On the surface, Nissam Basheer’s Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha is an Ayushmann Khurrana Movie™ made in Malayalam. Translation: It’s a cutesy, small-town dramedy centering on a “masculine problem”, but there’s more rootedness, more realism. Asif Ali plays the Ayushmann Khurrana character, Sleeva, a prosperous, 35-year-old farmer who owns and manages 65 acres of rubber and pepper and what-not. Looking at him, though, you wouldn’t see this prosperity. His shirts are always crumpled. He’s always in a mundu — most tellingly when he goes to a girl’s house to discuss marriage. We see the earlier suitor (Shine Tom Chacko in a cameo) leaving. The man is in a perfectly creased shirt, perfectly creased pants, perfectly gleaming shoes. He is dressed to within an inch of his life. He is dressed to make an impression.
But Sleeva doesn’t care. He doesn’t want to make an impression because he doesn’t know that an impression needs to be made. He is like someone at a store buying something functional — like a notebook or a pocket comb. “Okay, I’ll take this”. This happens to be Rincy (Veena Nandhakumar), and to Sleeva, she is as functional as a notebook or a comb. He needs someone to take care of his mother, after she’s taken a bad fall, and therefore he needs to get married, and therefore he needs a woman, and therefore… Rincy.
Are we to believe that a man who is about to make one of the most important decisions of his life won’t even look at the woman when she brings out a tray with glasses of juice, or won’t even consider taking her aside and talking to her (even briefly), when offered a chance? But that’s the film’s big conceit, that Sleeva is an utter innocent. Had it not been for his mother (a delightful Manohari Joy), he would have continued to spend his time on his estates, rising at dawn and working so hard that he can hardly keep his eyes open during their nightly prayers.
The film’s success is that it makes us buy this lived-in universe, where everyone is so rooted, so real that even things that would come off as body-shaming in other movies (a girl described as “fat”, a man described as “dark-skinned”) come off like traits being discussed casually, between members of a close-knit family. Even Sleeva’s big “problem” — at first — is treated with winking cuteness. He is such an utter innocent that he knows nothing about women, and he is terrified about that aspect of marriage. (Now can you see the potential Ayushmann Khurrana remake?) After the wedding, where we hardly see him smile, Sleeva studiously avoids Rincy for a while. But one day, he listens to an idiot-friend who’s drunk and says “We need to impress girls with our strength”. He comes home, sees a sleeping Rincy and “shows his strength”. After the act, underscored by a percussion that’s essentially his pounding heart, he is relieved. He smiles. It’s over and done with. Phew!
But what about Rincy? That’s when Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha began to remind me of Arjun Reddy. Both films paint their leading men as phenomenal achievers: If Arjun Reddy is a topper in college, a super surgeon, Sleeva is a farming wizard, who gets a major award for an agricultural discovery. In both films, the protagonist is publicly acknowledged for his genius: Arjun Reddy is commended by the dean of his college, while Sleeva is felicitated by the entire village. (They call him a “role model”.) If Arjun Reddy is hauled up by a judge for medical malpractice, Sleeva is flayed by the (female) doctor who examines Rincy after the incident. And if Arjun Reddy “explained” the hero through “anger-management issues”, here, we are asked to “understand” Sleeva through his utter innocence, especially in matters of sex.
Those of you who know my feelings about films will know that I look at a story as something that happens around this particular set of characters in this particular setting. I don’t extrapolate, and I have no problem with any kind of story being told, with any kind of characters or behaviours being glorified — the only important thing is whether the filmic aspects (the writing, the performances, the making) are worthwhile, and whether they make you laugh or cry or think or whatever. But what I found curious — and most interesting — about Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha is how it appears less of a “problematic” movie than Arjun Reddy, despite the fact that Sleeva’s behaviour is far more “problematic” than Arjun Reddy’s.
We think of Arjun Reddy as an entitled dick because he carries himself with rock-star swagger. We think of Sleeva as a “nice guy” because he is in a village, in a mundu, and says things like “What’s the point if we can’t care for our elders!” Sleeva loves his nieces. He takes care of his mother. He cares deeply about Rincy’s bedridden mother. Arjun Reddy, in turn, loved his grandmother — and he loved his girlfriend to a fault. (And she loved him back with equally mad intensity.) And yet, Sleeva’s “marital rape” doesn’t rattle the viewer (or, at least, me) as much as the emotional violence in Arjun Reddy.
This could be a fascinating case study of how “arrogance” on screen (like in Arjun Reddy) makes it less easy for us to fully embrace a character, while innocence and humility and basic human kindness (like in Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha) make us sympathise more readily with Sleeva. What he did is wrong, certainly, but the poor thing did not know any better. At least, Arjun Reddy is punished. He watches the love of his life effectively say fuck-you to him and marry another man, and he spends the rest of the film tormenting himself. His family throws him out. His medical license is suspended. Here, after the shelling from the doctor, the most that happens is that people laugh at Sleeva, affectionately. Everyone rallies around him, including the priest who is Rincy’s uncle and who proposed the match. (Not once does this priest, this uncle, think of consoling Rincy. He’d rather be around Sleeva.)
The film’s biggest problem is that it never gets into Rincy’s head. It is not bothered about her trauma. For all you know, the bruises on her lips and neck could have come about due to a fall. Veena Nandhakumar is a quiet, dignified presence — but she’s hampered by the lack of shading in Rincy, and is unable to suggest anything more than a… quiet, dignified presence. The one time we get a peek into her head is when she and Sleeva check into a resort for their honeymoon and she glances longingly at a party in progress. We sense that she wants to be at that party, and that she wants a husband who will be with her at that party.
Why, then, are we able to overlook all this and see the film solely through Sleeva’s eyes? One is, of course, the gaze. We are primed to follow the protagonist, even if he is evil (as in, say, Raman Raghav). And two, that is how things are with this particular set of characters in this particular setting. Plus, look how devout everyone is — how could they be “bad”! The first half opens with a memorial service. The second half opens with Sleeva under a giant statue of Jesus Christ. And hey, even this priest, this uncle, sees Sleeva as an innocent and not as a domestic abuser. I am with this priest. I see Sleeva as an innocent, too. An idiot, sure — but an innocent idiot. He needs to be taught (through counselling, which the doctor suggests, and by his married friends) about love, consent, sex.
Asif Ali is magnificent. I was weeping for him at the end — and I realised how he and his film had skillfully played me. But how I wished Rincy’s journey had been a part of this, too! Unlike the girlfriend in Arjun Reddy, there is not a single scene where she displays her feelings towards her man. She approaches him, and he always shuts her out. Kettiyolaanu Ente Malakha is so well-made (the editing is especially lovely), I am willing to believe that yes, Rincy (this particular girl in this particular story) shrugged it all off as a bad dream. But on the way home, I also kept thinking about how much easier it is to forgive “nice” people who do “bad” things. Had Sleeva been a cocky stud from the city, the conversation around this film might have been entirely different.