each other to be able to tell a linear story, but debutant director Dileesh Pothen (who makes a cameo in the movie, along with his wife) paints a loving, realistic picture of village life and characters. Along with Syam Pushkaran, the script writer, he draws on personal experiences to people his film with characters who are both alive and so realistically, so humorously, human.
These motley characters are so vividly drawn even if they are only on the periphery of a scene, and one can’t help but notice how delightful they are. The attention to detail is meticulous and they weave in and out of Mahesh’s narrative arc, forming little tangents that may seem innocuous. Pay attention, because these tangents make perfect sense in later happenings. And while the script and direction make the film worth watching anyway, the performances – all of them – are pitch perfect.
I must confess that I had never been a Fahadh Faasil fan. His early roles didn’t really endear him to me, even though his craft was visible even then. I have changed my mind about him since. Faahad makes ordinariness appealing. His face can express so much with just a twitch of a muscle, and his eyes, always his best feature, dominate every scene he is in. It expresses sadness, wistfulness, anger, shock, grief and sometimes, a multitude of emotions flit across his face within a moment. 
His Mahesh is a quiet man; the one who, in one scene in the film, asks Babychaayan, whether he had ever heard him (Mahesh) raise his voice – ever? When he gets attracted to Jimsi (a delightful Aparna Balamurali), he still needs her to tell him so.

His vulnerability and his growth into self-confidence, is a wondrously humorous journey. When he finally steps into a shop to ask for '8-inte oru Lunar' (a Lunar slipper, size 8), we smile – both at the shopkeeper's amazed 'Sharikkum?' ('Really?) and at the sparkle in Fahadh's eyes. Revenge was never so sweet. Or so funny.
Anusree plays Soumya – slightly calculating, slightly opportunistic, altogether human. Her character is established even before you see her on screen – her grandfather has passed away, and her mother’s talking to her over the phone. She asks if she should come for the funeral, and her mother tells her that it’s best she comes – what will people say otherwise? When Soumya shows up, both she and her mother burst into tears – loud, public tears that stop when Soumya sees Mahesh, and then continue on demand.
Later, when the proposal comes and her mother informs her that her ‘love’ for Mahesh is perhaps the sort over which she could hug her mother, cry one night and then get over it, Soumya does just that. It’s a rather practical choice she makes, and her rejection of Mahesh is also calculated – a calculation that Mahesh understands only too well. (His breakdown happens later – and as is characteristic of him, quietly and privately.) 
 Aparna Balamurali is engaging as Jimsy – the blunt young girl who has her own dreams and aspirations.
 
She’s the one who tells Mahesh the truth – that he’s a lousy photographer. She's also the one who soothes Mahesh’s sore heart, and later, questions him about their growing relationship. They will surely fall in love, she tells him, but is he sure he wants to continue? Later, she even warns him against taking certain actions. 
Later, when she realises that he hasn't listened, she resignedly asks her mother whether all men are such idiots. ('Yes', responds her mother.)
Soubin Shahir makes one laugh just by appearing on screen. Here, he’s not just a character who inspires laughter. There’s a touching dignity to his Crispin that’s never more evident than in the scene where he tells Babychaayan off for suspecting him of nefarious intentions. It’s still a scene that makes us smile, though, simply because of the earnestness with which the dialogue is said, and the startlingly unexpected response to it.

Soumya’s parents are not bad souls – they don’t hate Mahesh; they just want their daughter to have a brighter future. Kunjumon even comes to Mahesh’s house to explain himself to the latter. Later, when Kunjumon comes across Mahesh and Jimsy together, he’s very happy for them.
If the script is king, then the cinematography serves it well – Shyju Khalid does a wonderful job of capturing the hills and ambience of small-town Kerala. Nature becomes part of the narrative in a way that I haven’t seen in recent times. 

What is really endearing about Maheshinte Prathikaram is that for a ‘revenge’ story, the film is not about anger or violence. Instead, it’s both humorous and touching. And while Mahesh’s revenge may not exactly be the success we envisage,  the reaction of one of the characters sums up this film – ‘Best’, she says, gobsmacked by Mahesh's later request. 

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