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02 May 2018

Take Off (2017)

Directed by Mahesh Narayan
Music: Gopi Sundar, 
Starring: Parvathy Thiruvothu, Kunchako Boban, 
Fahadh Faasil, Asif Ali, 
Prem Prakash, Prakash Belavadi
From one film based on a small piece of history to another that is inspired by contemporary events; from one woman who becomes an unlikely voice for change to another woman who’s struggling to survive; from one well-made film with excellent performances to another brilliant film that, though fictional, is based on well-researched documented fact. 

Since watching Qarib Qarib Singlle, I’ve been wanting to see more of Parvathy Thiruvothu’s work. My niece (who didn’t like QQS) asked me if I’d watched Take off. So I dusted off the DVD I’d bought last summer and watched it. 

When we meet Sameera (Parvathy Thiruvothu), she is already stressed out about her family’s debt, her divorce from her husband, the forced separation from her son, Ibrahim, her superior who assigns night shifts four weeks in a row… a job in Iraq is an escape.

So when she goes for the job interview and discovers she doesn’t have an all-important certificate, and the official says her application will be rejected without it, she snaps. And at Shaheed (Kunchako Boban), a colleague with a soft spot for her. And at her son, who doesn’t get that, for his mother, this is virtually a matter of life or death. So much is at stake. If she doesn’t go to Iraq, she cannot earn money to repay their debt. If she fails to do that, her family will lose their home. 
Sameera is a self-sufficient young woman, partly due to circumstances, and partly so she won’t depend on anyone any more. After all, when she had married Faizal (Asif Ali) he knew her circumstances. So when he baulks at her working after marriage, she reminds him gently that she has to work to repay her loans. 
When he says that his mother is conservative (as he is) and cannot countenance her daughter-in-law working after marriage, Sameera smiles – will he give her half his salary every month so she can send it home? No?

Soon, Sameera’s independence begins to drive a wedge in their relationship, and one day, Faizal tells her that he’s filing for divorce. Circumstances leave her no choice – tearfully, she leaves home, husband and son behind. 

Survival is a necessity; life is a struggle and Sameera has no time for love. She barely has time to live. But when she tells him off, Shaheed’s response silences her – he knows she has problems. He would like to share them, perhaps even help her solve them. While Sameera is touched by his kindness, she has no intention of becoming close to anyone ever again. At one point, when Shahid is (relentlessly) kind to her, she snaps – ‘I was talking to my son.’ As a warning, it can’t get any clearer.
Yet, when she’s consistently told that ‘our women’ don’t go abroad alone to work, that she’s young and perhaps should get married again, she approaches Shaheed to ask if he still wants to marry her. It’s a very opportunistic action, but neither the script nor the characters are apologetic about it. 
In fact, when Sameera turns around, there’s a fleeting smile on her lips, implying that she wasn’t as indifferent to Shaheed as she had claimed.  The marriage gives her some breathing space. Unfortunately, she soon discovers she’s pregnant. Sameera is frantic that this will mean an end to her job opportunities in Iraq. She is also worried about Ibru – he doesn’t even know that his parents are divorced, let alone that his mother has remarried. How is she going to break the news of a new baby when he comes to her for his summer vacation?
Shaheed is upset that she wants to abort his child. It’s not even a child yet, Sameera snaps, wounded. She's not saying she never wants another child. Just... not now. The doctor is quick to suggest that they discuss it before they meet her again. Shaheed preempts her decision by breaking the news to their families. Yet, despite her mother-in-law’s disapproval, Shaheed and Sameera travel to Iraq.

As soon as they arrive, Sameera and the others are put to work. The conditions are shocking, the hospitals are overfull, there’s a severe lack of medical personnel and supplies, and the encroaching ISIS army is boldly advancing towards the region.
Before they can grasp what’s happening, all hell breaks loose, both personally and in the outside world. Faizal brings Ibru to Sameera, telling her that their son will stay with her from now on. His business is failing and he’s trying to cope with a dozen things, and he cannot handle Ibru as well.
Struggling to hide several truths from Ibru who is already resenting Shaheed, even enquiring of his mom whether Shaheed was the reason why his mother left his father, Sameera crumbles – ‘I've lived in fear for so long,’ she tells her friend later. ‘Of my father when I was young, of Faizal after marriage, and now him.’ Sameera crumbles, but she doesn’t break.
Not then, and not when her son, overhearing their conversation, runs away. Not when Shaheed, not wanting to undermine Ibru’s fragile emotional state, chooses to go to Mosul, not when the rebels take over the hospital…
During the civil conflict in Iraq in 2014, 46 Malayali nurses were stranded in Tikrit. Initially trapped in a hospital as ISIS claimed sovereignty over Tikrit, they were soon moved to Mosul by the Islamic State. The hostage crisis deepened as the Iraqi government found itself powerless. A great deal of negotiation by the Indian embassy in Baghdad, using the Saudis as go-betweens, was necessary before ISIS agreed to release them. Then-Indian ambassador to Iraq, Ajay Kumar, spearheaded the mission, discreetly keeping the government informed of his moves without publicising them. Supporting him were then-Chief Minister of Kerala Oomen Chandy, and Sushma Swaraj, then Minister for External Affairs, and some local businessmen. Editor Mahesh Narayan makes a fine directorial debut with a fictional narrative inspired by the real-life experiences of these women. Because the writing (Naryan and co-writer PV Shajikumar) is so economical, yet nuanced, we get to meet – and care for Sameera, Shaheed and Ibru even before the 'real' events take place. Fleshing out their characters allowed us to see their struggles, and to root for their happiness, even when we know what's coming. 
Parvathy’s turn as Sameera is flawless. She slips into the skin of the character, allowing her eyes and a quiver of her facial muscles to express her feelings. In one (of several) fantastic scenes, Ibru demands to know if she’s going to send him back to his father. He doesn’t want to stay there. Parvathy’s face expresses myriad emotions resignation, guilt, sorrow, frustration – without resorting to melodramatic contrivances. One gets the feeling that Sameera has learnt to keep her emotions under control. You wince on her behalf.

Shaheed is a kind man, an understanding one. Kunchako Boban plays him with just that touch of restraint that stops Shaheed from turning into a saint. Or a martyr. It’s a fine line, and Kunchako aces the portrayal.
And so when Shaheed disappears in the second half, we miss him. When Shaheed takes a stance on his unborn child, one gets the feeling that here is a man who’s hurting at his wife’s practicality. He’s opened his heart not just to Sameera but to Ibru as well. He’s not offended by the boy’s behavior towards him and is more than willing to give Ibru the space to accept the changed circumstances. 
His longing for the child is a personal belief, not a patriarchal need to overrule his wife. While Sameera is upset, she too understands that. 

Fahadh Faasil plays the role of Manoj Abraham, the Indian ambassador to Iraq, with quiet dignity. As the film moves from the personal to the logistics of a rescue operation, we still see and hear Sameera, but the focus shifts to Fahadh, whose eyes express more than his words do.
 Fahadh is one of Malayalam cinema’s finest actors and that is saying something. The supporting cast are equally brilliant – Asif Ali as the conservative husband from a conservative milieu (and the script doesn’t demonise him); Prakash Belawadi who plays the foreign secretary; Prem Prakash, the reluctant businessman who uses his ties to the Saudi Royal family to get them to talk to the militants; the nurses, the terrorists who appear for a scene or two, are all cast with impeccable attention to detail.

This detailing is followed through in the dialogues: in Malayalam, interspersed with English, Arabic, Hindi, and Tamil as also in the editing (Mahesh Narayan, Abhilash Balachandran) – the intercuts between the various strands of Sameera’s life give us a layered narrative. The production values are excellent, with cinematographer Sanu John Varghese replicating the war-torn Tikrit and the bomb-destroyed hospital in Ernakulam. 

Much is implied by the silences. In one early scene, Sameera serves her in-laws breakfast, and casually takes a plate, fills it and walks away eating. Her father-in-law's expression says more than any pointed dialogue could. Similarly, when she continues to work despite her mother-in-law's disapproval, her sister-in-law runs out to offer her a hijab. [It leads to a mirror scene where Sameera voluntarily chooses to wear a burqa. Her reasons are not what you might think.] When she looks up, she sees her mother-in-law framed silently in the window.
Not a word is spoken, but much is said. In a later scene, Manoj keeps quiet when bureaucratic red tape foils his desperate attempt to rescue the nurses. His silence speaks volumes, however. 
Social and political awareness underlines the writing. In one powerful scene, when Manoj has told Sameera that they should leave the hospital with the terrorists to enable their rescue, one of the nurses refuses to leave. She will not be paid if she does. What’s the use of money if you get killed, queries Sameera. It’s a question that we might ask as well. But Sameera knows why – she will not be able to pay even the interest on the loan on a nurse’s salary in India. 
Nurses may be regarded as God’s angels, but they get scant respect in their own country. Their families would be happy to see them alive, but as soon as the creditors knock on the door, they will be reviled for the debts they have incurred. 

Narayan takes on gender issues, sexism, patriarchy, terrorism, ideology, poverty, and unemployment without making it about just one issue. The film's inner conflict is different from the conflict that’s brewing outside, but it’s a continuing one. Life is cheap. Survival is a battle. 

For such an understated film, the only jarring note was the background music. As my husband said, while watching, if he ever met Gopi Sunder, they would be having some words. The actors were good enough that we didn't need the violins heightening their (and our)  emotions. Take Off is an intelligent film, one that avoids being boxed into a 'genre', unless that genre is 'good film'.

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