2021 is possibly going to be remembered as one of the strongest years for Malayalam cinema. At three quarters of the year milestone, it may very well happen that if we sit down to list the top 10 or top 15 Best Indian Films of the year now, three quarters or at least half the spots will be occupied by Malayalam films. Two films that will most definitively occupy some of the top billings in those lists (alongside Joji and Malik) will be Sanu John Varughese‘s underrated quiet gem Aarkkariyam and the most recent addition to the Malayalam cine bouquet of 2021, Manu Ashokan‘s touching human drama Kaanekkaane. It is important to dive a little deeper into both these films together because there are some striking similarities and colliding dissimilarities between the two when looked through the unified lens.
At one level, both these films are deep psychological human dramas that deal with death, dark secrets, guilt and suffering from multiple perspectives that we do not see coming at the start of the journey. In a way, both the stories are centered around two aging fathers who would go to any extent to find peace for their daughters, in life and in death, willing to pay whatever price it demands, confronting the deamons of the past with their son in laws (albeit in strikingly contrasting situations). Both the films paint some warm fuzzy pictures of modern, complicated families of second marriages, trying to find peace and happiness without intentionally ruffling the muds from the past, rather introducing us to some of the most matured and understanding new spouses happily trying to parent children from past marriages with all the love and empathy in the world, at times even more than the real living parent of the child.
And in both the films, the directors tell the story in such a way that the audience becomes deeply involved in the journey as it progresses, trying to differentiate the grey from the black, playing active roles in trying to understand the motivations of characters about what they do, without the filmmakers overtly underlining every sentiment through the moral compass of right and wrong. That way, both Sanu John Varughese and Manu Ashokan respect the maturity of their audience and trust us to dive deep into the dark and complicated mind space of their characters, think and feel like them, and never see situations as binary black and white. That’s the mark of good cinema – cinema that allows the audience to breathe and internalize the natural greyness of human nature, without the crutches of explanatory narrations and dialogues or gimmicky technicalities for expressing every sentiment, and justifying every action.
And yet, in spite of these similarities, the two films almost depict the alternate realities of two colliding worlds. In Aarkkariyam, a death propels the way for a happy second innings and deamons of the past are almost unearthed by a chance encounter under the claustrophobia of a deadly pandemic. In Kaanekkaane, the death and its deadly shadow is looming large on the newer family and creating ripples to tear them apart even as they all await the arrival of a new life with baited breath. The colours of these two deaths are also very different because the filmmakers tell us that in Aarkkariyam a bad husband had to go in order to make way for a good husband for the unhappy daughter, while in Kaanekkaane the good daughter departed unceremoniously and there’s only a sustained effort to further naturalize that unfortunate departure by the family in the new world.
The father in Aarkkariyam has guarded his dark secret in such a way that reminiscences of those wouldn’t even cast their shadows in the current happy life of the daughter, and he clings on to the newest member of the family and the current spouse as his ally to protect the daughter. The father of Kaanekkaane is pained in grief as the memories of his beloved daughter are fading away from the minds of everyone around him, and hence all his current actions stem from his desperate attempt to keep the shadows of the past alive and its worthy presence acknowledged by one and all. Interestingly enough, here also a unique bond between the disturbed father and the newest member of the family becomes the vehicle to seek closures on ugly heartburns and resentments of the past, although the bond is more situational here and never unfolds as natural allyship as in Aarkkariyam.
Both the films also deal with guilt in sharp contrast. In Kaanekkaane, guilt is the underlining emotion operating for each of the characters, whether it is the husband who feels remorseful in every breath about how an accident could have been avoided had he taken more timely action; or it is the wife who in a way finds herself responsible about a family broken by death although she never wanted it that way; or whether it is the father who is attempting to break another family again in order to seek closures and then suddenly life makes him realise with a shocking event that somewhere he was not very different from the antagonist of his mind, and was almost going to behave as impulsively and irresponsibly in a similar life threatening situation. In Aarkkariyam, the guilt is far more understated and muted in the minds of the protagonist but it exists nonetheless. The father there lives everyday with the guilt of hiding some of darkest truths from a daughter who ideally has the first right to know what happened. The husband had the initial guilt of trying to manipulate the father into having him sell the estate for covering their monetary losses, while moving forward he would live with the continuous guilt of carrying the burden of the father’s dark secret in his heart. The guilt of the daughter remains the most muted in apparent terms but we get to interpret her darkest secret as to how she would have always known what happened in the past and had intentionally burried the secret to make peace with her future and live on. Some fascinating storytelling there in both films to build such intriguing collage patterns of guilt and resentment!
There is also a distinct difference in tonality and storytelling style of both the films while the similarity exists in the fact that neither of them can be bucketed into one specific genre. There are elements of a thriller, a psychological drama, and a deeply sensitive human tale in both, each element entangled with the other inseparably. The style of Sanu John Varughese however is far more nuanced in Aarkkariyam, intentionally understated and almost meditative in its approach, and sits brilliantly in his quiet world that has come to a halt due to the socially disastrous pandemic. Manu Ashokan’s style of operation in Kaanekkaane is a far more edgy with sharp cuts back and forth in parallel timelines making the thrilling element stronger, and hence also provides space and leniency to go slightly overboard with melodrama in some critical junctures. Not that it breaks the rhythm of the film, it does not, and may infact help the film to be more accessible and commonly viable than the idealistic pure cinema trait of Aarkkariyam.
That both the films benefit tremendously from the superlative performances of their lead cast only adds to their individual brilliance. Starting to analyse the individual characters of Paul, Allen & Sneha, or Itty, Roy & Shirley and terrific actors who play them with such elan will take another article in itself, so for now let’s just cheer for the winning team of these amazing actors and equally amazing technicians who have come together to make two superlative films.
And let us cheer for Malayalam cinema and its filmmakers, who are clearly showing everyone the way of how good cinema should be made, how the rousing human spirit behind some of the most complex stories should be celebrated, and how the audience should be respected by leaving them with their own canvas and brushes to feel those films and then paint them with their thoughts and interpretations. Kudos and Cheers!
P.S.: Aarkkariyam is available for viewing on Amazon Prime Video, while Kaanekkaane is playing now on SonyLIV.
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