Kappela begins with a misdial and proceeds on misdirection. The former is initiated by Jessy (Anna Ben), a simple girl-next-door in your standard village-next-door in the Wayanad area. Her mother is a tailor and when she asks Jessy to call a client for measurements, Jessy gets a digit wrong and ends up calling Vishnu (Roshan Mathew), an auto driver in Kozhikode. She apologises with that semi-sheepish Anna Ben smile we’ve all come to love and hangs up. But a little later, Vishnu calls back. Something about Jessy’s sweetness and niceness — her inherent Anna Ben-ness, which apparently comes through even when it’s just a voice — seems to have appealed to Vishnu, and he wants to get to know her. We get the feeling he’s lonely and could use a friend. Or maybe something more. A chaste long-distance relationship gets going, and we wait for the “lovers” to meet.
These parts of the film are pure pleasure because “nothing” really happens, and no one is better at capturing and conveying “nothingness” — the unremarkable everydayness of life — than the directors of the Malayalam film industry. A new textile shop comes up, causing much excitement to Jessy and her friends in this teeny-weeny place, but to many of us, it’s a “nothing” event — the reason it becomes interesting is the owner Benny’s (Sudhi Koppa) shy smiles at Jessy, his offer that she needn’t pay for her purchase, Jessy refusing the freebie and asking her father for money, and later, her picture being used in a promotional hoarding for the shop. An entire relationship dynamic is established here. An entire “scene” is manufactured out of Jessy and her sister and a friend racing from their homes to the site of the hoarding. If Jessy thinks nothing can beat this for thrills, she’s wrong.
There are deceptive layers. Consider the lovely Sushin Shyam number that plays behind Jessy and Vishnu’s burgeoning relationship. It’s not a “conventional romantic track”. It springs from a riddle that Jessy asks Vishnu to solve: the words of the riddle become the words of the song. We will soon realise that this is not a conventional romance at all, and Vishnu will himself turn out to be something of a riddle, someone who isn’t immediately apparent. Or consider the scene where Vishnu finds Jessy with the help of a bus conductor. It’s the most likely of events at a bus terminus, but it brings with it the realisation that fate is not always kind, even if it appears to be bestowing kindness on you at that instant.
I found it a little hard to buy the pin-up-ready Roshan Mathew as an auto driver (though his performance is fine), but you see why he has been cast. He has a face as nice as Anna Ben’s. When you look at them, you see good people, nice people — and when you look at the sulky Roy (Sreenath Bhasi; another fine performance) who will appear later, you see a rowdy. He is impetuous, prone to violence, self-centred a smoker and drinker who’s curt and exploitative with women — he is the opposite of Vishnu in every possible way. Vishnu is a hard worker. He supports his sisters. He sees a female colleague’s earnings being snatched by her alcoholic husband and he offers her a ride that comes to him. He really seems to be living up to that name: he’s a veritable god.
But Kappela is about (you saw the SPOILER alert above, right?) how books cannot be judged by their covers. Jessy is the only transparent character: what you see is what you get. You see a girl who feels stifled by her surroundings, stifled by her oppressive father (a daily-wager) and his oppressive orthodoxy. He beats up her sister for taking a ride on a boy’s bicycle. Jessy’s dream is to visit a beach, and understandably so: it’s a place as un-stifled as they come, with its boundless sea capped by a boundless horizon. It’s a place she can finally be free.
Jessy isn’t book-smart (she failed to clear her 12th), and she doesn’t seem to have much street-smarts, either. So we want her to end up with someone kind, someone like Vishnu, someone who will protect and care for her. So we root for her when she boards a bus to Kozhikode, and we feel her fear when she walks through the bus terminus looking for Vishnu. The sound effects are exaggerated here, and simple bus-terminus noises come across like harbingers of doom. What if Vishnu doesn’t turn up? Jessy doesn’t have a smartphone (of course, her father doesn’t see the point of buying her one), so she doesn’t even know what Vishnu looks like. She waits helplessly, and BANG…
The story introduces us to Roy, and (apparently) forgets that (1) Jessy is waiting for Vishnu and (2) we are waiting for Jessy to find Vishnu and share her relief. This is a masterstroke by writer-director Muhammad Musthafa. Even as we are waiting with a queasy stomach for the resolution of a tense situation, the film has taken us to a character who isn’t even connected to this situation: we are now asked to follow his story, as he breaks bottles in a tea shop and talks about chain-snatching. But this masterstroke never makes the transition from “great idea” to “convincing idea”. I felt cheated by the end, by the very obvious attempts at misdirection. For instance, how does Roy’s cousin know what she reveals finally, something that makes her ask Roy to watch out for Jessy?
For instance, why do we need the scene where Vishnu helps a woman in distress, and is therefore unable to meet Jessy as promised? At this point, hasn’t his “goodness” already been established beyond a doubt? For instance, why do we need the change of expression on Vishnu’s face after Jessy tells him she wants to see the sea? It’s something that’s meant to make us anticipate something, but like many things in this movie, it comes across like a “hey, gotcha, you suckers” moment. It’s there just to fool us, because if you examine the character — after the film — he might not be posing with such a “meaningful” look in that scene.
Maybe the director put that “look” there to show a conflict in Vishnu’s mind, whether he should go ahead with his “plan” when the girl in question is such an innocent! But then, this conflict never comes up again in Vishnu, who grows increasingly one-note. Looking back, I wondered if a man like Vishnu would call attention to himself by picking up a fight with Roy at a park. He’s with Jessy, and he’s annoyed that Roy is following them, but surely he knows a million ways to shake the man off! Again, these are “hey, gotcha, you suckers” moments. And the final scenes are laughably overwrought. By then, we know the nature of the two men fighting it out, and I had little doubt Jessy would end up safe.
I wish Vishnu hadn’t been such a repository of “goodness”, and Roy had been more than a bundle of “bad” traits. It’s too clean. We may feel suckered while watching the film, but if the con job by the script isn’t organic, the experience diminishes as you look back on it. What stays is our investment in Jessy. I hated the moralistic undercurrent in the story (stay at home! listen to your father!), but Anna Ben is so sincere that we never want anything but the best for Jessy. After such a traumatic day, would she still want to see the sea? I doubted it. But the contrived moment pays off because of the happy warmth that spreads through us when Jessy digs her toes into the squelchy sand. It’s too early to say if Anna Ben has range, for she has been playing variations of the same “type” so far. But she may have something that’s rarer in an actor: the ability to always keep the audience with her.